A public diplomacy program worth examining is the Shared Values Campaign created by the U.S. State Department. The campaign aimed to combat anti-American sentiment in the Middle East by showing Muslim Americans describing their positive experiences living in the United States. The hope was that these images would show people in the Arab world that America doesn’t hate Muslims. The campaign, which cost $15 million and was designed by a Madison Avenue marketing executive, used a combination of television advertising, speaking tours, print publications, radio broadcasts, and outreach programs.

There are several downsides to this campaign, which is generally regarded as a failure. The first relates to media effects and how these kind of campaigns impact the way audiences perceive reality. When the message was mediated by audiences in the Middle East, it didn’t come off as it was intended. Instead of identifying with the concept of “shared values,” people thought it was disingenuous (particularly in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq).

Another is the content of the campaign, or rather the lack of it. The campaign completely ignored issues that were relevant to resentment of the US in the region – namely the history of US intervention in the region. Nobody was upset about or even wondering about how American Muslims were living. The response was generally “who cares? What about the Arab-Israeli conflict?” The creators didn’t have a firm grasp of the audience they were tailoring it to. The campaign answered questions nobody was asking. Perhaps the campaign would have landed if it had addressed issues relevant to the public’s opinion of the US.

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The Information Revolution + Censorship

This week’s blog question asks, “What aspects of international communication in history are still relevant today?” A constant feature of each new development in communication technology is control and censorship. Those in power (typically the state, but the Catholic Church is another good example) always have and always will step in and try to control the conversation.

In The Information Revolution and World Politics, Elizabeth Hanson tells us about the control measures imposed by Catholic Church in reaction to the printing press. The Vatican was afraid that products produced by the printing press would encourage dissent. They weren’t wrong – the printing press facilitated the dissemination of nonconformist views like those of Martin Luther. In an effort to control the spread of information and ideas, the Catholic Church released an “Index of Forbidden Books.” Anyone found printing an illegal book could be arrested or even burned at the stake. For a time in France, printing any book was forbidden and could result in death by hanging. 

And so the pattern goes: New communication technology is introduced. Ideas spread like wildfire. Citizens become increasingly empowered politically and intellectually. State monopoly on information challenged. State attempts to censor and control information. Measures to limit fail.

Both the printing press and social media have followed in this pattern. Look at the Arab Spring and social media. Facebook became wildly popular in the Middle East in 2006 when the site switched open registration. People across the region used the site to share their stories (example: We Are All Khaled Said page) and eventually to organize. While Social Media didn’t start the protests, it certainly sped up the process by helping to shape the narrative. In time, governments caught on and attempted to quell protests by censoring Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. People in Egypt, Libya, and Syria experienced full Internet shutdowns during the Arab Spring. The Tunisian government hacked into and stole passwords from citizens’ Facebook accounts.

In addition to censorship being a common thread, so is the failure of censorship measures. Just as the Church failed to stop the spread of dissenting ideas during the time of the printing press, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Ben Ali tried and failed to stop social media from playing a role in their own demise. Even Assad, who still sits on his throne in Syria, cannot keep Facebook from facilitating the exchange of anti-Assad sentiments (and memes).

Ultimately, human beings refuse to accept restrictions on what they’re allowed to know. Communication technologies continue to increase the information available to us and shape the way we look at the world. Those in power will always insert themselves and attempt to control developments in communication. And they’ll continue to fail.

John Locke know’s what’s going on!

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