1. A CHILLING WAKE-UP CALL AND THE “INFORMATION WAR”: As Americans — and people around the world — continue to struggle to understand the stomach-churning January 6, 2021 insurrection in the Capitol and the historic second impeachment of President Trump, one concern is crying out for attention: the intersection between democracy and technology.
Policymakers, social media companies, law enforcement, civil society leaders, and scholars and everyone else need to give urgent attention to understanding the links between disinformation and conspiracy theories, domestic and foreign terrorism, and the Internet, and how they affect democracy at home and abroad. Public diplomacy practitioners need to be part of that conversation.
One person highly focused on the rise of disinformation is the Wilson Center Disinformation Fellow and former Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellow, Nina Jankowicz. In the wake of the January 6th attack on The Hill, she has written an important piece, “The Day the Internet Came for Them — Washington Wakes Up to the Dark Reality of Online Disinformation,” for Foreign Affairs.
Her message: “The promise of the Internet blinded policymakers in both government and the technology sector. They were unwilling to acknowledge these fissures, such as abiding racism, that fuel disinformation and extremism and tended to avoid making tough decisions about speech by blindly invoking the First Amendment. As a result, authorities in both public and private sectors ignored the spread of dangerous ideas on the Internet and the growing networks of radicalized Americans willing to subscribe to notions as far-fetched as QAnon. After the storming of the Capitol, these alarming online trends are now impossible to ignore.” For the text, go to: https://www.foreignaffairs.
From the avalanche of stunned media reaction to recent developments in the United States, one foreign newspaper headline stands out as arguably the best headline of the year. It appeared January 8, 2021 as the top-of-the-frontpage, banner headline in The Times of India, part of India’s largest media group. It read: “Coup Klux Klan: Don Triggers Mob & Rob Bid.” For a report on how the clever, chilling headline became “a rage on social media,” go to: https://timesofindia.
2.THE PRESIDENT LOSES HIS MEGAPHONE: Among all the recent jaw-dropping developments, the one that is truly unprecedented — and perhaps most significant as a turning point — is the decision by multiple U.S. social media companies to ban President Trump’s use of their platforms to spread his controversial, misleading content.
The decisions by Facebook, Twitter and others to self-regulate are stunning and politically far-reaching. Overnight, the President lost his power to go over the heads of traditional media and other filters and talk directly and immediately not only to millions of Americans but to a truly global audience. Through the “de-platforming” action of a small number of private firms, Trump lost his ability to shape events, set policy, and define “truth” and “reality” from his unique perspective.
What shape this new social media and political order — or chaos — will take remains very much to be seen, but it could have far-reaching implications for how our leaders communicate at home and abroad, how social media and tech companies function, and how “free speech” and democracy are defined.
To understand the current situation and to appreciate where things might be headed, two post-January 6th articles are worth reading. One is Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg’s “With Trump’s Main Megaphone Gone, Silicon Valley’s Power Rings Loud” at https://www.washingtonpost.
3. A ROCKY FINISH FOR SECSTATE POMPEO: Everyone knows that being Secretary of State is one of the toughest jobs in Washington and that it shouldn’t be a popularity contest. The past few days have shown Secretary Pompeo just how demanding his high-profile position is. Like any good Secretary of State, he has been extremely loyal to his boss in the White House, and in his final days the Trump Administration has focused on last-minute efforts to promote priorities, such as Middle East, China and Cuba policy, and secure its legacy.
Through a flurry of carefully-crafted announcements and targeted media engagements and amidst heavy foreign shock and concern over the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, the Secretary has kept busy defending the President and explaining the policy changes. Some of Pompeo’s actions were controversial, generated negative media reaction, and affected in-house morale, and they surely kept U.S. public affairs and public diplomacy officials hopping. Critics saw the moves as PR attempts to highlight the administration’s achievements and as efforts to prevent a smooth transition and tie the hands of the incoming administration.
Some of the Secretary’s actions didn’t get quite the attention they normally would. Due to great domestic public and official attention to the pandemic crisis and security concerns related to the violent attack on Congress, the impeachment, and the inauguration, foreign affairs is not a priority at this perilous moment.
