public diplomacy

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Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism [Event Recap]


Photo from _____.

Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) is an innovative program that removes a hierarchical government approach to digital youth outreach. It does so by providing the resources for university students to creatively implement localized solutions that reach the target demographic: their own age group using their own preferred online platforms. On the International Day of Peace, September 21, regional winners from the U.S., Finland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Netherlands, presented their creative digital outreach campaigns in New York City to encourage moderation and integration in communities plagued by online extremism, prejudice, and hate.

Keynote speakers from co-hosts Facebook, U.S. Department of State, and EdVenture Partners highlighted the rapid growth of the international P2P competition and ingenuity of the students. The program’s 250 universities across 60 countries have students work with $400 in Facebook Ad Credits and $2,000 budget for academic credit to research a target audience and then create a digital media initiative, tool, or product to counter online extremism. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, described the program as the “model for public-private partnerships at State. We love this program because we get out of the way.” Head of Product Policy at Facebook, Monika Bickert, said the local and global campaigns are so inspiring because the students are responding to their environment, and they can thus develop effective solutions. Under Secretary Stengel reinforced this critical need to act upon understanding by elaborating on his media experience, “as a journalist, when I asked the wrong question, I got the wrong answer.” The following are brief summaries of how each winning team answered the “right” answer with their innovative solutions, with further details on their campaign sites.


Under Secretary of State Richard Stengel addresses a full room, photo by author.

All teams presented their strategic off and online, peer-driven campaigns that detailed design, implementation, and results. New York University’s conflict studies Masters students focused on diversity and integration processes based on teammates’ experiences feeling vulnerable as outsiders. They described how their campaigns evolved from the #7TrainStop on immigrants in Queens, into the Voices of New York Resolve on countering hate in Brooklyn, which will now focus on radicalization in Bronx prisons. The team has collaborated with local and international organizations to mutually support countering extremism goals, such as garnering 43, 831 Facebook views and 384,340 Youtube views on BuzzFeed-released, “When Hate Speech Comes to Campus.” [#7TrainStop]

The Turku School of Economics [Finland] and Utrecht University [Netherlands] concentrated on refugee integration. The Finnish team created a mobile application that addressed the ~1,000% increase in asylum-seekers entering Finland from 2014 to 2015. They identified four major problems refugees face: Lack of information on the city and country; Lack of contact with locals; Lack of activities in the reception center; and negative attitudes among the local population. Interestingly, these challenges are similar to those new students may encounter when moving to Turku. The team designed multimedia events to increase locals’ awareness, interest, and opinion of newcomers. “United by Food” was a day-long pop-up for refugees to sell food from their home country. “About Turku” made city information accessible by transforming pre-existing records into a free mobile download in Arabic and English. The Dutch team tackled the heated European political climate in “#DareToBeGrey: An Alternative to the Black & White Fallacy.” They created a humorous online series to raise awareness that it is possible to have a moderate stance on refugee intake. The online efforts combined with their recent five-city Dutch tour have reached over eight million people. Both campaigns give agency to Europeans and refugees through multimedia. [Choose Your Future] [#DareToBeGrey]


Lahore University of Management Sciences team, photo by author.

The Pakistani and Afghan teams focused on dispelling misuses of politicized Islam. The Afghan team from Laal-u-Anar Foundation identified TV and Facebook as the most wide-reaching outlets to defend their religion in #IslamSaysNoToExtremism while sharing Quranic verses that reinforced peacemaking messages. The Lahore University of Management Sciences project, “Fate: From Apathy to Empathy,” highlighted comprehensive programs to re-incentivize Pakistanis who felt they were “just a number” in the destruction and deaths from violent extremism. They countered the apathy by organizing concerts, tours, video games, activism workshops, and education programs to empower and humanize citizens. Both teams cite youth activation through media campaigns to promote moderate Islam to various demographics, as well as calling attention to a narrowing window of opportunity for effective counter-extremism. [International Strategic Studies] [Fate]

Event host, Dean Obeidallah, concluded by reinforcing the magnitude of violent extremism in Asia, explaining that “over 90% of victims of ISIL and al-Qaeda are Muslims, but the U.S. media doesn’t cover it so Americans don’t know.” Mr. Obeidallah paraphrased Robert F. Kennedy to encourage youth to recognize their potential and collaborate because “few of us alone can change and bend history, but together, collectively, we can write a narrative of our generation.” Indeed, a compelling, accessible narrative needs to be solidified to effectively counter various forms of extremism around the world, and the P2P program is leading the way.

Fighting for Peace in the City of God


A young participant at Fight For Peace practices boxing. (Photo by: Mari Manoogian)

While studying abroad with the GW School of Business in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics over the past three weeks, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a site visit to visit an NGO which combines sport with education and empowerment for the betterment of society.

Fight for Peace (FFP), known as Luta Pela Paz in Portuguese, is a boxing and martial arts gym in Complexo da Maré that was founded in 2000 by Luke Dowdney, a social anthropologist from England. Dowdney moved to Rio in the late 1990s to complete research on his masters thesis on street children and the drug trade, and has since built FFP into a world renowned sport for peace NGO that has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee and countless governments and foreign ministries for its life-changing work.  In 2015 alone, 1,913 young people attended Fight for Peace, and 34% were girls. Last year, the organization expanded to London, and is operating a similar socially-conscious sport NGO model there as well.

