By Chase Gunter
May 10, 2017
Digital diplomacy, a priority for the State Department under the Obama administration, appears to be at a crossroads.
At a May 9 State Department meeting held at George Washington University, former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that what made the Russian attempts to spread disinformation during the 2016 election particularly alarming — and effective — was that they were based on distorting the facts of real stories so that the result “wasn’t so outrageous that it didn’t make sense.”
Ory Rinat, digital lead of the State Department’s transition team, said the U.S needs to change the way it measures effectiveness in public and digital diplomacy.
“We talk about all the right things … but we’re not really forcing ourselves to be up to speed with doing all of those things,” he said, adding that across all aspects of digital communications, “the private sector is so far ahead of where we are in government.”
Focusing on measures of scale, such as audience reach and potential reach, is the wrong way of looking at effective digital communications, Rinat said. Plus, the proliferation of bots and artificial intelligence tools that rapidly spread information “necessitates us moving away from measures of reach … and towards measures of actual engagement.”
Matt Chessen, a visiting scholar at GW, said he believes emerging technologies can be used to shape public diplomacy without crossing over “into the disinformation realm.”
Chessen, who began his career at State in 2005 and most recently served as the coordinator for international cyber policy for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, listed online foreign policy education, customer-service improvements and a less-frustrating visa application process as possible uses of bots and artificial intelligence.
However, unlike foreign countries and the private sector, government faces limitations in deploying these technologies, Rinat said.
“There’s a lot we should be able to do … in a very white-hat kind of way that we can’t — simply because we are governed by a set of rules and practices that weren’t built for this era,” he said.
But for all the cutting-edge tech State is looking to deploy in the information war, former Deputy Coordinator for Platforms at State Tom Cochran focused his concerns on the current tech limitations that impede the work of on-the-ground employees.
“The tools that we have here are generally terrible,” he said. “It’s unfair to expect to fight in this information landscape without the proper technology,” especially against adversaries that “don’t play by any rules and don’t have the burden of truth.”
However, he pushed back on the idea that simply throwing more money at the department’s tech problem would solve it.
“The last thing we need is more money to buy technology,” he said, pointing to the $2.2 billion annually spent by State on IT. “What we have is a leadership structure in the organization that, frankly, does not understand technology needs of their customer.… That’s the most important thing that needs to be fixed.”
Chessen added, “I’m sort of optimistic [new leaders at State] may take a good look at technology when they reorganize the department.”
The department is particularly challenged now, Cochran said, “because there are not enough leaders in the building.”
“What you need is assistant secretaries, you need undersecretaries, you need deputy secretaries,” he added. “You need a team of people telling the crew, where’s this ship going.”
Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.
Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.
Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.