Examples of very recent, far-reaching State announcements — all made within about 48 hours and reversing long-standing U.S. policy — were the lifting of “self-imposed restrictions on the U.S.-Taiwan relationship”; the putting of Cuba back on the state sponsors of terrorism list; and the designation of the Iran-friendly Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization, a move which hinders the international community’s ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis by getting food and other aid into Houthi-held areas. The CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband called Pompeo’s move an act of “pure diplomatic vandalism.”
Examples of other developments that drew attention was the Secretary’s reported snub by European Union (EU) officials which forced him to abruptly change travel plans for his final trip overseas; a January 10, 2021 AP report that a group of career State Department officers was using two “dissent channel” cables to voice their concerns about President Trump; editorials critical of Pompeo in both the January 13, 2021 Washington Post and the January 15, 2021 New York Times; and the Secretary’s controversial January 11, 2021 speech at the Voice of America (VOA) headquarters in which he talked about “American exceptionalism”.
In fact, following the VOA appearance, an in-house furor erupted when VOA management reassigned the VOA White House reporter who had tried to ask the Secretary questions. The personnel move has so upset VOA staff that a petition has been circulating demanding the removal of new VOA Director Robert Reilly and his deputy, Elizabeth Robbins. The White House Correspondents’ Association has also criticized the move by VOA management.
For the transcript of the Secretary’s VOA appearance, go to: https://www.state.gov/
4. IDEAS ABOUT THE WAR OF IDEAS AND PUBLIC DIPLOMACY: Michael McFaul, the prolific Stanford professor and former Ambassador to Russia, has a must-read article out in American Purpose. Written after the January 6th attack, “Sell It Again, Uncle Sam” analyzes the war of ideas, which McFaul says has resumed “with the rise of China, the re-emergence of Russia, the erosion of many more democratic regimes, and the resilience of dictatorships in other parts of the world.” He argues the January 6, 2021 “radical assault on American democratic traditions” has set back, for years if not decades, “the American claim as a model, defender, and promoter of democracy around the world.”
Based on firsthand experience inside the State Department and an important embassy, McFaul understands and values public diplomacy. Many in the PD community will welcome his view that — since the closure of the USIA — the United States has underperformed and not kept pace with its adversaries, who “have invested heavily in tools to propagate their ideas.” He offers detailed ideas on how the Biden Administration “must radically restructure, rationalize, and modernize U.S. government public affairs and media resources.” For the text, go to: https://www.americanpurpose.
5. SAMANTHA POWER ON U.S. ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE: Of the Biden appointees to date, one of the more significant ones from a strategic communication or PD perspective is the choice of Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN from 2013-2017 and now a Harvard professor, as the new Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a member of the White House National Security Council.
Given her name recognition, international celebrity status, and background as both a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a development and human rights advocate, she should instantly give USAID great clout within the new administration and with foreign governments and the media. She is expected to be a champion of bilateral partnerships and multilateral cooperation on development challenges like democracy, the pandemic, climate change, corruption, and refugees.
Power also has a special interest in higher education, an area where USAID used to be very active. She understands the importance of initiatives, like academic exchanges and much-needed visa and immigration policy changes, to attract international students to the United States, and she can be expected to move USAID back into the business of helping countries strengthen their universities.
In a very detailed January/February 2021 Foreign Affairs article, Power made clear that higher education leadership and excellence are core U.S. capabilities that need to be strengthened and projected. She argued: “It is hard to think of a more cost-effective way for Biden to reach global populations concerned about the direction of the United States than by celebrating the fact that the country is again welcoming bright young minds from around the world.”
Among her public diplomacy-related recommendations is that Biden deliver a major speech “announcing that his administration is joining with American universities in again welcoming international students” and setting “a target to once again annually grow the number of foreign students at the 7-10 percent range achieved earlier in the decade.”
For the text of her “The Can-Do Power: America’s Advantage and Biden’s Chance” think-piece, go to: https://www.foreignaffairs.
Dr. Michael H. Anderson is a public diplomacy and Asian affairs specialist with nearly 30 years of Foreign Service experience serving in the US Department of State and the US Information Agency (USIA) and working in South Asia and Southeast Asia. His Public Affairs Officer (PAO) postings included New Delhi, Jakarta, Karachi, Singapore, Manila and Port Moresby. He also has been a journalist, a teacher, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, an information officer with UNICEF, and an East-West Center grantee. He is a member of the PDC Board.