Life in Complexo da Maré, a favela in Rio, is far from predictable. Violence from within the community, as well as increased raids by police and other law enforcement have fostered a cyclical environment of danger in a very densely populated community. After speaking with a panel of young people at FFP, what I thought was most striking was that while all of them are fearful for their safety and the safety of their families, they are not resolved to doing nothing with their lives, and are vocal about their aspirations. While I didn’t meet them prior to entering the program at FFP, I can imagine that the values the organization teaches using their custom “theory of change” methodology have empowered these young people to become the leaders that they are today.


The author, left, posing with the women of the youth leadership board at Fight for Peace.

The young women of the group were particularly inspiring to me. Their very presence in the room was a testament to the importance of a program like FFP in a community where their voices may be marginalized. Some were young mothers, others were finishing high school and didn’t have a concrete plan for the future prior to joining FFP. All of them talked about the importance of FFP in empowering them to become leaders in their community, and leaders at FFP. The mothers are now teaching their children the values instilled in them through the methodology learned at FFP.

In the lead up to the Olympics, the media portrayal of Rio, and in particular of the favelas, really dehumanized the people living there and reduced their stories to tragedy porn. While life is by no means easy for the participants of FFP’s Rio gym, spending time laughing, joking, and sharing our cultures was an important part of my Rio experience. It allowed me the opportunity to see their community with my own eyes, and be able to take img_1227away a more complex understanding of their lives and the impact that FFP has had upon them, and empathize with their feelings of fear of uncertainty.

Sports diplomacy can be tricky–many public diplomacy scholars are skeptical of the results or impact that it can have long term. However, by visiting an organization like FFP, I realized that the true takeaway from public diplomacy or track II diplomacy with a sport component is the learning of best practices that can be applied in other communities around the world to better society. FFP has already partnered with the Jamaican government to implement their theory of change in sports programs within the country. Furthering  local level initiatives is likely the best way to see positive impacts of sports diplomacy.

Being in Rio for the Olympics was in and of itself an extraordinary experience. However, being there is kind of like being at Disney World; you’re in a bubble of Olympic proportions. You eat, sleep (or not), and breathe Olympics. Everything from logistics to sport to “news” updates which generally consist of scores and which celebrities visited France House the night before. It can be incredibly difficult to contextualize the Olympics within the confines of the actual city that is playing host. Even more difficult is imagining the impact that they have on the average Carioca (the term citizens of Rio call themselves). Having the opportunity to visit Fight for Peace was by far the most important factor in shaping my opinion of the impact of the Games on the people of Rio both during the two weeks of the event, and after the torch is extinguished. Will there be further investment in peace through sport efforts? Infrastructure developments that will further connect people to major economic and social hubs throughout the city? One of the members of the youth council at FFP was very skeptical of the sustained efforts to improve the daily life of Cariocas post-Olympics.  Only time will tell as far as further government involvement. However, it is all but certain that FFP will continue its efforts both in Rio and abroad to foster communities of strong young people eager to make a positive impact on the world.

A House of Cards: Can the US Trump ISIL? (Part II)

I propose a stronger media campaign in the Arab world that works to counteract the Trump effect by providing viewers with context and content. This media campaign may prevent future radicalization against America by showing that Trump doesn’t represent the entire country or the government. We need to reach American Muslims and the Arab world to block ISIL recruits. ISIL has a great strategic media plan making them appear sympathetic in comparison to Trump, so we need one too.

First, the program should explain the context of Trump’s primary election campaign. In American politics, candidates play to the base to distinguish themselves during primaries. We should explain this to the foreign audience and help them understand why Trump is taking such radical positions. Votesmart has an educational fact sheet about American primaries that is easy to understand. We could provide an info-graphic with all this information. I believe an info-graphic is the best form because they get the most likes, shares, and clicks on social media. An info-graphic can be easily tweeted out or shared with other followers.

But we should follow up with a brief history of American primaries, providing specific examples. The 2012 Republican primary was at times a contest of which candidate could be the most conservative. Or in 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battled for who was the most liberal. This shows that 2016 isn’t the first election where rhetoric was more extreme in the primary than in the general election. We could even create a short documentary about it, with guest appearances from people they like in the region. We could also have a media cite, like a blog page or social media account, where we frequently put out entertaining content that sneaks in the political themes. For example, people love memes and gifs. We could post them with a political slant, that way we get more views while still sneaking in the political message.

Second, we provide polling data to prove that most Americans don’t support Donald Trump or his policies. Currently, 70% of Americans find Trump unfavorable when asked in the context of the Presidential election. When asked about Trump, the businessman from New York, still 68% of Americans find him unfavorable. When broken down by party, 62% of Republicans favor him while 31% don’t. 13% of Democrats find him favorable, while 84% unfavorable. And for Independents, 34% find him favorable and 59% unfavorable. This means the majority of Americans do not support Donald Trump. 61% of Americans say he is hurting the Republican Party.

Most Americans also do not support Trump’s policies. When asked about the complete ban on Muslims, 63% of Americans said this was the wrong thing to do. They felt it was morally wrong and against the American values of inclusion and diversity. 62% of Americans also oppose building a wall on the border of Mexico. Finally, 54% of Americans say the Republican Party is too extreme and 65% say they are intolerant. These statistics prove that most Americans are not intolerant or anti-Arab. We could provide these statistics in the form of info-graphics on social media. This way they will get the most views and people can share them with their followers.



Finally, we should attempt to show America in the best light, without lying or tarnishing our credibility. This includes citing our history of inclusion, diversity and equality. We could show movies and other American media that depict this history, providing the necessary content in an entertaining way. For example, movies like Selma and Freeheld that recently came out would be perfect. Also, interracial relationships show that America is not racist or intolerant. Interracial relationships have spiked in recent years and are only increasing. Statistics and shows that include these relationships like Modern Family, Blackish, and Scandal can show viewers that America is inclusive of all colors. Exposing them to our positive media, while creating more targeted audience specific content, is an excellent strategy.

