The social media debate raging in America over whether or not platforms like Twitter and Facebook should flag fraudulent or dishonest information — like President Trump’s tweets — is a complete sideshow. It distracts us from the bigger question over whether or not there is anything left in the global information space that is American. Who are we? Do we care what anyone in the rest of the world thinks about us? What is it about the United States that is worth conveying to the world to advance our values and interests? Do we even know what we are advocating for?
Those of us who hail from the professional field of “public diplomacy” are having a déjà vu moment all over again. While a public battle is raging between Trump and social media platforms over truth and facts, America is losing the bigger war over information, image, and global leadership. We are now subjecting ourselves to the foreign propagandizing ways we always fought against at the State Department. Americans abroad fought for truth via public diplomacy and we have forgotten, as a country, how to do it.
Public diplomacy is as old as America, although the phrase was coined in the mid-1960s. We believed as far back as Benjamin Franklin that America had a good story to tell about itself and needed to inform and educate others outside of our country about what we felt were our unique strengths. In what began as a chess game to check Soviet propaganda, America enlisted public servants and others to explain ourselves as part a strategy to “win hearts and minds” in support of democracy. We cared about our image in the world and believed that if we communicated our values, they would take root. And we staffed our government to do the job of informing the world about us and proudly labeled our content as emanating from the U.S. government. We branded ourselves.
To export American ideals and build credibility, the United States Information Agency, or USIA, hired journalists to go report on events around the world and, by doing so, reinforce American values: the importance of information and freedom of the press, rule of law, good governance, and basic rights. At the same time, other agencies of the U.S. government engaged in cultural programming, people-to-people diplomacy, and using of all available public ways of openly transmitting our story and showcasing our values to create civil societies that we argued would create a more stable, more tolerant, and less conflict ridden world.
We were proud to say that messages we communicated around the world were made in America, from Silicon Valley’s technological edge to baseball and bar-b-ques. Our embassies were trained in how to highlight great things about American politics and life so others would emulate us, send their best minds to America.
Enter Donald Trump.
From day one it was clearly a new ballgame. Not only would there be a Twitter-in-Chief setting the national narrative, the story of democracy would no longer be the plotline. Everything we had communicated went out the window as we unwound the clock to an earlier age, called America First.
Long before the 2016 election, the notion of the U.S. government broadcasting our message to the outside world like in the Cold War seemed antiquated to some. Social media does that and already had blurred the lines between domestic and foreign policy, challenging the notion that governments were the prime actors on the world stage. Non-state players like social media users, companies, non-governmental organizations, and terrorist groups have access to information and its power.
That shift meant that America needed leaders ready to shore up its narrative on multiple fronts and use government resources and people to put out messages to reach more audiences. It was made even more urgent by the fact that foreign governments like China had caught up with us on public diplomacy, even passing us on the information highway in terms of cultivating influence. On the positive side, other countries were exporting cultural diplomacy like Russian ballets and Chinese Confucius centers teaching language on college campuses. On the negative side, those same governments attacked the United States with cyber-intrusion, propaganda parading as information, and infiltration of our own information architecture and elections, sowing discord and division. Rather than rise to the challenge, we ceded the field.
Since 2016, Trump dismantled the remnants of USIA, disbanded the Broadcast Board of Governors, and put media on notice that information power resided within his personal Twitter account. The president was able to question the value of government, and to make the case that those who elected him did not subscribe to the democracy and globalization case that so much of public diplomacy had rested on. Instead of resisting the notion of state-run media, he suggested the U.S. start its own. He simply presumed he was the state and that information was a one-man operation.
Every available poll shows a decline in respect for America around the world. According to the most recent findings by the Pew Research Center, a clear majority of people living outside the United States do not trust Trump to do the right thing in world affairs. Fewer than one-third express confidence in him — an opinion also reflected in attitudes toward America generally.
