Center for Strategic Communication

It’s nice to say things that sound strongly worded – they make you sound like you should be taken seriously. But I have to take some issue with this article from The Hill, which highlights comments made by US congressman Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, about the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its supposed inability confront the Russian propaganda “machine.” The BBG manages US international broadcasting, including the VOA and the surrogate radios Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (among other services).

Chairman Royce states the problem is:

“…the bureaucratic structure over top of these radios, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is badly broken,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Orange County Register.

In contrast, ““Putin, the former KGB colonel, is playing for keeps.”

But what’s the real criticism here? Granted, the argument that BBG is poorly structured is widely recognized as true. Commentators have been calling for BBG reform for years. And the proposed reforms are generally considered necessary. But organizational reform in Royce’s comments may really be code for setting up the VOA as a US counterpart to the propaganda of Russia. I’m surprised we keep having these debates in the US – it’s a tension built into the dual mandate of the Voice of America, “to tell America’s story” but also to demonstrate democratic journalism and model the role of journalism in society. It’s politically difficult to defend both. This is true now, it was present in debates over USIB after 9/11, and it was present in the early years of the Cold War.

But turning VOA into a mouthpiece for US policies and perspectives is simply a bad idea. It’s a reaction that ignores the realities about how people incorporate news into their daily life. Global, local, and trans-regional media environments are diverse ecologies of media consumption – even in authoritarian countries. People understand what propaganda looks like, and can easily tune out across the multiple platforms through which they make sense of their lives. Audiences have multiple sources of news and information, and countering blunt propaganda with propaganda is not the answer.

This does not mean that the VOA can’t be transparent in providing US perspectives. The US should rather, think about the context for which broadcasting can serve US goals. In some contexts, IB outlets can be used to counter or question Russian narratives, not just through reporting, but also through engagement with media audiences via social media. And this is already being done across the US government. The IB strategy for say, Western Europe’s support of a sanctions regime is different than, say, an IB strategy for empowering democratic and civil society norms in Ukraine or other satellite states. And a strategy would almost certainly be different when trying to intervene into the centralized, vertically-integrated and authoritarian media system inside Russia.

Crafting a knee-jerk institutional response to Russia’s propaganda does not do justice to the legacy of credible journalism and the ethos that the VOA has established. And let’s face it, it appears that something the US is doing is actually working, given Russia’s slow back-pedaling. “Playing for keeps” does not mean giving into the temptation to erect some sort of US propaganda machine. Yes, Russia has been steadily investing in its strategic communication and propaganda institutions for some time. The US should also invest, in the kinds of communication tools and strategies that reflect its communication values as much as reflect the realities of how audiences incorporate media into their social, cultural, and political lives. The US needs a media strategy that acknowledges transparency (including the way global media flows provide a glaring optic on the US’s own problems), and the circulation of narratives that it may not always control. Before you start talking about US perspectives and persuasion, think about the dynamics of attention. Playing for keeps is not “flooding the zone” of social media with bots and paid Internet trolls. Of course, it’s not just hashtag diplomacy either.

Ultimately, this may require thinking what it means when a nation-state requires a “voice” among foreign publics, or realistically, can any sort of “narrative” be effectively managed. This is both a “big” strategic question, but also, a focused question about what tools can be leveraged (and for what purpose): to counter a regional campaign, to enlist supporter for a multi-stakeholder treaty, to promote civil society, etc. etc. Can the BBG and VOA stand for reform? Sure. But to quote R.S. Zaharna, let’s not shackle these institutions to narrowly focused visions of “information battle.”