This is how we combat ISIL, not only through military conflict and drones, but also through soft power and influence. Right now Trump is negatively influencing the region through his offensive outbursts in the media, so America needs to strategically counteract the Trump effect to prevent future radicalization.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 



Before Speaking, Make Sure They’ll Listen

After the events of the Euromaiden Revolution, the occupation of Crimea by Russia and the following uprising in the eastern regions of Ukraine, the impact of media on public opinion in Europe has received far more attention in the State Department, the European Union, and beyond. While US interest in public diplomacy has already grown with the War on Terror and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the situation in Eastern Europe brings a unique situation wherein a state actor is playing the key role against the United States and its allies.

In what is being referred to as the “weaponization of information,” Russia has utilized its media to shape the sentiments along its borders and beyond towards its own geopolitical aims. While the United States has made steps towards giving this issue the focus it deserves and improving their current structures towards addressing it, significant problems still remain. With the resurgence of anti-Americanism in Russia and among its bordering Russian-speaking populations, it is clear that the US must do more to identify the core challenges it faces and address them.

Why is it that Russia has such a capacity to shape the opinions along its borders towards its own needs? This problem lies primarily in the issue of language in these regions. Since their independence, the former republics of the Soviet Union have grappled with the question of native Russian-speakers and how to address them. Some, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, chose to recognize Russian as an official language in addition to their own local language. With this, states would need to broadcast in their national languages in addition to Russian, whereas Russian state broadcasting would be constant, consistent, and of an entirely better quality. Thus, while local alternatives remain, most people watch the Russian Federation channels. Other countries, most notably those of the Baltics, chose to prioritize their local language over Russian. This created a divide between those whose native language is Russian and the rest of the state, once again encouraging the Russian-speaking populations to turn to Russian state broadcasting. Either way, the Kremlin maintains dominance over media in Russian-speaking regions, and often uses this advantage towards its policy goals. With this, media plurality is diminished, and the only opinion that the public hears is one that consistently degrades and builds fear against the United States and its allies.

Analyzing the “Information War” with Russia, Ben Nimmo of the Central European Policy Institute argues that the solution must be a more tactical and strategic communications approach that identifies the Russian methods and counters them while exposing its flaws. While Nimmo makes valid points, this course of action is extremely difficult when every other channel available to the public is telling the viewing audience not to trust the United States. Before United States efforts for direct policy advisement can come to fruition, the United States needs to address the issue of the dominance of Russian media in broadcasting. So long as the vast majority of channels claim that the United States is the scourge of global politics and is seeking to deceive, manipulate, and ultimately subjugate Russian-speakers and the world as a whole, direct programming from the US will largely be shunned and ignored. In order to for public diplomacy efforts to have the fullest impact, The United States must do more to promote media plurality in these regions before it can move towards direct policy influence.

The Department of State currently includes efforts to promote media plurality under its Public Diplomacy branch and under the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. However, it programs promote media diversity are regarded largely as part of general civil society platforms, and are implemented simultaneously with direct US programming efforts rather than leading up to them. While independent media not associated with United States public diplomacy may not necessarily promote US interests, and may even criticize US policy, their existence and ability to criticize the Russian Federation and point out the dominance of Kremlin-controlled media would be a necessary first step to removing the antagonism against the United States. If the State Department provides assistance for start-up news agencies and existing competitors in these regions in Russian, by local Russian-speakers, without seeking to control their programming, it will reduce the grip of the Kremlin and the anti-American sentiments that have grown with Russian state media dominance.

One example that the United States could emulate and expand is the Meduza Project of Latvia. The Meduza Project was started in Riga by Galina Timchenko, former editor-in-chief of the extremely influential Russian news website The project is comprised entirely of Russian journalists who resigned in protest over the politically-motivated firing of Timchenko. This website focuses more on aggregating news, but also provides its own news on “topics which Russian media do not raise for various reasons – due to direct and indirect censorship.” The site is well designed with a modern layout and easy access through apps on all major smartphone types. On the recent controversy of the Panama Papers, Meduza has pointed out Russia’s lack of coverage of the incident and compared it to the Wikileaks controversy and their fixation on Edward Snowden.  With the use of Russian journalists, the clean and effective layout, and the independence of their work, this project displays remarkable promise in providing a respectable alternative for Russian speakers.

This project displays how assisted media plurality should look like. The project is led by Russians and is written foremost for Russian-speakers. Unlike other attempts at alternatives, the site is clean and modern, encouraging newcomers to try it. Furthermore, the site does not focus on backing Western policy, but rather points out the dominance of the Russian state media and the falsities it often promotes. In this manner, it attracts new viewers, maintains their trust by not prioritizing Western topics and views, and reveals the problems with Kremlin-controlled broadcasting.

