Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Propaganda Leaflets Surviving

I am trying desperately to catch up at least a little on my reading of all the feeds and blogs to which I subscribe. Naturally, the most valuable and often the most entertaining are the posts by John Brown. These always contain a considerable amount of information and insights which reveal the diverse approaches to the study and practice of public diplomacy and international communications.

Going back to November I have identified an interesting pattern developing in the Korean Peninsula, and I will be interested to follow how this thread evolves in the wake of North Korea’s current power transition. These reports describe how North Korea has entered the 'Twitter Era' for its propaganda, despite the internet being strictly off-limits to ordinary North Koreans. The propaganda website, Uriminzokkiri, has added Facebook and Twitter tags but the 'share' function is restricted to posts criticising South Korea and the US. Meanwhile, the propaganda regime also posts propaganda footage to Youtube. This suggests that new communications technologies are available in the North and that someone within a government agency has the technological understanding of how to use them. This is quite revealing for a society we are told is somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of the world.   

Meanwhile, South Korean propagandists are still using the old Cold War technique of distributing to North Korea leaflets attached to helium balloons. A military source in November noted the decision to suspend this campaign 'was partly made because the wind currently blows in the wrong direction.' It is understandable why South Korea would resort to such ancient and unreliable techniques given the proximity of the target audience and the inability of North Koreans to access other means of communications. But it is fascinating to think that as Pyongyang finally embraces the information revolution - albeit in a limited way - South Korea is forced to depend on balloons and leaflets.

All of this reminds me of a visit to Jinmen in 2010. Jinmen is an island that belongs to Taiwan but is actually closer to the People’s Republic of China. Jinmen was at the centre of military action between China and Taiwan in the 1950s and was subject to periodic shelling of propaganda leaflets until the 1970s (Taiwan reciprocated in kind). Jinmen was the focus of Taiwan's propaganda activity and remains a military garrison to this day.

In one of the many museums dedicated to the outbreak of war between the two sides in the 1950s, there is a fascinating exhibition of propaganda which includes descriptions of Taiwan’s leaflet campaign in China. A map showed just how far balloons sent from Jinmen penetrated the Chinese mainland (I attach a photo to this blog). I was very suspicious of this map; given the size and terrain of the PRC, could balloons really reach so far inland? And how did Taiwan's psyops teams know where they went and what happened to them? I asked my contacts at Taiwan's Political Warfare College about this and they assured me that balloons could travel that far depending on the gas used to fill them, while Nationalist agents in the mainland could verify their reach. I am not convinced, and I remain suspicious that this is an example of propaganda about propaganda. But the Cold War historian in me is smiling in a self-satisfied way that in the age of blogs, twitter and Facebook, balloons and leaflets are still being used.       


Monday, 19 December 2011

Al-Shabaab, Twitter and propaganda in the new information age

Last week I read a report that Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group in Kenya, has launched its very own Twitter account. It is the latest in the long line of terrorist organisations with links to Al-Qaeda, that understands how new communications technologies are essential to fight the war of ideas. It posts in English, suggesting that its intended audience is global and that its objective is international propaganda (one tweet asked, 'How can one lay down his arms when his enemies are grinding their swords to terminate him? No to negotiations undr [sic] invasion'). The tweets also provide a detailed account of its military operations and regularly uses photos to reinforce the narrative. The Kenyan military has responded with its own Twitter feed, and so the propaganda war in Africa enters a new phase of claim and counter claim.

Reading these reports reminded me of what I have said in a chapter in a forthcoming book, edited by Rachel Utley, reflecting on international relations ten years after 9/11. Asked to comment on the information landscape, I noted that the power of information in the asymmetrical war of ideas has not been overlooked by political elites at the highest levels in Washington, and that there are a number of distrubing admissions: In 2007 US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, noted ‘It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications’. In one of the most famous quotations of the war on terror Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ Four years later, Washington’s political elite were still pondering the US’s incapacity to compete in the communications landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘We are in an information war and we are losing that war.’

The coalition has spent ten years playing catch-up. The initial communications response to the terrorist information networks after 9/11 was the creation of the Al-Hurrah (‘The Free One’) Arabic language television channel at a cost of $60 million per year (it is now officially the least watched station in the Middle East). The US also created Radio Free Afghanistan, Radio Farda for Iran and Radio Sawa (‘Together’), the latter broadcasting a diet of popular music and some news in a deliberate effort to target younger audiences. Yet, these stations, clearly created by Americans, had little or no credibility and could compete with neither the media the terrorists were using (the internet) nor the message (which identified themes which resonate with disaffected Muslim audiences). One former director of the Voice of America, Robert Reilly, was particularly scathing about such programming on US-created stations: ‘We do not teach civics to American teenagers by asking them to listen to pop music so why should we expect Arabs and Persians to learn about America or democracy this way? The condescension implicit in this nearly all-music format is not lost on the audience that we should wish to influence most – those who think.’ Similarly Al-Hurrah has been criticised by US diplomat William Rugh (2005) for ‘looking much more like the old-style TV channels that were totally controlled by authoritarian governments and that served primarily as propaganda arms of those governments’. Whenever possible, Arab audiences will turn to Arab media, like Al-Jazeera, providing news and information by Arabs and for Arabs.

