Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Panel talks propaganda, fake news bots at public diplomacy event

Liz Konneker,, May 10, 2017 1:34 PM

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Former government officials and experts discussed how propaganda and misinformation campaigns can impact government communication at an event Tuesday at the Elliot School of International Affairs.

Students and faculty at the event heard details of a government communication report from the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a State Department committee that assesses U.S. efforts to inform and influence foreign audiences.

The report examined how state-sponsored propaganda and deliberate misinformation campaigns can impact and disrupt public diplomacy efforts.

Former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, gave the keynote speech before a panel of public communications and diplomacy experts took the stage. GW’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication hosted the discussion.

Here are some highlights from the event:

1. Changing tactics

Rogers said countries like Russia are using new ways to spread propaganda through social media. He used the recent U.S. elections – when Russian-aligned operatives spread fake election news and hacked officials in former Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign – as an example of how disruptive these efforts can be.

“Media literacy is going to be incredibly important as we go forward,” he said. “This last election changed the course of the way many Americans look at what an active measure by an intelligence service is and what its desired outcome is intended to be.”

The panel discussed how technology has given governments new tools like computerized bots that can influence the public by spreading false information online.

Matt Chessen, a technology and foreign policy fellow at the Elliot School, said his role in the report was to study recent advancements in artificial intelligence.

“You can make a completely pliable reality now,” he said. “Over the next several years we’re looking out for these propaganda bots that will try and convince you that certain information is true.”

2. Outdated technology

Many panelists expressed concern that the State Department does not use their budget for new technology in an efficient way. Many public employees do not have the essential tools to do their jobs and are being outpaced by private companies with less funding, the panelists said.

Tom Cochran, former director of digital platforms for the White House, said he pushed for technological improvements during his time in the public sector.

“How can we possibly expect to go to battle in an information landscape when our adversaries have whatever tools they need and without the burden of truth?,” he said. “We’re essentially sending our soldiers into battle without weapons.”

3. The value of human interaction

Panelists said the need for face-to-face conversation is still as important as ever in public diplomacy, despite the increasing and changing role of technology.

Cochran said that in many cases interacting without technology is the only sure way to build trust between two parties.

“At the heart of public diplomacy lies people. There’s nothing more powerful than connecting with an individual even if you disagree,” he said. “So absolutely more and better technology is needed, but don’t lose sight of the most important part of the State Department, which is people.”

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