If the United States wants to eventually be able to defend its policy to the Russian-speaking public and promote its interests abroad, it must first weaken the grasp that the Kremlin has over media in these regions. By emphasizing the promotion of media plurality, US public diplomacy can weaken this grasp, reveal the fallacies in propaganda from the Russian Federation, build a freer press for the people and open the way for cooperation and understanding between Russian-speakers and the West.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

Digital Diplomacy: Social Media and Data Collection as a Bridge to Cultural Differences

In The Federalist Papers, No. 10, James Madison lays out the framework of the United States based on the idea of information and communication costs. His idea is very simple – the further apart one is from the person one is trying to communicate with, the higher the information and communication costs. As we know, this is no longer the case. Social media has made it incredibly easy for individuals to communicate across great distances at zero monetary or other costs. However, it is not a fair assumption that everything that is communicated is also simultaneously understood. Language barriers are not even the most important consideration within this discussion, as google has a (mostly) functioning translator that now can even be turned on automatically through their Chrome web browser. In the age of information abundance, how one communicates, or through what official channel, is often less important than what one communicates. This is how confusion occurs – when the information itself is misunderstood due to cultural barriers. Cultural differences could be within groups in the same country, or groups within completely different countries. It is my belief that technology has made a PD officer of every person with a computer or internet-capable information communication technology. It is in this way that the individual can help bridge cultural differences.


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A girl speaks on her cell phone. Public Diplomacy initiatives can be broadened by active use and reporting of information using communication technologies

Mark Thompson and Monroe Price stated that “information interventions” on social media are impossible without the assistance of the state. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts can be leveraged to communicate information to the masses about conflict, and later preventative, peace-oriented information. Once the state establishes a large social media presence, it can use trending tools to promote its message. One way of accomplishing this is via Livestreaming, a method that would be immensely effective in broadcasting PD initiatives to widespread audiences. States and individuals can use this approach to promote messages of humanization of different cultures, which could potentially turn into cultural understanding and acceptance. This has been known to be quite effective when paired with a push notification to draw individuals to watch the video. Another method to reach large groups of individuals is blogging, in which popular officials or individuals write peaceful messages individually to try to initiate a larger trend (which, not ironically, is the method in which I am communicating with you). On an individual level, state-led initiatives on social media help bridge cultural difference because states share information about cultures through a shared, comfortable medium (such as Facebook or Instagram). Individuals become more exposed to information and therefore can become more comfortable with cultural differences. The mere-exposure theory states that individuals look favorably upon situations, people, and more when they are familiar with them. Increased communication across cultures as well as for information gathering and sharing can make individuals more comfortable with cultures unlike their own through this exposure.

It is safe to say that the crux of previous literature written on this topic has undervalued the role of the individual in promoting cultural bridges. Emulating Madison’s The Federalist Papers, No. 10, many are not optimistic about the mass’s role in this process. However, one must consider the impact of when the state cannot intervene, or even understand the demographic of people due to underdevelopment or lack of information. Assuming that the government is fair and unbiased, it is still difficult to create cross-cultural, state-bridging initiatives when a population of individuals is unaccounted for. Although many undeveloped areas previously off of the technology grid are starting to get on the grid, many of their governments do not have the resources to data map the growing population. These people were previously off of their government’s radars, figuratively and literally. It is impossible to humanize individuals that one does not even know exist. Furthermore, one cannot understand and start to work with cultural gaps that are unknown to the state or to the individual through a lack of collection of data. Individuals can help by collecting data to potentially identify cultural differences. Every person with a computer can now become a Public Diplomacy Officer (in a broad sense) if they use these technologies for positive cultural acceptance. For example, many individuals respond to Embassy accounts when other individuals spread messages of hate and violence and tag the official account. In this sense, individuals have more legitimacy to stop the other individual; or at least fill the sphere with which they are discussing different cultures with messages of positivity and inclusion.

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A photo that documents contributors from 8 years ago to OpenStreetMap data in the Paris area. Information communication has increased significantly since then.

An example of data collection is exemplified by Primoz Kovacic, a graduate of the George Washington University, founded the “Spatial Collective,” an organization that uses data to bring individuals together in developing countries. Kovacic’s team works to encourage individuals in developing areas to use their cell phones to gather data on the logistics of how and where they live, effectively placing themselves on the grid. This data collection is useful in a number of ways. If individuals are not on the grid, then the other side of their conflict might also not be on the grid, therefore making the entire violent event unknown to intervening third parties. Actors within the state benefit from having the most information possible on these conflicts as well as the people in general. Organizations such as the Spatial Collective are making it possible for individuals to bridge cultural difference.

This can be used by the state to gather information on other states to push Public Diplomacy initiatives. For example, Russia would most likely not willingly grant the United States information that would assist in countering their disinformation. However, if individuals are collecting information themselves and posting it online or to a data collection website that was open source, the United States could use this information to strengthen their counter frames. In this way the role of the individual is intensified to assist in state to state initiatives, even when the other state is not complicit in this change. Analytics are crucial to discovering audiences to target initiatives to. I am not stating that the state has lost legitimacy. Rather, the state and individuals gain more legitimacy when working together to bridge cultural differences. The more information one gathers on their culture, the more information they can give to others. The more others see this information, the more they feel comfortable with others. This is how we bridge cultural difference in Public Diplomacy. The future of Public Diplomacy, especially that which occurs over information communication technologies, lies in the relationship between the individual and the state.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

Acknowledging Devotion, Disrupting Recruitment

“The actions of a minority have tried to hijack [Islamic] identity and heritage,” the Sawab Center’s launch video claims about ISIS. As a joint initiative between the governments of the United Arab Emirates and the United States, Sawab aims to counter propaganda from the Islamic State. However, disrupting the Islamic State’s narrative by claiming that the group has “hijacked Islam” is an ineffective strategy because it ignores the Islamic States’ self-professed devotion to the “Prophetic methodology,” which means following the example of Muhammad to the smallest detail. If the United States wants to disrupt the Islamic State’s recruitment and radicalization efforts, the message cannot be that the Islamic State is not a place for “true believers.” A more effective narrative would reach out to “true believers,” or young people who are interested in living their lives guided by a literal interpretation of the Koran, and showing them nonviolent alternatives to the Islamic State.

