America Votes -- As the World Listens, Watches and Blogs

Friday, November 9th 2012

Alan Heil, Council blog contributor

Posting this article on behalf of my blogger colleague Alan Heil.


It has been a week of stunning contrasts:  the world’s largest democracy, the United States, re-elects a president and other key leaders on Tuesday in which 118 million citizens, including earlier absentee voters, cast their ballots.

Less than 48 hours later,  the world’s largest authoritarian government, the Peoples Republic of China, convenes a communist party congress in Beijing.   That forum in a few days will announce new top leadership pre-selected behind closed doors by a tiny fraction of its 1.2 billion citizens, installing a new party chairman, Xi Jinping, and a powerful politburo standing committee whose members have not yet been made public.

By all accounts, that contrast should be a Western public diplomacy practitioner’s dream.

As Max Fisher of the Washington Post foreign staff observes:  Twitter users around the world posted 31 million messages about the U.S. presidential race on Election Day.  But users of China’s main Twitter-like service, Weibo, posted an estimated 25 million messages about America’s election.   And Fisher poses a question as ironic as it is impossible to answer: “Are Chinese web users discussing the U.S. election more than Americans are?”  What, one might wonder, is the volume of traffic in the PRC about their own party congress --- veiled in secrecy and largely denied to its citizens.

As international broadcasting scholar Kim Andrew Elliott reported in his daily blog on the eve of the U.S. election, the China Digital Times quoted a China Propaganda Department instruction to Chinese media:  “Use only Xinhua coverage of the U.S. presidential election.  This must be strictly enforced; even China News Service copy must not be used.  Do not produce in-house reports or commentary.” 

Despite this bald attempt at a news blackout, the Voice of America --- by reporting the news accurately and objectively --- has aided citizen discourse in China and in other countries where leaders wanted to censor information about free elections.  VOA’s correspondent in Beijing, Bill Ide, told a worldwide Voice audience on Election Night that Chinese netizens are “yearning for the kind of free debate in their own country that attended the U.S. presidential election.”  He added that those he had spoken with on the eve of Tuesday’s election believed that “neither President Obama or Governor Romney would harm Sino-American relations if elected.”

VOA’s reach on election night was extensive, on its website, Twitter, Facebook, and other digital channels as well as traditional radio and TV.  Hundreds of affiliated national and local FM stations relayed its broadcasts.  A live pre-election TV special was relayed by the VOA Urdu Service to the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, streamed on the Internet and simulcast, as well, by a network of 70 radio stations.  The PBC director general said the special was available “to every inch of Pakistan.”  In English to Africa, Asia and the Middle East, more than 40 shortwave and AM radio frequencies were added for a two-hour Election Night special.   The English and Mandarin Services also had live two-hour TV specials that evening.  VOA’s Spanish Branch fed 17 of its radio network affiliates in this hemisphere throughout the day --- including simultaneous translations of the victory and concession speeches by the two presidential candidates.

A former managing director of the BBC World Service, Sir John Tusa, once said of traditional international broadcasting:  “I fired a signal into the air.  It fell to earth I know not where.”  That was in the early 1990s, and the zillion channel world of interactive digital media was just beginning to come into view.  Now, as we’ve seen, there is an amazing proliferation of voices today in sometimes the most surprising, unheralded venues.

There are more than 690,000 students from abroad studying in American universities this year, about one out three of them from the Peoples Republic of China and other Asian countries.  VOA, tapping into a program largely administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, has established a blog on its website that enables foreign students to engage in dialogue, compare experiences, and learn from each other.

It is called Student Union, and Malaysian student Nicholas Lau told his fellow bloggers on the VOA website:  “A college campus is the best place to follow an election.  There are voter registration drives, presidential debate watches, mock debates, and forums to encourage students to discuss what it means to be an informed voter, how to make the best decision for the next four years.  Meanwhile, college Republicans and Democrats, clubs for politically-minded students of each party, have been working with full force to mobilize the student body to vote on Election Day.”  You could almost sense that Nicholas, a non-citizen, was ruefully observing the process without finally being able to pull a lever at a polling station on that day.

Who would’ve thought that the international broadcasters of the 20th century (one messenger to many listeners) would morph to actively join the “many to many” stampede:   listeners and representatives of what Nicholas Cull of the Annenberg School at the University of South California terms “the astonishing abundance of participants in the international sphere”?   Electronically “the last three feet,” as public diplomacy advocates like to say.

As is often the case, Cull says it best:  “The advantage of a moment where no actor is yet pre-eminent is that all have an advantage in listening and learning from one another, and seeking ways to use the new technology and its moment for mutual good.  The hoof beats are thundering.  It’s time to jump.”  And in this writer’s view, there’s no greater opportunity for taking the leap than in accurately, objectively and comprehensively reporting, listening to consumers of that reporting, and exchanging views on a U.S. presidential election and ensuing actions.  That is  America’s great festival of democracy writ large --- and globally --- in a new age.

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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