In its ongoing search for solutions to U.S. public diplomacy challenges – some might call it a deficit – the State Department has launched yet another new Internet venture, a social website called Opinion Space. At a time when Internet censorship in countries like Iran, Cuba and China present a profound challenge to freedom of expression, the State Department is focusing its resources in the wrong direction.
The Internet is a great public diplomacy tool, but only when used as part of a strategy support U.S. policy goals such as democracy, freedom and human rights. Doing so could actually have a huge impact on the international political landscape. While the State Department is launching new social websites, Internet games and video contests, funding appropriated by Congress for cyber technology that can break down authoritarian firewalls has been trickling out of the State Department at snail’s pace. This is putting an exciting new public diplomacy tool to the wrong uses.
Opinion Space is produced in collaboration with the Berkley University Center for New Media. It certainly has the flavor of novelty. In Opinion Space, as the website says, you are not bound by physical location, but identified by your opinions. The website explains:
The U.S. Department of State is interested in your perspectives and input on a series of important foreign policy questions. ‘Opinion Space’ is a new discussion forum designed to engage participants from around the world.
Every participant chooses a ‘point of view’ on a global opinion map. Your position is not based on geography or predetermined categories, but on similarity of opinion: those who agree on basic issues are neighbors, those who are far apart have agreed to disagree. You can instantly see where you stand in relation to other participants; by reviewing their comments, you help the community highlight the most insightful ideas.
According to Katie Dowd, New Media Director at the Department of State, the site which has been up since March 15, now has about 4,000 users globally.
Sounding cool counts for a lot at the State Department these days. The team of young professionals assembled by Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale are a constant source of new ideas . One of them recently described the ideas that come out of the department’s brainstorming sessions: “It is a bit like throwing spaghetti at a wall, you see what sticks.”
One question that might be asked is whether the information gathered on Opinion Space will used in the formation of public diplomacy techniques and strategy, another whether this will in any way further the comprehension abroad of the policies and priorities of the U.S. government or the understanding of the United States as a country. It is not clear that if the website will do any of this.
Most importantly, though, the strength of the Internet is the free flow of information and connections between individuals, something that political dissidents living under oppressive regimes find invaluable. The Congress has appropriated $30 million for Internet circumvention for FY 2010, of which only a small portion has been spent by the State Department’s office of Democracy, Labor and Human Rights. As Iran is becoming a target for growing international criticism, including at the U.N. Human Rights Council, devoting U.S. resources and ingenuity to helping its citizens should be the focus of our public diplomacy, not gimmicky new State Department websites.