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Fox News debating the Islamic foundation of the Islamic State’s ideology

In January of 2015, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence estimated that about 20,000 foreign fighters had traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State. The ISCR estimates that a fifth of the foreign fighters are from Western European countries. A report for the George Washington University found that as of fall 2015, about 250 Americans had traveled or attempted to travel to Iraq or Syria to join the Islamic State. About 900 active FBI investigations, in all 50 states, are against ISIS sympathizers. Of those charged with ISIS related activities since March 2014, the average sympathizer is a male around age 26. The Islamic State’s propaganda and social media tools are much more advanced than previous terror organizations, making it easier for them to reach people who may be vulnerable to radicalization.

Haroro J. Ingram describes the Islamic State’s radicalization messaging as a mix of appeals to pragmatic and perceptual factors. The pragmatic arguments promote the efficacy of the State’s political and military campaigns, citing stability, security, and quality of life under their rule. The perceptual factors create an in-group and out-group dynamic, which forces audiences to make decisions about where they identify. For literal interpreters of the Koran, and especially for converts, a message that forces them to pledge allegiance to the caliphate or identify as an enemy of Islam can be especially compelling.  The use of pragmatic factors, which is often overlooked in analysis of perceptive factors, engages potential foreign fighters in rational decision making. Offering effective pragmatic counter-narratives that are not informed by Western bias or does not cause blowback is an area in US Public Diplomacy that could still be greatly improved upon.

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Screenshot from Islamic State propaganda

Due to a combination of Western bias that is quick to dismiss extreme religious beliefs and a desire to reduce Islamophobia in our own country, American officials and leaders struggle to admit that at its core, ISIS is a religious and traditions-based Islamic group. In the past, the Islamic State called on Western Muslims to cast biblical punishments on their “infidel” neighbors, by, for example, smashing their heads with rocks, poisoning them, or destroying their crops. This medieval religious reality is problematic for public officials, however, because publicly criticizing the religious teachings of ISIS can reinforce the Islamic State’s message. Western bias of how religions should adapt to fit the 21st century, however, would make many public diplomacy officials and political thought leaders feel uncomfortable talking about literal interpretations and calls for biblical punishments in a respectful tone. Even if public diplomacy officials could be convinced to craft their own messaging with a tone that demonstrated understanding for strict devotion,  governments tend not to be the most effective agents for communicating counter-radicalization arguments.

A better way to disrupt ISIS’s recruitment message is to acknowledge the appeal of religious devotion to  the people they are recruiting and have non-government agents offer an alternative path that respects these religious beliefs. A person who finds strength from and feels devoted to the literal interpretation of the Koran is not going to be dissuaded from their entrenched beliefs because of a tweet, YouTube video, or social media campaign. In fact, attempts to dissuade them could be interpreted as waging war on Islam, which would further embolden their beliefs. So instead of trying to change their beliefs, it would be more effective to introduce them to an alternative path, such as Quietist Salafism.

Quietest Salafism is a wing of Sunnism which looks to the Prophet as the model for all behavior, “including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.” Similarly to ISIS, they follow a literal interpretation of the Koran and are committed to “Dar al-Islam,” the land of Islam, and perhaps even some of the more radical policies such as amputation or slavery in the future. However, the main goal of Quietist Salafists is personal purification and diligent religious observance. Causing war and violence that would disrupt lives and prayer and is forbidden, and for that reason, many sects condemn the Islamic State.

The Quietest Salafists’ opposition to ISIS, despite similar interpretations of the Koran and levels of devotion, make them a viable alternative for someone who could be targeted by ISIS. Graeme Wood argues that the Quietest Salafists, both in the United States and abroad, could be used as valuable voices to disrupt Islamic State recruiting efforts by making non-violent appeals to would-be recruits seeking devotion and purpose.

One way to connect the two demographics could be through virtual exchanges. By establishing communication between Quietest Salafists in America with potential recruits in the Middle East, they could create a dialogue about how to live a life of devotion based on a conservative interpretation of the Koran without violence or allegiance to the Islamic State’s caliphate. Another type of exchange could connect Quietest Salafists in the Middle East with demographics around the world that have been identified as vulnerable to ISIS recruiting. In addition to offering the same message of power, belonging, and devotion without the violence as the mirrored exchange, this arrangement would allow Quietest Salafists to bust myths about what life is really like when the Islamic State controls territory. They can attest to the lack of social services and prevalence of violence towards other Muslims. These messages, while powerful and effective in their own right, will be amplified by their honesty. By connecting the exchange participant through mosques, schools, and community organizations, the discussion will come from ordinary people. Outsourcing narratives has shown to be more persuasive and effective in the fight against the Islamic State than a scripted government press release. By facilitating discussions that not only bust the myths of the Islamic State, but also provide a non-violent alternative, we can begin to disrupt the Islamic State’s recruitment.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

The Gender Gap of the Online World

The rapid growth of the Internet and digital technology throughout the world has opened global communication.  Digital technology has spread education, information, and culture to people living in developing countries, allowing for unforeseen progress.  However, there is an unspoken group of people who are unable to access these resources – women.  The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that women in developing countries are almost 25 percent less likely to be online than their male counterparts.  In the report, USAID said the gap is due to “barriers such as cost, network coverage, security and harassment, trust and technical literacy.”  The gap widens in rapidly developing economies.  An Intel study entitled “Women and the Web” found that in sub-Saharan Africa the gap is 45 percent, 35 percent in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and 30 percent in parts of Europe and Central Asia.  This gap inhibits women’s ability to fully connect with others around the world, missing out on opportunities to concur poverty, gender inequality, and political instability.

