State Department Digital Debaters = Trolls?

by Steven R. Corman

Writing today in Danger Room, David Axe called members of the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team (DOT) “trolls.”  Axe was responding to some statements by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Jim Glassman’s in a bloggers’ roundtable earlier this week.  Glassman discussed a recent and unusual engagement with an Iranian official by the DOT, which Matt has already written about.

I was more than a little surprised to see this presented as news, since the DOT program has been in operation for over a year now.  It was created in the summer of 2007 as a result of Karen Hughes’s U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication as a non-BBG media activity that could help counteract negative propaganda about the U.S.

According to a New York Times article about the program last year, the DOT consists of State Department employees who speak the requisite foreign languges.  It concentrates on “about a dozen” mainstream Muslim web sites.  Team members try to engage discussion about the U.S. and its policies, and “they always identify themselves as being from the State Department.”  I don’t know what actually happens, of course, because the team operates on sites in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.

Is it reasonable to label the DOT members as “trolls”?  Methinks not.  My personal experience with trolls is that they try to completely disrupt an online discussion group, to prevent it from carrying on as usual.  They mainly do this by being e-jerks, baiting people into emotional, off topic reactions and flaming.  Sometimes they hack boards to delete or change posts, or impersonate other members.  Above all, they do all they can to prevent anyone from finding out who they are or where they come from, so there is no chance of retaliation by aggrieved parties.

Indiana University Information Technology Services has (for reasons I can’t really fathom) a page about trolls. It says their communication falls into one of three categories:

  • “an apparently foolish contradiction of common knowledge”
  • “a deliberately offensive insult to the readers of a newsgroup or mailing list”
  • “a broad request for trivial follow-up postings”

It goes on to say that “people post such messages to get attention, to disrupt discussion, and to make trouble.”

If the public facts about the DOT are accurate, none of the foregoing characteristics of trolls applies to them.

It would be one thing if the “troll” label had been applied by a clueless individual.  But Axe is from Wired, for crying out loud.  You would expect writers from that outlet to have a better command of the digital lexicon.

UPDATE — Sept. 22

As Patricia pointed out in a post today, a transcript of the exchange with the Iranians shows that the digital debater in question indeed identified as being a State Department employee, but did not say exactly who s/he was.  Javanfekr thought it might be the Secretary of State:

Javanfekr: 1. My identity is completely clear to you but your identity is not at all clear to me. You are aware that I am the President’s adviser in media affairs and in this blog I express my own personal views and the official positions as declared by the government and foreign ministry spokespersons and also by the president and the foreign minister.  2. Considering that you present US government positions and given that your identity remains a secret, let me from now on refer to you as her Excellency Madam Rice, the distinguished US secretary of State unless you identify your position/standing at the US Department of State to the readers of this blog.

Debater: Thank you for the promotion but I am not the Secretary of State. I am a member of the Digital Outreach Team which is an entity within the US Department of State. Our goal is to establish communications and have a candid conversation with the people of Iran and answer questions about US foreign policy. But I think it’s better instead of focusing on personalities and job titles to focus on issues.