In The Media

Old enemies, new technology

by David Carment and Ariane Sadjed 
December 12, 2014 

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious Minister of Propaganda, once espoused that “propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.”

In today’s world, Iran, Russia and North Korea will do quite nicely, thank you very much. Or at least that’s the impression one gets after perusing the Harper government’s latest efforts in digital diplomacy such as the government’s recent authoring of a piece on BuzzFeed about Iran and the mocking of Russian soldiers on the Canadian NATO Twitter account earlier in the year.

It’s not enough the Conservative’s simplistic black-and-white worldview has provided little in the way of solving real global problems. Now it seems social media is their battleground for staking claims to truth (and fiction). The Conservatives clearly have a higher calling.

Ah yes, social media, where policy parsed out in five-second sound bites, morphed into attention grabbing graphics and over the top superlatives supersedes content. McLuhan was right – the medium is not only the message, it is the massage. And judging by DFATD’s promotional material on YouTube, we are in for some heavy massaging.

Its the kind of in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it approach to foreign policy that troubles many Canadians. Even more worrisome, these foreign digital exchanges are the same tactics used by the Conservatives to polarize the Canadian political scene. And taken at face value, it would seem that by targeting certain countries like Iran (or Russia) DFATD’s digital diplomacy strategy is purposely intended to be divisive. And divisive it is in a big way. The bigger the better.

According to DFATD, it has 400 social media accounts and has over a million followers (although a recent study showed that a good number of these could be fake followers). But beyond the numbers and the instant gratification from tweaking our so-called “enemies,” what’s really at stake? Well a couple of things in fact.

At first glance the BuzzFeed entry seems to deplore the lack of freedom of expression in Iran. But beyond that, what is really being proposed by our government? Is it more than the typical black-and-white portrayal of Iranian society versus the state we’ve come to expect from the Harper Conservatives?  We all seem to understand that the freedom to use media should not be restricted; but it is how this restriction is used by Canadian government officials in order to promote their own interests, that is clearly problematic.

For example, social media restrictions are described as absolute and all-encompassing, while many Iranians, when you actually talk to them, use all these things, including Twitter and Facebook. It’s really not very hard to circumvent government prohibitions; a fact that applies to many aspects of daily life in Iran.  At the same time what we observe in the DFATD BuzzFeed is an artificial Iranian civil society constructed and romanticized with rebellious social media Davids against a horrible restrictive government Goliath. An Iranian government which at one point is described as going “full North Korean” — whatever that means.

So it seems the black-and-white world the Conservatives rely on to split Canadians at home is now a key part of DFATD’s digital diplomacy strategy. Presumably one can only be for or against the Iranian regime (with the implication being you are an imbecile if you are). But the reality is much less clear. Many Iranians are annoyed by their government’s policies but they would by no means want their leaders deposed, only to be replaced by secular and capitalist Western friendly-rule; the kind that the Canadian government seems to have in mind.

By contributing to a portrait of Iranian civil society as either submissive fanatics or rebellious freedom-fighters, Canada’s official social media policy just exerts another form of pressure on Iranian society and helps to silence the diversity of voices and nuances of discontent with the current regime.

This kind of digital diplomacy is really just another form of the “you are either with us or against us” philosophy that is now deeply entrenched in government circles; a kind of siege mentality that provides no real benefits to ordinary citizens. Indeed, the article promotes the hijacking of tourist sites from the Iranian government, as if it was self-evident that this is “OK” to do for the sake of “freedom” and it openly calls for some kind of intervention by forces outside of Iran (“The people of Iran are doing their best, but there’s only so much they can do from inside the country“). Considering U.S. efforts to stir unrest in Cuba by trying to create social media buzz, one must wonder what actually is being suggested in Canada’s case?

Finally, the Harper government’s world view of Iranian politics presupposes a quite narrow notion of individual freedom, in which religiously — or let’s say Islamic — motivated forms of self-conception seem to have no place. It ignores a large historical, political and socio-cultural part of Iranian “civil society” in which not every woman aspires to get rid of her headscarf or to use Twitter. Is being forced to wear a headscarf OK? No. But it is the way these issues are being instrumentalized (for DFATD’s own ends) that alienate many Iranians who are not necessarily pro-regime.

This brings us to our concerns about the lack of real engagement the current digital diplomacy strategy has with ordinary Canadians. Can an effective digital diplomacy with the assumed goal of stimulating regime change in Iran (and perhaps elsewhere) really be considered legitimate when Canadians are shut out of the foreign policy conversation?

We wonder what Iranians would think if they knew that while our government espouses and supports debate and discussion abroad, they don’t seem to take these things seriously at home. To date we know of no serious effort to engage and support ordinary Canadians by directly contributing to the foreign policy process. The government’s decisions on controversial positions like the ones it takes on Iran and Russia need debate, due diligence and discussion.

People — not governments — are the ultimate soft power tool; whether they are dedicated experts in digital diplomacy, humanitarian agencies which rely on complex communication tools, or the educator providing a digital platform for learning.

Until we see some real effort to engage Canadians in the foreign policy conversation this government’s digital diplomacy strategy is incomplete and counterproductive at best. 

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