Bridging this gap would help women on an individual level and enhance the global economy.  USAID found that “70 percent of women consider the Internet liberating and 85 percent say it provides more freedom.”  Also, between 77 to 84 percent of women reported using the Internet for educational purposes.  The report also found that if an additional 600 million women went online in the next three years, Global Domestic Product (GDP) could be boosted by up to $18 billion across 144 developing countries. The socioeconomic benefits of Internet access could help bring millions of struggling women out of the extreme poverty that disproportionately affects them.

The problem with overcoming the digital gender gap stems from four barriers, outlined in a report written by McKinsey & Company.  These barriers are incentives, low incomes and affordability, user capability, and infrastructure.  While many citizens in developed countries could easily identify the incentives the Internet provides, there is still a large amount of the world’s female population who face cultural and social disapproval for going online.  This social stigma oftentimes creates a society where the perceived social consequences of going online outweigh the potential benefits.  Limited Internet freedom in more conservative countries that utilize censorship, like China and North Korea, can also take away any benefits the Internet typically provides such as online payment and banking systems or research databases.

As women are disproportionately affected by poverty globally, they are at an even greater disadvantage when Internet access is costly in rural areas.  For example, in Bangladesh the cost of simply setting up the tools to access the Internet in a household could feed a family for a year.  As a result of this inaccessibility, women often lack digital literacy, or in some cases, are not literate at all.  A UNESCO study found that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adult population is female.  This illiteracy hinders women’s potential user capability.  Finally, many developing countries lack a basic level of infrastructure needed for complete Internet usage.  Women living in rural areas are often less likely to have access to a nearby urban area than men because of their domestic household roles.

Currently, this obscure issue is being tackled from the angles of increasing global Internet access, and encouraging female STEM education, but not specifically combatting the digital gender gap that is an overlap of the two issues.  For example, the NGO, Project Isizwe, set a goal in 2015 to bring free wifi to the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  Another example is the U.S. based non-profit, Women Who Code, which is a global organization dedicated to connecting women who aspire towards STEM careers.  These types of organizations are great for empowering women who already have access to digital technologies, or for extending access to the internet to women who already understand the incentives of going online.  However, for women facing social stigma, censorship, and even online harassment, these non-profits are unable to help.

An advocacy group called the Women’s Media Center said, “Women around the world report being bombarded with aggressive, often sexualize hate speech online.”  Freedom House reported that the both women and the LGBT community are the two groups who are both the most underrepresented online and harassed for their online presence.  This harassment has resulted in a kind of “self-censorship” where women feel that using the Internet is not only not beneficial, but unsafe.  To truly combat the digital gender gap, the international community must not only focus on increasing Internet access and ability for women but teach women that the online world can be a source of empowerment and progress.  NGOs and democratic governments should teach women how to access the Internet in more private and anonymous ways if they fear retaliation.  For example, educational projects similar to Women Who Code should incorporate lessons on how to handle cyber threats or other online harassment.  They should also encourage using digital technology for social change.  Using a public diplomacy angle, successful bloggers, YouTube stars, or other women who have used the Internet to advocate for could make a video campaign.  These videos could explain how they deal with online harassment and continue to benefit from digital technology.  Videos in the campaign could be seen throughout the world, and programs like Project Isizwe could encourage women and men alike to watch the videos when they first get access to the Internet.  Through empowering women to connect with other women around the world who may live in a completely different patriarchal culture, the Internet can be used as a tool in its own expansion.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 


Women in Film: The Effects Abroad of Hollywood Stereotypes

In Jurassic World, the second-highest grossing film worldwide in 2015, Bryce Dallas Howard plays dinosaur theme park manager Claire Dearing, who treks across the park’s island in white silk skirt-suits and nude patent leather pumps. Dearing comes to represent women’s characterizations at their worst, not just because of her impractical clothing choices but her character traits—she is emotionally distant, professionally incompetent, and when the island is in trouble she defers to the muscular and conventionally-masculine Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) for help. As Vulture columnist Jada Yuan notes, although Claire eventually saves Owen and her visiting nephews, she’s still undermined by her relationship with Owen and her overall lack of depth as a character.

It would be easy to write off Jurassic Park as an unfortunate anomaly, as a portrayal that may have missed the mark but was one of many diverse portrayals of women. However, that’s not the case—a 2012 study done by the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism examined five years of Hollywood films and found that female characters were both underrepresented and oversexualized. These findings were confirmed again in a study of the top 100 films of 2015. The Annenberg study found many films just like Jurassic Park: women made up less than a third of all speaking characters, but when they were portrayed, 31.6% of the time it was in sexually revealing clothing.


Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic Park. Photo: Universal Pictures

While these gratuitous portrayals of women are certainly damaging to American ideas of femininity, Hollywood portrayals of women don’t just affect domestic audiences. In fact, over half of total box office revenue now comes from non-American international audiences, and as Martha Bayles writes, our movies affect how foreign audiences perceive America.


Bayles posits that Hollywood has always been an important tool of public diplomacy, deeply influential in shaping foreigners’ perceptions of America. In Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, she traces Hollywood’s pact with Washington back decades. In a 1944 memo to the Motion Pictures Association of America, the State Department wrote that it would protect American films abroad, so long as “the industry will cooperate wholeheartedly with the government…ensuring that the pictures distributed abroad will reflect credit on the good name and reputation of this country and its institutions.” Washington knew early on that Hollywood was shaping foreigners’ perceptions of America, and this is still true today.

