The Echo Chamber

Tuesday, May 9th 2017

I still remember a very old New Yorker cartoon showing two dogs -- one at a computer, remarking to its friend: "On the Internet, no one knows I'm a dog."

That's no longer funny in a world where robots amplify propaganda messages and can even write news stories of their own.  That Twitter handler you're following may belong to a robot ... or to a human troll contracted by a foreign power.  Samel Woolley, director of research at Oxford's Internet Institute, reports: "Security experts argue that more than 10 percent of content across social media websites, and 62 percent of all web traffic, is generated by bots."

You can read Wooley's article and a dozen others in the Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission's latest report: "Can Public Diplomacy Survive the Internet?" Today I heard former Congressman Mike Rogers and five panelists, most authors of the report, discuss the issue at the Commission's panel discussion “Echo Chambers, Artificial Intelligence, and Bot-Driven Disinformation: New Challenges in Public Diplomacy.” 

These computer programs are in general use throughout foreign and domestic politics and the commercial sphere.  Like any technology, they can be put to evil purposes.

Rogers termed cyber propaganda "a whole other toolkit" added to the abilities of Russia's active measures programs which date back to the Soviet Union. Noting the danger this presents to Western democracies including the United States and France, he asserted: "The first thing we can do as Americans is just to get smart."

Other speakers followed up with their ideas.

  • Ory Rinat and Tom Cochran called for more effective technology in the hands of U.S. diplomats and better use of it on social media and websites.  State also needs to find a way to personalize information for readers, which is currently stymied by outdated provisions of the Privacy Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act.
  • Matt Chessen, whose article previewing the future is the scariest read of the whole report, ventured that "human-machine teaming is the future."  But our chat bots should be used to improve customer service, not to not fight back with black propaganda or disinformation, Chessen added.
  • We do need to dentify black campaigns and call out false narratives, perhaps standing up a rapid reaction force, Chessen suggested.
  • Cochran stated a basic truth: "The power of diplomacy stems from human-to-human relationships."

Download the report here.  It's worth a thorough read.

Joe B. Johnson

Board member


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. authors name for more info

Author: Joe Johnson

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