A short time back, Digital Diplomacy was all the rage. Personified by Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, who married social media to democracy promotion at the State Department, the U.S. government made a costly and public commitment to modernizing its tools of diplomacy.
Those were heady days for cyber-democrats, and the U.S. government wasn’t shy about its role in promoting change. “As American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”
Eric Schmidt, then CEO at Google, who brought Cohen and Ross to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View for a Q+A session with dozens of employees, asked them “Is it like calling up all the ambassadors and saying, Please use Facebook, Twitter, and Google?”
It wasn’t that easy. The ideas behind so-called 21st Century statecraft turned out to be harder to implement than conceive. Both men have since left the State Department. Mr. Cohen got a job at Google. Mr. Ross is writing a book and serving as a corporate consultant. But, the structure they left behind may not be doing all that well.
If you saw the headline, State Department spent $630G to boost Facebook ‘likes,’ report says, you know what we’re talking about. In a report recently made public, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors found that the Department spent $630,000 boosting its likes on Facebook, “artificially increasing apparent popularity of the Bureau’s English-language Facebook page from 100,000 likes to 2 million.”
The word “artificially” was well-chosen. The report also found that the money produced little increase in engagement. Members of the larger audience weren’t likely to be active politically. The Department didn’t understand how Facebook managed its news feeds, and it was poorly organized to make use of the effort. The Inspector General found such pervasive problems that the report required over 80 recommendations for fixes.
The report showed a Department more interested in boosting its numbers – to measure just how energetically it was promoting democracy and using social media in nations overseas – than in thinking about or organizing what it was doing. This had a familiar ring to us.
We mentioned the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) before, when we learned about its contract with Washington Software, Inc. to build up its social media effort in Cuba. According to documents disgorged by Tracey Eaton, the investigative journalist with whom we are working, “the BBG paid Washington Software $14,474 for” – get this – “361,873 text messages sent to cell phones in Cuba during the month of October 2011” alone.
The numbers sound robust; just like moving up the State Department’s numbers on Facebook. But, the Cuba programs are shrouded in secrecy, and U.S. taxpayers have no idea what the SMS messages said, to whom they were sent, or what the purposes of the messages were.
Apparently, we must simply trust Carlos García-Pérez, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, who is certain these efforts are successful. “With these new initiatives we are enhancing the way that people in Cuba can share information,” he said in comments reported by the Miami Herald.
We’re not so sure. Earlier this spring, Mr. Eaton reported that the BBG has spent more than half-a-million dollars since 2005 to buy TV and Radio Martí the rights to broadcast Major League Baseball games for the Cuban audience, even though the stations are jammed by Cuba’s government.
Last Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Cuba broadcast a major league game on state television. It was stripped of commercial advertising, neither of the teams involved fielded any Cuban players, and the game was two-months old. Not surprisingly, Cubans who watched didn’t think much of it.
If the Martís are broadcasting the real thing live, why did Cuba need to run a May 2nd game on June 30th? Because no one in Cuba hears them. So why was the BBG bragging on July 2nd about its contract with Major League Baseball? Because it doesn’t think that anyone here knows any better, and they are right.
As events unfolded in Egypt this week, we were reminded that democracy promotion is a tricky, unpredictable thing. It’s inherently intrusive, as one scholar of the subject wrote recently, and causes pushback in the countries where we’re accused of meddling.
In Cuba, where these activities are illegal, they endanger the citizens who come in contact with them and put the personnel who carry them out at great risk. In the U.S., because they are carried out in secret, most U.S. taxpayers are completely in the dark about what their government is doing, which hardly seems democratic at all.