State Dives Into the Blog Boiling Oil



We all know how the popularity of blogs has exploded over the last few years, and were all also tired of hearing how some corporate fat cat has decided it makes for good business to jump into the blog world with his or her own ruminations.

No one reads those blogs. Why? Because theyre not credible.

Well, heres another one for you. And Ive got to say, Im torn on whether this is a good idea or not.

According to a short story by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post, the State Department has a small crew of Arabic speakers whose job is to zorch around the internet and dive into Islamic and mid-East-oriented blogs when they take a nasty, anti-American turn.

The State Department, departing from traditional public diplomacy techniques, has what it calls a three-person, "digital outreach team" posting entries in Arabic on "influential" Arabic blogs to challenge misrepresentations of the United States and promote moderate views among Islamic youths in the hopes of steering them from terrorism.

The department's bloggers "speak the language and idiom of the region, know the culture reference points and are often able to converse informally and frankly, rather than adopt the usually more formal persona of a U.S. government spokesperson," Duncan MacInnes, of State's Bureau of International Information Programs, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism and unconventional threats on Thursday.

"Because blogging tends to be a very informal, chatty way of working," MacInnes said, "it is actually very dangerous to blog." So State has a senior experienced officer, who served in Iraq, acting as supervisor and discussing each posting before it goes up. "We do not make policy," MacInnes added.

The State Department team's approach is to join a blog's conversation, often when it turns to the motivation for U.S. policy toward Iraq, and when others are claiming that the U.S. occupation is meant to help Israel or to secure oil. "Our job is to address that motivation issue and show them that that's not the motivation," MacInnes said.

But it seems to me States internet commandos are well aware that they could be raked over the coals, and theyre careful in how they approach the blogosphere.

Even though the State Department employees were not going into hard-core terrorist sites, the worry, MacInnes said, was that after identifying themselves and using their own names, "we would be, in the parlance of the Internet, 'flamed' when we come on" -- meaning their entries would be subjected to intense attacks.

They were not, and there were such posts as, "We don't like your policies but we're sure glad you're here talking to us about it," MacInnes said. As a result, State is expanding the team to six speakers of Arabic, two of Persian and one of Urdu.

To prove that it, too, can plug into the modern media world, the Pentagon's Central Command has a blogging operation at its headquarters. Its Joint Forces Command also has the capability and has even written a brochure on how to do it. "It's an area we're moving into," Navy Capt. Hal Pittman, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for joint communications, told the House panel. He added that Central Command may not be using its own Arabic or Farsi speakers, but rather contract personnel. "We're sharing with State and trying to, you know, better our knowledge on how to do it."

The State-Defense communications approach is also turning to a more sophisticated message, one that moves away from trying to change perceptions of the United States, focusing instead on the self-perceptions of its target audiences. "Our core message must outline an alternative future that is more attractive than the bleak future offered by the terrorists," said Michael Doran, deputy assistant secretary of defense for support of public diplomacy.

Seems to me State has the right to do what theyre doing. And It might just turn a few opinions. But whether theyll be considered credible when unmasked as agents of the U.S. government is another thing entirely.

-- Christian

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