By Rosie Gray
WASHINGTON — Civil libertarians are warning that an amendment to an anti-propaganda law that will allow United States government-made news to be spread to Americans could lead to “blowback” from our adversaries and inundate Americans with government propaganda.
The change to the Smith-Mundt Act, which regulates U.S. public diplomacy, came on July 2 after being approved by Congress in January. U.S. government-funded media such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe is now technically available at broadcast quality to American audiences. Some civil libertarians are voicing concerns that the change in the law will not only expose Americans to more government propaganda than ever before, but fail to counteract terrorism, which is one of the implicit duties of outlets like VOA Somali.
“Ad hoc attempts to out-spin our adversaries — targeting American audiences in addition to foreign ones — is troubling because it will not lead to less violence or vitriol,” said Michael Shank, director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “Blowback is more likely. The intended audiences — whether domestic or foreign — are smart enough to decipher what is, and what is not, material funded by the U.S. government. This is no time for smoke and mirrors.”
“Those in Congress who think the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act improves America’s ability to undermine extremism either do not understand diplomacy or do not want to prevent violence,” Shank said. “This fallacy of influence, furthermore — the idea that American-centric marketing and media messaging will effectively communicate a counter-terrorism narrative — should be forfeited.”
Both VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are controlled by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG isn’t fully a State Department apparatus, but does share some overlap: the Secretary of State sits on its board ex officio and the State Department Inspector General plays a role in its oversight.
Matthew Hoh, a former senior State Department official in Afghanistan who resigned in protest of the war in 2009, said that if the change mirrors the State Department’s information practices in Iraq and Afghanistan, “we have nothing to worry about.”
Hoh described some of the “inept” practices that misfired in Iraq and Afghanistan, like spreading newspapers to illiterate people.
“What they’d do in both countries is put together coffee table books, big picture books of mosques in the U.S. to show people we have mosques in the U.S,” Hoh said. “They think that’s going to win hearts and minds.”
These actions fall under the rubric of “public diplomacy,” the section of the State Department responsible for promoting the United States’ image abroad.
But the change to Smith-Mundt, Hoh said, probably won’t be noticed by the American public given the current media environment.
“I don’t think it’s going to be much different than what’s going on already,” Hoh said. “If you look at all the news reporting that comes out of D.C. about the wars, it’s all going well. I don’t really think it’ll change that much because they’re already lying and nobody’s calling them out about it.”
“I saw that quote from somebody at VOA saying, well, it’s all accurate information anyway,” said Lt. Col. Danny Davis, the whistleblower who challenged the Pentagon’s official public reports about Afghanistan. “As you know, that’s not all there is out there. We shape environments, target audiences to make them think in a certain way. Some of these guys want to reach an American audience to shape American perceptions.”
But the protections afforded by Smith-Mundt were largely “no longer valid anyway because of the Internet,” Davis said.
In this, Davis mirrored the official line from the BBG on Smith-Mundt.
“Some of these materials have been on the internet for years,” said Lynne Weil, spokesperson for the BBG. “None of what’s on the internet is broadcast quality.”
“The difference is that before now Americans could not have accessed all of this material via TV and radio, now they can,” Weil said.
Some of the most famous slip-ups involving U.S. propaganda have involved the Pentagon — including a smear campaign directed against two USA Today reporters who had investigated Pentagon propaganda contractors — but Weil specified that the change in Smith-Munt doesn’t apply to the military.
The “final misconception,” Weil said, “is the question of whether this agency overseas is propaganda. It simply is not.”
“I can’t possibly speculate as to the reaction of viewers and listeners in the United States when they have the opportunity to see and hear these programs,” Weil said.