In the age of new media, understanding and distinguishing fact from fiction, propaganda from information, verified from unconfirmed news is more difficult than ever before. Moreover, in the age of the internet, where does ‘domestic’ end and ‘international’ begin? Is a government sufficiently appreciative of the fact that it can now speak to multiple constituencies across the world simultaneously, amplifying the need to make sure that all its voices speak with consistency? In Iraq, we are told, insurgents ‘often had a cameraman at the site of a car-bombing, and within minutes of the explosion, the images appeared on the internet without having to be vetted in any approval process and with little regard for the distinction between news and propaganda. Countering this type of instant “news” … was almost impossible’ (Wright & Reese, 2010: 288).

I would suggest that part of the problem of the US's failure is a refusal to appreciate how today’s communications environment in so fundamentally different from that of yesterday. In some ways the recognition that it is useful to combine both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media is encouraging, as when Hillary Clinton told the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2011, ‘… while we’re being active in online new media, we have to be active in the old media as well’ (quoted in Pincus, 2011). In parts of Afghanistan where illiteracy levels still reach almost 95% and where there is low internet penetration, it is appropriate to develop information strategies centred on television and radio broadcasting.

However, this demonstrates that, ten years after 9/11, we are still persuaded to label communications technologies as ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, when rather the reality is that platforms have converged. It is now possible to watch TV, listen to the radio and read newspapers anywhere in the world and from anywhere in the world, on a computer; just as TV news encourages its viewers to engage with them via Facebook and Twitter, and send them photos of news stories happening in their locale. Moreover, the ‘new’ media are ‘new’ only for a generation born before the end of the 1980s; the principal targets of information, public diplomacy and propaganda in the War on Terror have grown up in a world of Google and Youtube and have no recollections of a time before email and the pressure to be ‘online’ dominated our daily lives. Until this is recognised and the supposed dichotomy between old and new media disappears, progress in communication will be limited. The situation is certainly not helped by stories that a Crown Court judge in the UK who, presiding over a trial of three young Muslims accused of distributing propaganda over the internet in support of Al-Qaeda, confessed during the proceedings: ‘The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a website is.’

New communications technologies blur the traditional boundaries between source, producer and consumer, and this is the frontier of a new information space in which governments and militaries must work and combat their enemies. The information sphere is a battleground that militaries ignore today at their peril. Official communications must compete with an ever proliferating range of new voices, and to succeed, they will only do so by being credible; image and reality must be consistent. Moreover, believing that how you are perceived is more important than what you do is the biggest mistake of all. The issue is not about presentation. It is about policy. Perhaps any measured reflection on information operations ten years after 9/11 would do well to begin with this admission.


Pincus, W. (2011), ‘New and old information operations in Afghanistan: What works?’, The Washington Post, 28 March.

Rugh, W. (2005), ‘Broadcasting and American Public Diplomacy,’ Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal 14 (Spring).

Wright, D.P. & T.R. Reese (2010), On Point II. Transition to the New Campaign: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003-January 2005 (Milton Keynes: Books Express).

Thursday, 8 December 2011

More on Sesame Street

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am a huge fan of Sesame Street, the long-running American television show which teaches children literacy, numeracy and life-skills such as kindness, tolerance and friendship.

On 11 April I commented on the launch of a version of Sesame Street in Pakistan. Now, Big Bird and his friends have made the trek to Afghanistan in a version of the programme called Baghch-e-Simisn. This is a co-production between the non-profit Sesame Workshop and Moby Media, an Afghan company that has made a big impact on the flow of international cultural products into the country, having been responsible for importing such western formats as Idol and Deal or No Deal. The US State Department has also provided some funding.

As expected, Baghch-e-Simisn will be modified for the specific cultural context Sesame Street will encounter in Afghanistan. So scenes in which Ernie is barking like a dog and encouraging his friend, Bert, to copy him will not be shown, as a dog is considered unclean. Moreover, in trying to impart the fundamentals of health and safety, the production team had difficulty finding a building site on which the workers wore the kind of protective clothing one would see in New York.

This is the beauty of Sesame Street; it is not afraid to take risks, to change for local audiences and use entertainment for education. In Afghanistan, where the education infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, such initiatives are welcomed. There will always be the nay-sayers who proclaim 'cultural imperialism', but Sesame Street's success and its genuine apolitical agenda demonstrate that international communications and American media products may actually do some good after all. Long may it continue!