Friday, June 05, 2009

Who Gets to Speak?

News stories such as "White House uses Web during speech to Muslims" and "White House launches online offensive for Obama speech" emphasize how the Obama administration is using third-party commercial sites with social network functionalities like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to disseminate the messages from Obama's speech in Cairo out to world-wide audiences. As the Associated Press points out, "White House's Twitter feed and Facebook page posted highlights while Obama was still speaking and the State Department sent free text messages about the speech."

To countries with predominantly Muslim populations, the government offered free text messages about the speech in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English. Participants could send text messages back to the State Department with reaction.

The text-messaging service was not available in the United States. Law forbids taxpayer dollars to be used domestically for propaganda

The reporter also draws readers' attention to the blogs on, which include Obama Today, and the fact that they allow moderated comments, some of which are mildly critical. In contrast, the Facebook page for the White House with information about the speech had already received more than 2,400 comments at press time. As those in the audience at my talk at Harvard's Berkman Center observed, the commercial cloud sites that I often caution against as repositories of the public record frequently allow for more free-for-all commentary than .gov mouthpieces.

One of the other stated reasons to use the informal channels of social network sites is that they may be less likely to be blocked by anti-democratic government authorities, although countries like Syria have pulled the plug on Facebook in the past, and it can be difficult to tell how much surveillance is taking place in countries like China.

Furthermore, as Nextgov describes in State Department promotes Internet diplomacy, public diplomacy in the Obama administration brings challenges as well as opportunities. State Department advisor on innovation Alec Ross notes the existence of "constraints" that "include ensuring that a federal employee's responses to individual questions posed online represent the administration's position." Peter Swire, who has authored a memo called "It's Not the Campaign Any More" that argues that web campaigning is different from e-government, describes a number of unintended scenarios that could be caused by the improvisation of Web 2.0 spokespeople in rapid-response mode.

"Suppose a White House blogger -- or someone else answering comments on -- can't get ahold of the North Korea expert," when asked about the problems in North Korea "and simply goes with his or her best judgment about what to say.

"During the campaign, that could backfire if the other candidate gets a good talking point. But in government, the consequences can be much more serious: What if North Korea didn't like the White House comment and decided to launch a missile attack on a neighboring country?" the report noted.

Ross acknowledged that no legal framework exists to handle 21st century statecraft. "What happens the first time a big mistake is made, and it either a) really falls flat, or b) something bad happens?"

The result likely would be "something well short of your missile, but social media is a messy space and government doesn't always lend itself to messy spaces," added Ross, who worked for Obama's presidential campaign and is co-founder of One Economy, a nonprofit that provides low-income people worldwide with technology to improve their lives.

There has already been a retraction from a State Department reply on Twitter to Rebecca MacKinnon, who complained about the detention of Chinese bloggers, when the staffer clearly had tweeted out of turn.

There have also been many complaints about deletions on the citizen comment end of the process, particularly on the Open Government Dialogue website, which is also not kept on a .gov domain, although it bears the official seal of the President. In "Conversation turns ugly at the Open Government Dialogue," Federal Computer Week describes how the "birthers" are flooding public spaces for online comment with queries about Obama's birth certificate and how the Digg style structure of the site brings conspiratorial commentary to the top. The administration has announced that it has refocused the Open Government initiative on a few selected issues and the position papers of established organizations at From the Inbox, where Microsoft formatted documents are posted alongside calls for greater use of open source software in governance.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy for many of these links.)

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