How Washington Can Win the Information War

The United States has the tools to defeat the Islamic State and Russia’s propagandists, but is squandering them.

<> on April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California.
<> on April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California.

In a world where terrorists recruit on the Internet and Russian President Vladimir Putin weaponizes “news” on his propaganda television channel, what role should the United States play in the new world of information warfare?

It is clear that America cannot prevail with hard power alone, yet since the closing of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) back in 1999, America’s capacity to participate in the global battle of ideas has declined, even as the information challenges continue to grow and change. Both of the areas USIA used to oversee — public diplomacy and international broadcasting — urgently need renewed focus and resources.

In his recent Oval Office speech to the nation, President Barack Obama called for “high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.” Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was more specific earlier that day. Terrorists, she said, “are using websites, social media, chat rooms and other platforms to celebrate beheadings, recruit future terrorists and call for attacks. We should work with host companies to shut them down.”

Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others are still reeling from the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance. Though they understand the need for not allowing their platforms to be used by would-be terrorists, they are not keen on collaborating with the U.S. government or monitoring customers’ online accounts. For them, it is critical to protect Internet freedom. If the Obama administration — or any future administration — seeks some adjustments on Americans’ privacy in favor of greater security, it will need to make its case and engage with the companies on an ongoing basis.

There is a counter messaging part of this, too. The State Department currently has a modest $5.8 million effort to counter Islamic State recruiting and other hateful propaganda (including the much-derided anti-Islamic State Twitter account). The undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Richard Stengel, says the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications has “a campaign […] which is using direct testimony from dozens and dozens of young men and women who have come back from Iraq and Syria and said ‘the Caliphate is a myth.’ You know, ‘I was abused there. They’re not religious. They’re venal and money-grubbing.’ So that type of campaign to refute their disinformation is the kind of thing we’re doing.”

The work is important but the effort is far too modest. Recently the Pentagon, unhappy that the State Department’s anti-terrorism recruiting effort is so limited, obtained a green light from Congress to launch an effort of its own, written into the 2016 Defense Authorization Act. That is not a bad thing: The Pentagon can add much greater resources both to disrupt the Islamic State’s online activities and to countermessage against their recruiters. But the work should be coordinated at a high level, and should be under civilian control. Teams in the Arab world should be funded to follow the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates on every possible chat room and website, countering their appeals in real time. And the communication should all be done by Arab partners in the region, not by Washington.

Overall, since public diplomacy programs moved to the State Department in 1999, they have suffered from budget cuts and leadership turnover. It’s a sad reality that public diplomacy efforts tend not to be valued by the State Department as highly as conventional diplomacy. In the digital age, that thinking is out of date.

There has also been a shortage of clarity and resources over at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which was established as USIA closed, to oversee U.S. broadcasting and media, including the Voice of America (VOA). In January 2013, Secretary Hillary Clinton didn’t mince words about what she thought of its efforts, telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the BBG was “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”

Now, some three years later, it’s clear that the nine part-time appointees that comprise the BBG should never have been asked to run a complex group of media companies — part Federal, part independent grantees — through a period of rapid change in global media. Though the bipartisan board was needed to create a firewall protecting the independence of the journalism from interference by policymakers, it was often unable to play an effective executive decision-making role. As a result, there was a damaging period of policy drift, bureaucratic rivalry, and budget cuts. It did not help that there were long periods when the board was not complete — positions were left empty by the White House and Senate, sometimes for over a year.

Fortunately, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and the current board understand the structural problem and what to do about it. The BBG’s recent appointment of a full-time chief executive officer for U.S. international media is an excellent first step. But CEO John Lansing, a seasoned media manager, needs legislation giving him clear authority over all budgets and personnel. A proposal in the House of Representatives (HR 2323) could actually make things worse, accentuating the rivalry and competition for resources by placing VOA under a different board and CEO than its three smaller sister entities: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

Despite the problems and even though its budget has declined in real dollars, VOA’s audience over the last four years has increased 40 percent from 134 million to almost 188 million in over 45 languages. In a world where broadcasters like RT, formerly Russia Today, peddle half-truths, spin, and disinformation, journalism done with the old-fashioned goals of objectivity and balance is more important than ever.

Or is it? During the four years I served as VOA director, a number of influential voices in Washington called for VOA to be made a full-throated advocate for American policy, rather than a journalistic enterprise. They argued that in the digital age, when there are hundreds of competing, opinionated voices out there, everyone would need to have to “spin” in order to have real impact. Might they be right?

For a research paper I’ve been working on at Harvard, I have been looking at the two very different models in the marketplace, comparing VOA and the BBC World Service with newer channels that advocate and spin for their governments: Russia’s RT and China’s CCTV. Though audience data on RT and CCTV is hard to come by, the evidence is clear.

RT claims a worldwide audience of 630 million people in 100 countries, but the claim is false. The Russians are using “potential audience reach” as RT’s metric rather its actual viewership — which is much smaller. For example, RT does not even have a Nielsen rating in the United States, which means although it is available on many cable systems in this country, not even 30,000 American households watch it daily. (The figures come from an internal report to the Kremlin by directors of RIA Novosti, seen by the author; RT claimed, via a representative, that the station simply doesn’t want to pay for a Nielsen rating, thus the lack of one.) In Britain, as of May 2013, RT ranked 175 out of 278 channels, with approximately 120,000 viewers per day. As RT’s coverage of the Russian invasion — or, as they called it, the “liberation” — of Crimea and of eastern Ukraine became increasingly one-sided and shrill, that number dropped even further. Doubtless, RT has somewhat bigger audiences in other markets, but compared to the BBC World Service, which has a global audience of more than 300 million people, its reach and impact are clearly minuscule.

The same goes for China’s CCTV. Despite billions invested, and a priority to build its audience in Africa, data collected in 2013 revealed that just 2 percent of Kenyans had watched CCTV the previous week, as compared to 17 percent watching CNN, 7 percent for the BBC World Service, and 52 percent for Citizen TV, a local station. Former CCTV employees speak of not being allowed to mention African countries that have relations with Taiwan, and talk of censoring stories on elephant poaching, so as to leave out a major cause of it: Chinese demand for ivory. Such biased coverage simply does not have credibility with African audiences.

As Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, who first coined the term and concept of “soft power,” likes to say: “The best propaganda is not propaganda,” but truth.

“It’s by being impartial that the World Service helps to promote Britain,” former BBC World Service Director Peter Horrocks told me. “We absolutely reflect British values, and British values of fairness and impartiality are absolutely the bedrock.”

VOA’s robust audience growth over the past four years has been possible because of its similar dedication to honest journalism, even when the story is about America’s challenges and shortcomings, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal, Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance, or protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere against police shootings of young African-American men. But innovations in digital media and a new model of partnership with media around the world on television and radio have also played a crucial role. If the United States upped its game, there could be enormous additional audience impact for VOA and its sister stations. That would require more resources, and leadership with the legal authority to cut through bureaucratic rules and fiefdoms.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy took the issue seriously enough to recruit the famed journalist Edward R. Murrow to advise him on the war of ideas, and to run USIA. Perhaps President Obama should hire an information advisor who is similarly experienced in the field. The Cold War is over, but the importance of engaging in the battle — and of exporting reliable information — has only grown.

Photo credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Getty Images

David Ensor is a Shorenstein fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. From June 2011 to May 2015, he served as director of the Voice of America.

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