Friday, 4 March 2011

Losing the Information War

Sec. of State Hillary Clinton: Al Jazeera is 'Real News', U.S. Losing 'Information War' - Political Punch

"“We are in information war and we cannot assume that this youth bulge that exists not just in the middle east but in so many parts of the world really knows much about us. I mean we think they know us and reject us, I would argue they really don’t know very much about who we are,” she said, noting that America’s legacy of the Cold War, World War Two, and President Kennedy are lost on newer generations.

Clinton’s State Department has tried to keep up, especially on social media, where this year they have started Tweeting in Arabic, Farsi, and other languages. Secretary Clinton last week held a web chat with a popular Egyptian site that was able to gather 6,500 questions for her in just two days.

“We are really trying to play in that arena as best we can,” she said. "

It's so interesting and exciting for me when pieces like this appear in the news--something actually related to what I'm researching. It's not often that PhD students see news stories that fit their research as well as this one fits mine. That's not to say that this is directly related to my research--true, it's not about student exchanges. But it's about the bigger picture that student exchange fits into: the idea of correcting misconceptions and telling the world who we are. I remember Phil Taylor saying that if we don't tell our story to the world, someone else will do it for us. The implication here is that 'someone else' will get it wrong, either accidentally or deliberately. (His actual quote was "If America does not define itself, the extremists will do it for us."--obviously there would be deliberate distortion in that case!) The idea of foreign youth (particularly in youth bulge countries, which is another fascinating topic of its own) not knowing much about us is interesting. Isn't America everywhere? Anti-Globalisation protesters claim it is. They say what a travesty it is that American consumer products and pop culture have spread to every corner of the world. But here's the Secretary of State saying that's not true, that those foreign youth don't know that much about America. Is she making a distinction between America's ubiquitous cultural exports and the 'true America', who we really are?

Although student exchange isn't mentioned, it's related. Public diplomacy tools, including student exchange, respond to this challenge of teaching foreign audiences 'about who we are'. Students abroad, whether they're aware of it or not, become ambassadors of their home country. Their views and opinions are seen as those of 'the average American', 'a typical German', 'most Venezuelans', etc. Over the years, my friendships with other foreign students have given me favourable (or unfavourable) impressions of a dozen countries that I've never visited. I know that the impressions might not play out if/when I ever go to these countries, but the point is, my reaction to world events and foreign policy decisions is influenced by these friendships, for better or worse. This is especially salient for me right now, as I have a Libyan friend from the MA programme. He is currently studying in Durham, so he is out of harm's way--but what about his family and friends? I feel for them and all the people of this country that I've never visited, simply because I met a student abroad.

On a more positive note, I really am excited about the State Department's social media engagement. Whether or not it will actually have an impact remains to be seen, but it's a step in the right direction. The U.S. State Department has so many resources to engage with foreign audiences now, compared to even 10 or 15 years ago. It's great to see that they're utilising them.

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