Mathew Lowry

Over on edition 627 of For Immediate Release, they open their news section (timestamp 04:30) by bringing together a couple of news stories on how the US military is engaging with what could euphemistically be called their ‘challenging public’: young Muslim men in the Middle East, Afghanistan, etc.

Apparently there’s a Digital Engagement Team, scouring websites looking for “… lies, misinformation or just misperceptions” about American military operations and Pentagon policy across the Middle East, and then joining the discussions to debunk and rebut them.

I’ve been working on social media outreach strategies for a few EU organisations now, and long ago realised that the primary challenge is organisational, within the EU Institutions. The most interesting aspect of this story for me was therefore the way DET manages the process, and to compare it with the EU situation.

So how much can we learn?

Rapid, transparent response

First and foremost – transparency. The DET is not a secret, so there’s no chance of them poisoning the well. Instead, the Team:

“operates in total sunshine: all of the online postings carry an official stamp acknowledging sponsorship by Central Command … All engagements are transparent and attributable [except for] the use of online pseudonyms to protect civilian contract employees”


In such operations, it can take the expertise of several internal people to assemble a useful, convincing response. Texts may need to be translated, and there’s a hierarchical ‘check before publish’ step (the US military call this, ironically, “Permission to Engage”). For example, the NYT describes how a DET member:

“… typed up a translated summary of the Internet exchange [and]proposed a response drawn from Pentagon and State Department policy statements: it described shared American and Pakistani security interests, citing as evidence the large number of Pakistanis in security forces who were killed in battles with insurgents within that country’s borders … he then sent a message up his chain of command.”

This all takes time, which delays responsiveness. Unfortunately, such outreach efforts have to be fast – there’s no point showing up two weeks later with a rebuttal; people have already moved on.

The DET can use the time difference to their advantage: they work in the early morning (US time) so their content appears as the Middle East goes online between dinner and sleep. This is not something EU teams can do, short of outsourcing to Asia and the Americas.

Centres of social media teams excellence

Shel Holtz, one of the FIR hosts, also points out that the DET experience reinforces Altimeter research findings that those organisations successfully using social media have dedicated teams – “centres of social media excellence”. The nearest the EU has to that is the European Parliament’s huge team, which has been piloting, experimenting and generally having a lot of fun with social media for a few years now.

However, one should note that the DET team, like most such dedicated teams, are highly focused on one audience and one policy issue, and belong to one organisation (the DoD).

The EU is both wider and less organisationally coherent – any outreach team would tackle dozens of policy areas, and would need to source content from 20+ DGs of the European Commission, plus the Parliament and Council.

While the DET team must know a lot about what’s going on in the Middle East, how could one central EU team know the intricacies of every single EU policy area?

Hence, when the EP team described themselves as “the waiters and maître d’ in the European restaurant, we deliver the food cooked by the Master Chiefs (sic*)”, I argue that EU Institutions need a Content Partnership: multilingual teams specialised in social media, backed up by internal networks of policy wonks prepared and mandated to help them respond rapidly.

Tackling pyjama people multilingually

Unsurprisingly, the DET includes “20 native speakers of Arabic, Dari, Persian, Pashto, Urdu and Russian”, proving that the European Union’s communications teams are not the only ones tackling the challenges of multilingualism. Except, of course, that they’re not engaging in any such activity, leaving the field free to conspiracy fantasists who spread the most incredible bullshit about what they call the ‘EUSSR’.

Now such ‘Pyjama people‘ are not going to be convinced when someone from Brussels steps into their echo chamber with a rebuttal, however factual. But, as I’ve argued many times before, outreach is worth it because of the 90% of the people in those communities who are reading those exchanges.

So it was heartening to hear the FIR hosts’ conclusion (12:08):

“While you might not change the minds of the hardcore extremists, everybody else paying attention, who may be on the fence … could be influenced…

It’s not the vociferous, passionate individuals … that you’re worried about … it’s all those other folks paying attention who don’t necessarily say anything.”

“Demonstrate facts and let reality speak for itself”

The team’s work vindicates my earlier point that social media is not good for broadcasting propaganda – instead:

“demonstrate the facts and let reality speak for itself… Juxtaposing factual images — videotapes of the hateful preachings of the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri against the triumphant protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo this year — can be more powerful, and more effective, than any message the government can transmit…

despite their limitations, these online outreach campaigns were efficient and inexpensive tools”

Other findings worth mentioning:

  • they are trying to influence people – to change people’s minds – so measuring RoI is hard. And no, Klout won’t help you, because Klout can’t measure influence either, for the same reasons;
  • NATO’s at it too, with Twitter their weapon of choice (CNN), bringing new meaning to the word ‘sniping’. If all they exchanged with the Taliban were Tweets, I think we’d all be better off.

* Master Chiefs? Clearly they know their Halo in the European Parliament.


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