Dan Whalen is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Amid the struggle to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East, there is another lesser-known effort to win the hearts and minds of the region’s citizens online. The U.S. has waged a “war of ideas”, traditionally through unidirectional intervention, but a recent initiative has attempted to shift that approach to bidirectional engagement.
In 2006, the US State Department founded the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), a group of ten civil servants directed to “explain U.S. foreign policy and to counter misinformation.” To that end, the team uses new media to engage local citizens in discussion, rather than lecture. DOT members mostly post on Internet discussion forums that are popular in the Middle East, responding to users’ more vitriolic comments with objective facts and reason.
This new approach to foreign relations was recently assessed in a report prepared for UNESCO, entitled “Public Diplomacy 2.0.” The report’s authors – who include Professor William Dutton, member of IP Osgoode’s International Advisory Council – performed a case study on DOT’s participation in Arabic discussions of U.S. President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4th, 2009. This particular event was chosen because the speech is viewed by many as a key moment of U.S. engagement with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Accordingly, the authors performed a rigorous content analysis of both DOT members’ and other users’ posts to determine the respective themes, stance, tone, and type of rhetoric used in each.
The results offer fascinating, if somewhat troubling, insights. At first blush, expectations are confirmed: DOT members mostly used logical rhetoric and discussed positive themes portraying the U.S. favourably, while other users employed emotional rhetoric attacking the speech itself and various aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
More startling, however, is the authors’ discovery that DOT posts seem to work counterproductively in generating more, not less, negativity towards the U.S. The authors seem to propose that this disturbing phenomenon is fundamentally rooted in the fact that DOT only engages in geographic areas where there is already strong anti-U.S. sentiment being expressed. For instance, they suggest that some voices may go unheard where users with less negative thoughts censor themselves. Through this spiral of silence, individuals become less likely to publicly voice their opinions if they believe they are in the minority. Alternatively, and perhaps concomitantly, users’ negative views may become even more polarized simply in response to DOT’s perceived contrariness. Indeed, the authors found that DOT is sometimes over-reliant on presenting technicalities in its debates.
The DOT initiative faces other obstacles as well. Perhaps chief among them is that DOT is a group of only ten individuals, who must thoroughly check each fact before posting, pitted against a digital army of naysayers not so constrained and with home-field advantage. Although the authors refrain from final judgment, their tone is optimistic and appropriately so. Broadly speaking, debate, rather than lecture, is surely a more effective strategy of persuasion.