FOOD FOR THOUGHT….In 1948, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act, which created the Voice of America and laid the foundation for our Cold War era propaganda efforts. However, in an effort to prevent the government from engaging in domestic propaganda while still giving it a free hand overseas, the act also stipulated that VOA programming couldn’t be released domestically. In 1972, Smith-Mundt was amended to make that prohibition even stronger, preventing the domestic distribution of any “information about the United States, its people, and its policies” that had been prepared for dissemination abroad.
Needless to say, the distinction between domestic and foreign distribution has almost completely broken down in an era of global communication and the internet. And yet, both aspects of Smith-Mundt are, arguably, even more pressing today than they were half a century ago: media outreach to the Muslim world is a critical component of our public diplomacy efforts, but the increasing sophistication of those efforts makes it more important than ever that they not be directed internally. Public diplomacy wonk and Arab media expert Marc Lynch cogitates:
I’d go so far as to suggest that a not-insignificant portion of General Petraeus’s information operations efforts have been directed towards shaping American public discourse. It isn’t an accident that he has been so available to so many journalists, or that the flow of “good news” about the Anbar Awakening and the surge into the American media has expanded so dramatically. And why wouldn’t he, when at the heart of the new counter-insurgency doctrine lies the recognition that maintaining domestic public support for a long, drawn-out military presence is one of the most important single factors?
….The impulse to get this under control is exceptionally strong, and well-justified. This is particularly the case with propaganda which falls clearly into the realm of the political, conventionally defined: selective release of information intended to make the current President look good (or bad). It’s less obvious, but in some ways more important when the propaganda is conceived of as part of the war effort itself, and building domestic public support is incorporated into the military’s mission.
….At the same time, I’ve become somewhat fatalistic about the ability to actually control this or to enforce Smith-Mundt’s principles in any serious fashion. Preventing the domestic reception of propaganda released abroad is simply impossible given the globalization of the media and the incredibly fast movement of information from one public to another, from one language to another, from one media form to another….I honestly don’t know what to do about all of this. Smith-Mundt’s principles are important, but both current practice and the realities of the information age make it nearly impossible to realize them.
I don’t know what to do about it either. Consider this an open thread on the topic.