Yesterday, two of my colleagues, Al Eisele and Dick Morris, squared off over whether Newsweek was or was not to blame for the faulty reporting that touched off riots leaving at least 16 dead around the world. Both scored solid points, and I’m not going to weigh in on the side of either one. (Isn’t there some rule they teach you in journalism school about not picking a fight with your editor?)
I do want to write about one of the most important aspects of this story — how quickly the protest took on a life of its own. It raises a much broader and more dangerous question: Is America ever going to learn to handle public diplomacy? The message is not that someone at Newsweek got their facts wrong but that the U.S. government in general and the Defense Department in particular have been several days behind the curve on this.
Five years ago, maybe even less, this simmering animosity would have been dispersed and isolated. Al Jazeera would certainly have carried the story, as would have Islamic newspapers, but the eyes and ears they reached would have been more limited. Today, only the most isolated villager is outside the reach of militant Islam’s voice. News travels through businesses and universities via the Internet. Portable radios are everywhere. Internet cafes have become commonplace in most cities. Millions of Muslins are wired, and they share information quickly.
Today, the most trusted source of information is a friend or relative, someone you know. On the Internet you know everyone. Is the Arab street going to believe an “eyewitness report” from a former prisoner or a statement strong-armed from an international news magazine by the government sending troops in body armor and Humvees rolling through its communities?
“In the current polarized climate … it is easy for anti-U.S. forces to join hands with extremists to whip up a popular frenzy,” Islamabad scholar Rifaat Hussain was quoted as saying in a Washington Post article. And with the power of grassroots communication tools such as cell phones and Internet cafes, those messages will spread quickly and credibly.
Looking back at our own 2004 election should be enough to persuade the Pentagon that below-the-radar communication has changed the world. According to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, www changed politics forever in this country. Fully 75 million Americans — 37 percent of the adult population and 61 percent of online Americans — used the Internet to get political news and information, to discuss candidates and debate issues or participate directly in the political process by volunteering or writing a check to candidates. There was a 50 percent increase in the number of registered voters who cited the Internet as one of their primary sources of news about the presidential campaign.
Among those who surf the Web, the Internet is now a more important source of political news than radio, and it rivals newspapers and challenges television as the dominant source of political and campaign information. In the 2004 election, we saw what groups such as Swift Boat Veterans and MoveOn could do to spread information, as well as disinformation, and organize everything from meet-ups to mass rallies.
We are counseling our clients on how to live in a 24/7 news environment where a powerful Internet campaign is as important a part of issue advocacy as Beltway advertising and grassroots coalitions. In fact, the Internet is a powerful tool to use in building those coalitions.
But the Pentagon waited more than a week after the Newsweek article to mount any kind of response. According to The New York Times, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said officials waited because they did not notice the outcry until last week. The State Department was no faster, responding only after riots broke out. That lack of attention cedes a very important battleground, the Internet and personal communications networks, to your opposition.
Many have noted that the Pentagon won the war but is losing the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan. That trend will not turn around until this government begins to engage in a serious program of public diplomacy. White House briefings and arms twisted at magazines is not a policy. We need an aggressive message strategy that uses all the communication tools of the Arab street to make our case and show our respect for a belief system that has stood for centuries. If we do not learn how to wage such a campaign with 21st century tools and carefully thought-out strategies, we will be forever vulnerable to the messengers of militant Islam.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org