By Alan Heil
In a briefing to a record crowd at the First Monday forum of the Public Diplomacy Council and USC’s Annenberg School June 5, the State Department’s senior advisor to the Helsinki Commission laid out principles for meeting those challenges.
As Scott Rauland put it: “Don’t expect to combat the firehose of falsehoods with a squirt gun of truth.”
The senior diplomat applauded the February rollout of Current Time, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and VOA joint 24-hour multimedia stream in Russian to more than 30 affiliates in countries surrounding Russia and two million users in that country via satellite.
With expanded resources, the “squirt gun of truth” may yet, with adequate investment, become a veritable water cannon of high quality, objective news, helping to foster a thirst for truth. Advancing freedom and democracy, fighting poverty and disease and raising the hopes of millions around the globe clearly is vital to U.S. national defense.
In Rauland’s view: “After a slow rollout, we are practically there. If additional investment can be made in the broadcasters and public diplomacy generally, including the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, I expect it to make a significant difference.”
The senior U.S. diplomat cited the threat of distorted and false digital age fare well funded by Moscow: the high number of channels and messages, the massive army of trolls in Russia targeting foreign audiences 24/7. He characterized all this action “a shameless willingness to engage in falsehoods”, especially for U. S., European users and neighbors of Russia with significant Russian speaking populations.
Rauland recommended as “must reading” an 11-page Rand Corporation report last year co-authored by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and What to Do About it. In their view, distinctive features of the “firehose” are: a high volume of misleading information, multicultural, rapid, continuous, repetitive, inconsistent and lacking objectivity.
With a budget of $300 million a year, Russian propaganda is multichannel: radio, TV, text, the Internet, including false photos and a force of at least a thousand paid Internet trolls. The Rand study quotes RFE/RL as reporting that the trolls generate thousands of anti-West reports on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and vKontakte. According to a former troll, the trolls are on duty around the clock in 12-hour shifts and each has a daily quota of 135 posted comments of at least 200 characters.
How is recently reformed U.S. international broadcasting countering this propaganda blitz, in Russia and elsewhere?
- RT, formerly known as Russia TV, produced a self-defensive documentary shortly after the formal inauguration in February of the RFE/RL-VOA 24/7 multimedia Current Timeprogram. It was highly critical of all Western media, including this first collaborative effort in more than 70 years between two publicly-funded U.S. international networks. The RT program assailed what it termed “Current Time’s distortion of events” and even Russia’s own independent minded Dodzh TV for broadcasting what it termed “false news.” Clearly, more balanced information blunts Kremlin fake news.
- VOA provided live coverage of fired FBI Director James Comey’s open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee June 8th. According to VOA correspondent Ken Bredemeier, “Comey said it’s the confident judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in last year’s U.S. Presidential campaign to help Trump defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and that President Trump expected the FBI to drop the investigation. As William Harlan Hale said in the first VOA broadcast 75 years ago: “The news may be good for us, the news may be bad, but we shall tell you the truth,”
- The Voice this past year has greatly expanded its on-scene coverage of the United States, a cardinal plank of its Charter (Public Laws 94-350, 103-415, 105-277) guaranteeing honest, candid coverage of America and the world. On June 1, it formally inaugurated a news bureau in San Francisco, which has produced dozens of reports on Silicon Valley initiatives enriched by the efforts of scientists and investors from East and South Asia, among other countries.
Anyone accessing the website, www.voanews.com this week will see details of three other ambitious VOA projects:
1) Off the Highway, recorded and radio-TV interviews of farmers, merchants, and local leaders in the upper Mississippi valley by a team of a dozen VOA reporters and producers. Here are personal portraits of the daily lives of residents in 14 communities in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois — seldom visited by journalists. As the Charter says: “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society.
2) Hunger Across Africa, on scene interviews from Somalia to Nigeria by VOA reporters in ten languages and Central News. These document the twin plagues of hunger and spreading drought that could become the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis since World War II, and
3) Boko Haram: Terror Unmasked, a video documentary based on close-up images filmed of executions and other atrocities which accidently fell into the hands of a VOA reporter in Nigeria last year. It took months for the correspondent, Ibrahim Ahmed, to verify locations of these crimes, but last January, his documentary was broadcast in a number of VOA languages and continues to be translated in others.
An interview in Terror Unmasked illustrates its impact. Nigeria’s Defense Minister Mansur Mohammed Dan Ali: “This video will expose the brutality of the Boko Haram sect on our community and our country, and on all Nigerians because in one way or another, the brutality has affected almost everybody in our society”. The defense minister fought back tears the first time he watched the documentary.
Great faith leaders over the ages, long before the explosion of digital media, would agree. Buddha: “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.” Saint John: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Alan L. Heil Jr. is a retired VOA deputy director and author of Voice of America: A History,” Columbia University Press, New York, 2003. Alan is a former board member of the Public Diplomacy Council and member of the Council and the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs.