Under Secretary Stengel: U.S. needs to harden its ‘soft power’

BBG Watch Commentary

Richard Stengel VOA PhotoHow does the U.S. harden its “soft power”? According to a Voice of America (VOA) report, “U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel says that in the face of strong foreign propaganda machines such as Russia and the Islamic State, the U.S. needs to harden its ‘soft power’ with its own participation in the global conversation.”

No doubt, Under Secretary Stengel meant smart participation, where the U.S. and its main media outlet for U.S. news, the Voice of America, actually counter hostile anti-America propaganda instead of promoting it or helping it spread.

VOA reported that “Stengel, who came to State after seven years as the managing editor of TIME magazine, said the U.S. is focused now on getting its point of view out in the Russian language, but not through broadcasting, which he called ‘an old model.’ Instead, he said the U.S. is turning to social media.”

VOA’s social media engagement numbers are dismally low. Compared to State Department’s Twitter outreach, VOA English News Twitter outreach is ten times lower. Many VOA language services do not do much better and have not been given resources to update their social media pages 24/7 while VOA’s enormous bureaucracy continues to expand. Russia’s RT beats VOA many times over in all social media audience engagement statistics.

Currently, Voice of America is also being used for propaganda purposes by other countries, including Vietnam and Russia. This happens when VOA more frequently now than ever before relinquishes control over its news programs or eliminates political news entirely to allow these programs to air on stations in countries that practice press censorship.

VOA executives have allowed VOA Charter to be ignored in seeking local program placement in deals approved by autocratic governments which restrict their own local media and jail independent journalists. This may result in surreal situation in which jailed independent Vietnamese journalists may be able to listen to a self-censored VOA program on the communist Voice of Vietnam radio.

Should VOA agree to eliminate political news and ban U.S. critics from a program designed for placement on the Voice of Vietnam, in an apparent violation of the U.S. Charter, just to get the communist radio to rebroadcast the VOA program? Should the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the U.S. Congress allow this to happen while independent journalists in Vietnam have no chance of ever being invited to express their views on the government radio and some of them are in prison for practicing independent journalism? Members of Congress critical of the communist regime in Vietnam will be among those banned from the program. If they are not banned, the program will not air on the Voice of Vietnam.

Should the Voice of America agree to participate in a Russian television program, which one expert on disinformation and propaganda called a “Russian triumph in terms of info warfare”? Exercising near total control of the program, the Russian side scores propaganda points against the U.S. even with the participation of U.S guests.

Several U.S. and European experts on disinformation and propaganda have concluded that VOA executives agreed to a one-sided deal with the Russians, in which Voice of America is being used in an info war operation to discredit American views and increase domestic and foreign public support for the Kremlin.

The Voice of America needs to be smarter in how it participates in the global conversation.

READ: McCain wants to fight and kill, Russian TV says in joint program with Voice of America

BBG Watch, September 16, 2014.

Will Voice of America management violate VOA Charter and U.S. law in a deal with communist Vietnam?

BBG Watch, September 8, 2014.

Reforming International BroadcastingUnlike some of the previous VOA News reports dealing with bipartisan efforts in Congress to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America, this VOA report dealing primarily with Under Secretary Stengel’s comments, but also with the H.R. 4490 reform bill, is remarkably balanced.

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VOA NEWS REPORT

Under Secretary Stengel: US in Information ‘Battle’ with IS, Russia

FILE - U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel

FILE – U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel

Alex Villarreal

September 16, 2014 6:28 PM

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel says that in the face of strong foreign propaganda machines such as Russia and the Islamic State, the U.S. needs to harden its “soft power” with its own participation in the global conversation.

Speaking in Washington Tuesday at an event hosted by the non-partisan American Security Project, Stengel called engagement “a sign of strength,” and said the United States should be the nation that listens.

He said recent changes in technology, including the rise of social media, are suitable to making public diplomacy more important in the 21st century than ever before, as the world is seeing “a reemergence of history, a reemergence of blood and borders” from Ukraine to the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy also met Tuesday in Washington to discuss the impact of international broadcasting and recommendations for engaging foreign audiences.

‘Competition’ with Russia

On Russia and the global conversation about the Ukraine conflict, Stengel said when he took up his post at the State Department in February, he was “surprised and displeased” by how powerful the Russian propaganda machine was – not just in Russia, but in the surrounding region of Russian speakers.

He said competing with Russian news, which he described as “nothing like what we think of as objective,” is something the U.S. is now focusing on, including through the Voice of America. VOA Director David Ensor was present for Stengel’s remarks.

Stengel, who came to State after seven years as the managing editor of TIME magazine, said the U.S. is focused now on getting its point of view out in the Russian language, but not through broadcasting, which he called “an old model.” Instead, he said the U.S. is turning to social media.

The Russian leadership has been criticized recently for a wave of Internet restrictions that appear designed to stifle dissent online. The closing off of the Internet information space has “grave implications” for public diplomacy, said Stengel, and it is a trend against which he said he is trying to campaign.

The Kremlin denies allegations of censorship or pressure on the media, but online activists and journalists have been increasingly concerned that President Vladimir Putin is seeking to tighten control over Russian society, amid the bitter dispute between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s future.

‘Information Battlefield’

Stengel also addressed the rise of the Islamic State militant group, which has overtaken large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria, saying that apart from its “savage” beheadings of American journalists and other violence, the group has proven “very adept” at information warfare.

Staffan Truve, an analyst with the social media monitoring group Recorded Future, told VOA recently that more than 60,000 Twitter accounts this summer were talking about Islamic State extremists in a positive way.

Patrick Skinner with the Soufan Group, a security intelligence services company, says the Islamic State’s international recruitment drive is equally skillful. He says the group’s message is carefully tailored to specific demographic groups in Europe, the United States and South Asia, as well as locally in Iraq and Syria.

Stengel, fresh from a trip to the Middle East with Secretary of State John Kerry, said the U.S. is in a battle with the Islamic State that is not just being fought on a “kinetic battlefield,” but on an “information battlefield” as well. But he said the group’s ability to recruit foreign fighters has more to do with conditions the U.S. does not control, such as region specific economic and social problems.

Broadcasting Reform?

Some media advocacy groups have expressed concerns about the U.S. government waging “information warfare” through its international broadcasting institutions such as VOA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia. Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire issued a statement in May saying that would be extremely regrettable.

Deloire’s statement came in response to a bill the House of Representatives passed in July that would overhaul U.S. international broadcasting to support U.S. foreign policy.

The bill would reduce the scope of VOA’s coverage from world news to coverage of the United States and international developments that affect the U.S. – a change some current and former VOA journalists say would be “devastating” to VOA’s credibility and integrity.

But supporters of the bill say it would help the U.S. fight back more effectively in the war of information against countries like Russia and China. Democrat Eliot Engel, co-sponsor of the House bill, says the legislation will require U.S. broadcasting agencies to remain “objective sources of news and information,” not just “a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy.”

A similar U.S. broadcasting bill must pass in the Senate, and the legislation must be signed by President Barack Obama in order to become law.

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