Information is power, and we have ceded the information space to Russia, China, Iran, and anyone who wants to broadcast propaganda to our citizens, often using platforms we built for ourselves, like Twitter and Facebook. At first it was bots and hacks — attacks from outside the country to sow domestic discord, create division, and polarize our politics to fragment our influence. The Russians stirred people up using fake accounts. The Chinese took full control of all aspects of their own media and kicked out ours.
China’s propaganda machine has gotten more sophisticated. The most aggressive trolling of late from Beijing came during the coronavirus pandemic outbreak. State-run news agency Xinhua created a video called “Once Upon a Virus” featuring animated Legos — a set of responsible, masked Chinese ones trying to warn a recalcitrant Lego Statue of Liberty that people needed to take the virus seriously and wear masks. After dismissing the warnings, the Lego Liberty turns red with rage and ends up on an intravenous drip, whining, “Why didn’t you warn us?” The Chinese embassy in France re-tweeted the video thousands of times. The state-owned China Global Television network declared the virus “Waterloo for America’s leadership,” as a British-accented announcer intoned, over images of the Capitol building and homeless people gathered in a parking lot implying that America was in decline.
Because of the Trump administration’s failure to take foreign propaganda seriously enough, there’s a new worry: America is now victim of overseas and domestic propaganda by nameless, faceless, fringe groups spreading false narratives on everything from race to elections. Americans more than ever are spouting conspiracy theories that voting by mail is fraudulent, that the coronavirus is a Chinese weapon, and on and on. Into that void, amidst misinformation, disinformation, and no information, we are left to decide what America is or is not.
Forget the popularity polls that have us at the bottom of the barrel. Leave aside the fact that a global pandemic has tanked our economy and sickened millions. Ignore Americans’ sense of waywardness and lack of interest in the world. Forget the fact that we have tossed out anyone who is from another country, let alone tried to convince them to adopt American values. Can we, as Americans, peacefully resolve our differences if there is no national identity, no governing bodies beyond Trump, and a wild west of social media with competing narratives?
So, what can be done? Plenty.
First, more regulation. It may be time to reign in the social media platforms without controlling content. Sensible legislation could stop the unauthorized, anonymous postings that have no source, no basis, no facts. Second, demand that journalists be allowed in China to fully report on events to interrupt the propaganda machine. Third, publicly make clear to Russia that we know what they are doing and that sanctions will follow. And fourth, reinstate U.S. public diplomacy with funding from the government or the private sector and non-profit organizations to create ads or public service announcements about the importance of fringe groups not defining America, just as we did with the countering violent extremist efforts to get third parties to dismiss overseas extremism.
Finally, Congress should demonstrate stronger oversight over the U.S. Agency for Global Media (which replaced the Broadcasting Board of Governors.) Most Americans are not even aware that there used to be a bipartisan board that ensured that telling America’s story overseas did not risk becoming politicized by one political party or another for use at home to “propagandize” U.S. citizens. In 2013 the so-called Smith-Mundt Act which prohibited content designed for foreign audiences to be shown within the United States was updated in light of social media to allow Americans to view overseas broadcasts like the Voice of America “upon request.” But under Trump there has been little oversight of the new U.S. Agency for Global Media by the Hill nor by the State Department. The nomination of conservative filmmaker, Michael Pack, to head the agency should be closely scrutinized.
Public diplomacy is still about telling America’s story — not about propagating one view of America and hoping to sway voters at home. There is an important difference.
The one bright spot is that propaganda ultimately fails. People lose confidence. They stop believing it. In November, there is a fork in the road that will reveal if we are at that point.
I think former Vice President Joe Biden will win in November and it is likely he will reinvigorate the public diplomacy functions of the state, including its message and messengers. My guess is that the old U.S. Information Agency will be resurrected and the State Department revitalized. I believe we will return to the idea of democracy and the notion of spreading it. But the road between here and there is long and dangerous.
Tara Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state or public diplomacy and a fellow in public diplomacy at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.