Last week, Marc Lynch (also known as Abu Aardvark), an associate professor of political science and international relations at The George Washington University and well-known writer and blogger about the Middle East, gave a fantastic presentation to my bureau at the State Department. He was kind enough to allow me to summarize his presentation and share it with the wider community.
His presentation, and the following discussion, focused on his personal experience as a blogger, including his engagement with counterpart bloggers in the Middle East, and on the general history and landscape of blogging in the Middle East.
A History of Blogging in the Middle East
In his presentation, Professor Lynch focused on three main phases of blogging in the Middle East:
Initially, many of the blogs in the Middle East were written in English and focused on the American audience. Some commentators called them “bridge” bloggers, in that they provided a bridge between the perspectives of the Middle Eastern authors and the American readers. However, as these bloggers became more popular in the United States, they began to tailor their message to very specific audiences, typically either quite conservative or liberal. The same commentators then began derisively referring to them as “mirror” bloggers, since they often reflected what their audiences wanted to hear about, re-enforcing existing biases.
The second phase, which reached its zenith around 2005, saw many activists become prominent bloggers who focused largely on internal social change. These blogs were written in local languages and dialects and the audience was typically domestic. Often these bloggers were local elites, many Western-educated, and were already established activists before turning to blogging as an outlet.
These activists wrote about police brutality, restrictions on protest or speech, government corruption and other examples of domestic oppression. Their focus was internal and generally paid little attention to the United States.
Unfortunately, as the prominence of these activists grew through their blogs they increasingly gained the attention of local authorities. Unsurprisingly, once noticed by the oppressive political state, it oppressed them. Many were thrown in jail, some were tortured and the nascent ferment of this movement was crushed.
Despite their hope that their prominence, both domestic and international, would protect them from this oppression, telling, few (or none) of individuals or countries with sufficient influence came to their defense.
Lynch classifies the latest and current phase as the “public sphere enterprise”. Basically this means bloggers engaging in public discussion and argument, but without the expectation that such activity will result in big changes. The bloggers in this phase were always active, but were over-shadowed by the “bridge” and activist bloggers. They are a very small minority, often young elites, and typically talk only to each other. Their blogging won’t be overthrowing oppressive regimes any time soon.
Nonetheless, the ideas they are creating and shaping may have significant ripples in the next 10 to 20 years as many of these individuals rise to positions of power. Importantly, blogging has created channels of communication between some divergent, but equally oppressed groups. In Egypt, for example, blogging has created connections between secular activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the point that each side will advocate for the other when the state bears down hard.
As important as these connections and ideas are however, the great open, democratic ferment written about in the main stream media is now dormant in the Middle East, successfully cowed by oppressive governments. More and more bloggers are coming online though, so a resurgence may be in the making, sometime in the future.
Public Diplomacy 2.0 in the Middle East: What do to?
Faced with the current Middle East landscape, with oppressive regimes in ascendancy and free-thinking bloggers driven out or to the margins, how should the United States approach web-based public diplomacy?
Lynch highlighted five key lessons and methods that should guide American public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East.
First: Work on broad principals
Most importantly, the United States needs to work on broad principals, such as press freedom and personal rights. It is preferable and almost always better to have local voices pushing for change, which is much harder under oppressive regimes. Furthermore, by picking winners, the U.S. risks turning them into losers and making the situation worse. For example, it makes little sense for the U.S. to create a social network for Arabs since they will, if given the latitude, create their own, better, network, free from U.S. government restrictions.
Second: Don’t be blinded by the tech
It is important not to let the technology blind practitioners to the basics of public diplomacy. It is pointless to depend on blogs, Facebook or other technologies to lead a revolution. Along this line, the U.S. government shouldn’t create exaggerated expectations on what individual bloggers can do. Public diplomacy efforts shouldn’t place too much burden on these voices, especially when there is no way to protect them from an oppressive regime.
The United States needs to get better at listening. Too much of public diplomacy has been about “winning” and not enough about “understanding”. Developing this capacity to listen and understand should look at the wide range of public opinion, not just the loudest or scariest. Of the material that gets translated and circulated among the highest offices in the U.S. government, a majority is often pulled from jihadist web forums. While important from a security perspective, this massively misrepresents Middle Eastern public opinion, leading to poor understanding and, ultimately, poor policy. Similarly, it is important to listen to a wide array of data points, from newspapers to television, not just blogs (though blogs can suggest what topics are resonating in the wider audience).
Fourth: Understand that “Google rules the world”
It is important to be on the web and, most especially, have material that ranks highly on Google. Professor Lynch gave the example of Al Hurra, the U.S. government-funded Middle East broadcast channel, who refuses to publish their transcripts online and rarely pushes their video to YouTube and other popular outlets. Al Jazeera, in stark contrast, publishes everything, text and video, in a wide variety of venues. The result: Al Jazeera’s content lives forever while Al Hurra’s dies immediately.
Fifth: Encourage open, honest exchange
Lastly, when the U.S. does engage, it needs to be open, transparent and credible. Lynch praised three Department of State public diplomacy programs as fulfilling this requirement: the Digital Outreach Team, which engages in discussions with bloggers in the Middle East, the Democracy Video Contest, an open video competition to complete the phrase “Democracy is…”, and Fulbright and other exchanges.