However, Washington now faces a crisis if Hollywood is determined to continue portraying women in a trivializing and sexualized manner. The State Department has prioritized programs that advance the status of women and girls, from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship Program (which creates partnerships through the private and public sectors in the Middle East and Northern Africa focused on inclusive economic growth) to the countless exchange programs that empower women and girls through sports, education, mentorship, and the arts. But if these same women and girls are also getting their cues about women’s roles from Hollywood, how credible can America claim to be when it comes to the full equality of women and girls?

[Video: Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship Program, US Department of State]

Bayles’ research confirms that the American export of popular culture is, at this point in time, damaging our image abroad. Global opinion polls find foreigners rejecting both the “pervasiveness” and the “coarsening” of American popular culture, and our portrayal of sex and gender roles is examined with an especially close lens. Bayles writes that foreigners take depictions of gender roles at “face value,” not understanding that sex and gender roles are often distorted and played for laughs or for social critique. This ought to be of paramount concern for American practitioners of public diplomacy, who desire for America to be seen as a leader on women’s issues.

What role, then, can public diplomacy play when Hollywood is perpetuating these harmful stereotypes? Certainly it is not Washington’s place to censor American popular culture. However, there are positive portrayals of women that the State Department can boost, showing foreign audiences what empowered and non-sexualized women look like. Films like 2015’s The Martian, where women scientists are seen working professionally to save their stranded colleague, should be included in cultural programming and highlighted as examples of gender equality.

Ultimately, the power to change women’s portrayals in film rests with Hollywood. One finding from the 2012 Annenberg study that could be cause for optimism is that when women are placed in key creative roles in films, overall portrayals of women increase while sexualized portrayals of women decrease. Practitioners of public diplomacy can help place public pressure on the film industry and include women filmmakers and creators in cultural programming. It is only through increased awareness and rewarding positive work that public diplomacy can help reverse the effects of women’s negative portrayals in film.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

Best ‘American’ Film: How America Lacks International Perspective with its Movies and Awards Shows

Movies are a very impactful and influential tool towards gaining a perspective of a culture, situation, norm, and/or environment, which is why PAOs acknowledge films as a legitimate form of cultural diplomacy. An American watching a movie taking place in Pakistan will notice norms that differ greatly from American culture, as would a Pakistani watching a film taking place in America. And through that simplistic cultural exchange, each viewer would have a better understanding of the other country. As Rhonda Zaharna mentions in her article The Cultural Awakening in Public Diplomacy, culture determines values, and movies represent culture.

So with this emphasis on movies and their impact, it’s hard to determine which film would be considered an all-encompassing “Best” film in the world. Film festivals that take place in Europe such as the Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival allow movies from all over the world to win the deserving “Best” film, actor, etc. category. The U.S., however, has only one category devoted to international films (Best Foreign Language Film) in their only film award show: The Academy Awards, or “Oscars”. The lack of international focus in film entries is representative of America’s overall lack of international perspective and interest in comparison to Europe’s.

In his article You Talkin’ to Me?, Begleiter states that Americans express an ignorance of the world by being ill informed about international politics and events, while not even caring enough to learn about them. He sees this lack of perspective as a lack of freedom, even though we pride ourselves on being the ‘freest country in the world.’

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Oscars website presentation: Best (American) Film carrying more weight than Best Foreign Language Film

The U.S.’s nationalism is even represented on the Oscars website by presenting the Best Film, Actor/Actress, and Animated Film awards (all American-directed and starred, in addition to being spoken in English with no subtitles) at the top with large photos of each winner, while presenting every other category in small boxes below. In terms of placement, the Best Foreign Language Film award is given the same amount of importance as the Best Sound Editing award.

In the European film festivals, on the other hand, that is not the case. For this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the first three most prominent awards were given to people of completely different countries. The film festival also makes a point to award movies on categories such as the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, a feature film that opens new perspectives. The Golden Bear for Best Film is the most notable award a film can receive, and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize is right below that in terms of importance.

berlin film festival photo

From left to right: The Golden Bear for Best Film: Fuocoammare (Italy); Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize: Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (Philippines/Singapore); Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize: Smrt u Sarajevu/Mort a Sarajevo (France/Bosnia and Herzegovina)

This festival makes a conscious decision to establish the importance of exposing oneself to new perspectives by specifically rewarding movies that make an obvious effort to do so.

In order to overcome our inherent ethnocentric bias, some embassies consciously make an effort to put on events that combine differing cultures. For example, the Embassies of the Czech Republic and the United States of America created a film festival specifically targeting the exchanging of American and Czech cultures by exposing those from Nicosia and Cyprus to American films but directed by Czech director Milos Forman. It was called the Milos Forman Film Festival and through the combined Embassy efforts, the Czechs were able to be exposed to American culture, while still feeling prideful in their own culture since Forman is from the Czech Republic and, and, subconsciously added Czech cultural references within these American films.

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Milos Forman Film Festival poster posted on the United States Embassy of Nicosia and Cyprus website

Since movies are such an impactful way to develop a better understanding of a culture different than your own, this type of film festival can be organized in the States as well. French, Japanese, Syrian, Hungarian, etc. embassies in the United States can create film festivals that are directed by people of those descent and represent the cultures of those from those foreign countries as well. There can also be an implementation of film festivals that represent American directors who live abroad and create abroad films in order to create a potential incentive or connection for American audiences to attend these film festivals. One example can be creating a film festival that highlights the work of French director Roman Polanski. Even though he was born in Paris, he has made movies in Poland, Britain, France, and the U.S., marking him the epitome of the quintessential international filmmaker. By hosting a Roman Polanski Film Festival in the states with the Polish, French, and British embassies involved, all four countries can experience and appreciate one another’s cultures, while giving American audiences an incentive to come since Polanski has made popular films in the states as well.

