Center for Strategic Communication

by Cameron Bean

Since November of 2006, the State Department has taken its public diplomacy efforts into the online arena of Arabic, Urdu, and Persian discussion boards. Heading this effort is the Digital Outreach Team (DOT). According to DOT member Muath Alsufy, the initiative began after the realization that “there was a lot of misinformation about the US, mainly foreign policies, and there was a void… no source on these forums and blogs that would identify this misinformation and somehow correct it.” Thus, the DOT’s mission to correct these misperceptions was born. Research and analysis for this post, however, suggests that DOT efforts could actually be producing negative results.

At the outset, the DOT’s efforts were met with mixed opinions. A 2007 New York Times story cited a number of positive reflections by analysts, including that “they had been surprised by the positive response, with people seemingly eager to engage [on the forums].” It also said that the DOT’s work “helps to counter one source of radicalization — the sense that Washington is too arrogant to listen to the grievances of ordinary Arabs.”

In a previous post on this blog, Steve Corman defended the DOT against David Axe of Danger Room labeling the State surfers as “trolls.” Matt Armstrong, however, gave “no applause” to the team for misunderstanding both the audience and the nature of online discourse, criticizing the fundamental approach.

That criticism may be valid. Recent research produced by Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of efforts to correct political misperceptions based on either false or unsubstantiated beliefs. Their study involved subjects reading mock news articles that included misleading claims and also corrections, a format very similar to the way forum users read information.

Contrary to what we might assume, “results indicate[d] that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group.” In fact, they found “several instances of a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.” While the experiment does not exactly mimic the environment and conditions in which the DOT tries to correct misinformation, it does call into question the premise on which it is based.

Having now reached its fourth birthday, researchers are taking a closer look at the effectiveness of the DOT program. Two recent examples are of particular interest. Lina Khatib of Stanford University is currently leading a project asking whether or not the DOT is a “useful complement to more traditional forms of public diplomacy.” While Khatib and her team have not yet published any findings, her presentation at Georgetown University in March painted a less than rosy picture. Some of the problems are predictable, such as forum users accusing DOT staffers of being traitors or conspirators.

In addition to that, Khatib reportedly two more interesting challenges. First, teams of forum users have organized to oppose DOT members’ posting activities, composing about half of the negative feedback on their posts. Second, Khatib argues that “in many instances the logic and rationale of the responses backfires as they address conspiracy theories with either ridicule or belittling the critics,” therefore undercutting the outreach effort.  Lastly, Khatib describes the lack of consistency between posted statements and policy realities as a major undermining factor.

The second example is found in a recent report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Released on October 19th, it states that over their nine-week observation period of the DOT in action on Palestinian forums, the “State Department’s efforts to influence the online discussions were largely ineffective.” FDD suggests that while this may be the case because of the team’s relatively small staff, the most limiting factor, in their opinion, is that the DOT identifies themselves as State Department employees. “To be effective, the outreach team must not advertise its presence.”

While this call for the DOT to “go dark” is at odds with principles of public diplomacy, it reflects one of the biggest challenges that the DOT faces: credibility. Even on general interest forums, such as Aljazeera Talk, DOT posters face consistent insults and accusations. In addition to that, threads started by the DOT appear to act as magnets for insults and accusations against the United States and its policies.

During a 2008 NBC Nightly News story on the DOT, Marc Lynch commented that he thought it was “worthwhile, as long as you don’t have too high expectations.” While not appearing overly optimistic, Lynch seems to affirm that there is some intrinsic value to the program despite its limitations. During the same segment, NBC correspondent Mara Schiavocampo further downplays the mixed expectations for success, suggesting that “when you’re fighting the war of ideas, showing up is half the battle.”  Seconds later Brent Blaschke, Director of the DOT, affirms that statement saying, “We can’t guarantee that by going online and engaging we’re gonna change—influence anybody, but I can guarantee you if we’re not there we won’t influence a single soul.”

This leads to a fundamental question that seems to be missing from the discussion: What if the DOT’s online efforts are actually harming the image of the United States by creating even more unfavorable discourse? As already noted, forum users with opposing viewpoints are making a concerted effort to post “counter-arguments” to any DOT posts. These replies often include personal insults and attacks, tempting the DOT poster (acting as a representative of the US) to respond in kind. In one example a DOT member repeatedly told forum user that he should think twice and form better arguments before hitting the “reply” button.

More significant than exchanging personal insults, however, is creating the appearance of a win for the anti-American posters. While it is impossible to judge how these online exchanges affect readers’ opinions, it seems difficult to believe that American posters are more skilled at navigating the narrative terrain than the opposing side. And success requires a dialogue. It appears that in many cases, the challenges of users against the United States go unanswered. Though this is likely because of the DOT’s small size vis-à-vis the entire Arabic forum and blogosphere, it gives the impression of acquiescence.

One clear example of failure to respond can be found here on al-Saha, a general Arabic-language discussion site. A DOT staffer started a thread about the United States’ true intentions in Afghanistan and includes a video of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Negative comments appear within minutes, including a personal attack against Secretary Clinton and her ability to control “a country like Afghanistan and Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban.” More significantly, the last comment declares  that “America’s goal in Afghanistan is to kill Muslim civilians and the establishment of a true Islamic state.” No response to this or any other comments on the thread was made.

Missing a rebuttal on one thread is likely of small significance. But if this style of posting without follow-up is a trend, it could become hugely detrimental to the DOT’s mission. Through my examination of the communication patterns of the DOT on a few Arabic-language sites, I found mostly discouraging evidence. This is based partly on threads like the one mentioned above. Even in threads where DOT staff responded, however, their voice was outnumbered by many more negative responses from forum users. The fact that those negative responses often included personal attacks and sensational photos of civilian casualties makes the hill that the DOT must climb even steeper.

Unfortunately, I cannot currently draw any hard, overall conclusions as to whether or not the DOT is succeeding in its mission. Such a definitive statement would require sophisticated research and tracking of the posts, comments, and dialogues generated by the DOT and other forum users. Perhaps Lina Khatib and her team have such a study forthcoming.

Regardless, it seems clear that the assumption that “any action is good action” must not be made. Given the real chance that, despite good intentions, DOT operations could actually be doing more harm than good, a serious and thorough review of their strategies, tactics, and results is needed.