US digital diplomacy: The tools of 2010, the insight of 1910?

The US State Department's thinking on digital diplomacy still seems mired in a 'push' model of message projection. Instead of responding to the concerns publics around the world want to talk about, or engaging in a more dialogic model of conversation, the strategy is: get the message out. In last week's New York Times magazine two US State Dept. digital diplomacy advisers, Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, were given an extended chance to sell their latest strategies. It quickly became clear in the article that policymakers still assume that the US has a coherent message: itself, its values, its history. In the article, Hillary Clinton is quoted as saying, "Much of the world doesn't really know as much as you might think about American values." So, let's say there are such things as American values and that these can be pushed out to much of the world, how would this work in an age of social media? Here, Ross explains:

“You have a body of great material [promoting America]. We ought to have somebody go through it and do grabs. Figure out over the course of whatever it is you’ve said, those things that can be encapsulated in 140 characters or less. Let’s say it’s 10 things. We then translate it into Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Arabic, Swahili, etc., etc. The next thing is we identify the ‘influencer’ Muslims on Twitter, on Facebook, on the other major social-media platforms. And we, in a soft way, using the appropriate diplomacy, reach out to them and say: Hey, we want to get across the following messages. They’re messages that we think are consistent with your values. This is a voice coming from the United States that we think you wanted to hear. So we get the imam. . . .”

“. . . the youth leader. . . .” [Farah] Pandith [also US State Dept.] said.

“We get these other people to then play the role of tweeting it, and then saying, ‘Follow this woman,’ and/or putting it on whatever dominant social-media platform they use.”

The strategy of finding (or paying) credible intermediaries and creating a translation bureaucracy is not the same thing as allowing peer-to-peer public diplomacy to blossom. Most importantly, it does not equate to listening and taking into account the perspectives of others -- people around the world for whom 'American values' might seem threatening, hypocritical etc. Hence, the mission will preach to the converted.

The report does tell us about other strings to the digital diplomacy bow, such as encouraging cyberactivism in authoritarian countries. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that a push model of political communication is being written about in the New York Times as somehow novel; not just novel, but so exciting that eating must be put on hold, for, as the journalist reports, "Ross hadn't eaten anything besides a morning muffin ... dinner could wait."