Through this cultural program, American audiences will become more informed about the culture that was represented in the movie he or she saw. And by becoming more informed about a culture, it will allow Americans to not only be less ill-informed, but also more inclined to learn more about said foreign country, it’s politics, international relations, and other foreign countries alike. By acknowledging these different cultures and learning that both your culture and another culture can coexist, it will allow you (American readers specifically) to base future decisions on this knowledge that people, places, and things can be different, and that’s okay.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

Girls are the Future: Increasing U.S. Focus on Women’s Empowerment

For many young women around the world, going to school is a dangerous activity, a calculated risk that remarkably brave girls are willing to take in the hopes of a brighter, better future for themselves, their families, and their communities. When girls are educated, women lead. And, when women lead, democracy is strengthened and threats of violent extremism are diminished. Our collective future will be brighter and safer if the empowerment of women through increased opportunities for education is a focus of all nations around the world, including the U.S.

Global terror is a real, present threat to the United States. A Department of Defense memo on “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” said that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is currently hotbed of “extremist sanctuaries” for numerous terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and ISIL. Terrorist groups are a threat to stable, lasting democracy in the Middle East, a great interest of the United States. Such groups, including al Qaeda in Afghanistan, “remain a threat to the United States and its interests.”

If the United States hopes to simultaneously strengthen democracy and decrease sources of terrorism in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, it would be wise to focus even greater efforts than those currently in place on the empowerment of women in the region. According to research done by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker on female leadership, “over the long sweep of history, women have been and will be a pacifying force.” And, as Secretary of State John Kerry explained in a 2013 op-ed, “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. This is why the United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace, and why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to advancing U.S. foreign policy.” In this time of bombings and terror, we too often forget one source of light in the world—women and girls—and the ways in which empowering this group will lead to a better, safer world for us all.

There is a reason that terrorist groups around the world, like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, target young women who are educating themselves—they are scared of them. Extremist groups are well aware of the fact that educated girls and women are a threat to their very existence. As The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “nothing can be more transformative for a society than educating girls.”

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USAID programs in Afghanistan encourage schooling for young girls. Photo credit: USAID

One solution lays in further increasing U.S. focus on the education and resulting empowerment of women in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. After all, approximately sixty million girls are out of school around the world today, including more than three million Pakistani girls. These three million young women are a completely untapped source of stability, which could in turn lead to long-lasting democracy and a reduction in violent extremism, as women move into leadership roles that have previously been held by men.

A possible answer to this need for expansion is a two-fold public diplomacy campaign. First, the U.S. Department of State should continue to build on existing efforts to partner with locals in Pakistan and Afghanistan to organize courses for women and strengthen already existing schools for young women. The U.S. Department of State already has programs like this, including the successful U.S. Institute on Women’s Leadership beginning in Washington, D.C. each year. Also an example of excellent work currently being done to empower women, the 2014 Embassy Scholarship Program provided 62 women with full-ride, four-year scholarships to the American University of Afghanistan, to study topics ranging from English language to business.

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US Institute for Women Leaders program participants, 2015     Photo Credit: US Embassy, Pakistan

The George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs Global Gender Program has partnered with Lahore College for Women University in Pakistan for a three-year exchange funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The program is a great example of the kind of two-way work that can be done in our global world, which will be beneficial to all parties involved. This exchange of female scholars is focused on, “globalization, internationalization of the curriculum, and cultural exchange,” which will benefit U.S. interests abroad. Providing increased funding to these types of programs, which are organized in tandem by U.S. and local universities, would be an excellent next step for the Department of State.

We need to redouble existing efforts to make sure that these types of programs are available to both bring female scholars to the U.S. and provide educational opportunities within their countries, and that these programs are available to and reaching all who are interested.

Thanks to the work of U.S. AID, approximately 2.6 million girls attend school in Afghanistan now, which is up from close to zero under Taliban rule. And, yet, educated boys still outnumber girls 2 to 1. Until that number is equal, the U.S. Department of State needs to maintain its growth of women’s educational initiatives.

Second, in our media strategy: we should further develop relationships with local elites and journalists, and work to expand the prevalence of press conferences and meetings on the importance of women’s leadership, empowerment, and education. It is important to find an effective way to explain the benefits of an empowered female population, and key to note that there might be cultural backlash against our campaign. We will be more effective in these press conferences and workshops if we set up local elites and journalists to be the community messengers of these benefits, rather than U.S. officials.

According to a 2015 U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy report, about 9.37-percent of Afghanistan’s total public diplomacy budget was spent on aid for women and civil society in 2014. One must acknowledge that this amount—which comes out to approximately $5.294 million—is significant. And, yet, the successes of these programs, and the benefits that would come from expanding them even further, validates increased spending in this sector.

More peaceful communities create space for more stable democracies and discourage violent extremism, which is why increasing our focus on women’s education in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan should become an even greater priority for the U.S. Department of State in the coming years. As Secretary Kerry explained, “U.S. diplomats everywhere work to integrate women fully into peace negotiations and security efforts because bringing women’s experiences, concerns and insights to the table can help prevent future conflict and build more lasting peace.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 


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