“A lie can travel halfway around the world,” Mark Twain once wrote, “while the truth is putting its shoes on.”
In this new media age, one wonders what the famed author might have thought about the truth’s instantaneous global, multimedia reach during the recent ten-day eruption of anti-government protests in Iran.
The latest 21st century capabilities of U.S. international broadcasters in reporting and reflecting the anti-regime protests in Iran was documented at a recent First Monday Forum February 5 at George Washington University.
The discussion at George Washington’s Elliott School was sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Council, PDAA (Public Diplomacy Alumni Association) and the USC Annenberg School’s office in Washington.
Matthew Baise, Director of Digital Strategy at the Voice of America, outlined for a capacity crowd how electronic exchanges between Iranian protesters and two U.S. government-funded Persian language broadcasters greatly expanded as protests spread through an estimated 80 cities in Iran between last December 28 and January 8.
Immediately after news of the protests broke, a digital team in the VOA Persian Service opened a special multimedia section with an interactive map of protest sites (one from which protesters could submit on-scene photos).
Persian Service teams worked with VOA’s English Service to launch not only a Persian blog, but also one in English available to all regions of the world. The combination, Mr. Baise added, enabled news of the protests to be covered more comprehensively by all of the Voice’s 45 other language services.
The U.S. public diplomacy benefits were instantaneous. They included VOA interviews with NSC spokesperson Michael Anton, and interviews by VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren with Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD).
All the Van Susteren conversations were shared with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Persian service, Radio Farda. The Prague-based cousin network of VOA received on-scene videos sent by participants and observers in more than a hundred demonstrations across mostly rural Iran.
RFE/RL quoted an Iranian sociologist’s description of reasons behind the anti-government protests: “Systematic mishandling of national resources,”according to Majid Mohammedi, “widespread corruption, allocation of billions of dollars for military conflicts abroad and low foreign investment due to anti-Western policies are reasons Iran has become increasingly poorer over the past four decades.”
VOA’s Baise took his GWU audience deeper into the audience numbers, the so-called metrics of astonishingly high viewing, online and radio usage during the protests. He explained: “When the protests erupted in late December, VOA Persian Service staff began sifting through thousands of posts on social media to gauge the scale and impact of the protests, carefully vetting those images to create a clear and accurate picture of what was happening on the ground”.
According to Baise, the Persian Service site averaged around a quarter of a million visits per day last year. “That,” he said, “shot up to nearly a million visits one day late in the protests.
“It was even more pronounced on social media. We logged over 12 million video views on Facebook in a matter of days. The real surprise came on Instagram, which shares pictures and video — a natural for Iranians documenting what they were seeing on the ground. VOA Persian’s Instagram registered 23 million video views in one day.” The normal weekly Iranian audience is 9.2 million on satellite and digital TV platforms).
As the Iran demonstrations expanded, Baise said, VOA not only increased coverage and analysis of day-to-day events, but implemented campaigns across social media where people were talking about the Iran protests, in Albania, Afghanistan, Turkey, India and Iraq… in Pashto, Kurdish, Urdu and Turkish.
A major surprise, it turned out, was the Peoples Republic of China, where popular interest in Iran is low and government blockage of foreign websites exceedingly high. Viewers of VOA Mandarin nearly tripled at the peak of the Iran protests, especially after those in China began using more circumvention tools to get the latest news. It’s a stunning success story because the PRC and Iran, according to Baise, are the world’s leading blockers of international multimedia broadcasts.
To quote a high-level briefing paper at VOA: “Much has changed in Iran since the protests of 2009. Back then, fewer than a million Iranians owned a smartphone and VOA’s social media presence was limited. Today, more than 48 million Iranians own smartphones, and there are five social media platforms actively used by protesters in Iran, with Instagram and Telegram in the lead.
“Different diaspora communities have different views on VOA’s reporting on the same story. VOA reports the news. That includes statements from U.S. government officials and even Iranian regime officials. And that’s the fantastic thing about America that we try to convey: America stands for free speech, and people — whether from the same ethnic group, or region, or political affiliation — can express opposing views and have those views conveyed in a balanced manner by the media.”
In short, the kind of public diplomacy Mark Twain would surely approve.
Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie