Information Imperialism?

By the end of the year the US State department will spend $70 million on stealth communications technologies to enable activists to communicate beyond the reach of dictators according to a recent NYT article. Prototypes include a suitcase capable of quickly blanketing a region with a free wifi network, bluetooth devices that can silently share data, software that protects the anonymity of Chinese users, independent cellphone networks in Afghanistan, and underground buried cell phones on the border of North Korea for desperate phone calls to “freedom.” These are political tools deployed to promote the agenda of one nation over that of another. How should we address information imperialism? The use of networked communications tools to subvert so-called regimes exposes a proclivity for digital intervention that likely also includes digital literacy projects to provoke revolutionary actions, propaganda campaigns to make celebrities out of bloggers, and covert code warfare. Let’s review the spectrum of information interventions to ascertain the ways and hows of information imperialism.
Digital Literacy and Revolution
In 2007 my colleague Ramesh Srinivasan and I ethnographically documented the role of the US State department and US based philanthropic organizations in promoting digital literacy projects such as pro-revolutionary blogging in Kyrgyzstan. This digital literacy campaign translated into a culture of communication practice that helped a state-wide revolution, the 2005 Tulip Revolution. Much polemic debate circulates on the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprising. I don’t care to contribute to that debate here without the empirical data now being collected by Srinivasan in Cairo but in light of the evidence of US information intervention I am curious about the impact of US backed operations of digital literacy in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. Certainly the grassroots activists putting their bodies on the line are more important than the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or State Department moles but the role of US-promoted information intermediaries should concern anthropologists and activists worried about the incarnation of imperialism in the infomatic public sphere.
Cyber-Celebrities
What else is the US State department doing to promote the use of the internet to promote its agenda worldwide? I’ve just returned from Netroots Nation 2011, the signature event of internet activism. This year’s speakers included internet fundraising pioneer Howard Dean and net neutrality advocate Sen. Al Franken. I attended a panel The Arab Spring: A Case Study for New Media as a Catalyst for Change, which features Bahraini, Iraqi, Palestinian, and Moroccan bloggers. Their stories were riveting and polished and left me wondering how they could afford to travel to the United States. I have a suspicion that they have been funded by the State Department to do a multi-city tour telling their stories of pro-democracy digital activism. Might “freedom loving” institutions have something to gain by making celebrities of these Middle Eastern bloggers? I am not so paranoid to think that the nomenclature surrounding the promotion of the “Twitter Revolution” was actually a way to textually lay claim to the Arab Spring for Silicon Valley companies, but I do think that states realize the power of evocative branding operations to win hearts and minds. These blogger’s national tour may be an example.
Code as Weapon
Think about Stuxnet, the first publicized computer virus weapon, which burrowed into the Iranian nuclear and oil power systems and awaited command to send Iran into a nation-wide blackout or worse create a nuclear meltdown. Nobody knows where Stuxnet came from but Israel and the US are the primary subjects in the gossip. Dimona is the center of Israel’s “secret” nuclear facility and according to a NYT article is the location of the testing of the efficacy of the Stuxnet virus. It is undoubtable that national security and imperial aspirations are driving the development of Stuxnet 2.0. And now after its discovery Stuxnet has been liberated from nationalistic secrecy by becoming open-source. If you are interested in creating global chaos you can download and work on it from links here. As this video graphically details hackers are playing with and retooling it now. This should alarm anyone into peace and national or ethnic autonomy.
Information Imperialism?

The ideological component of information imperialism can be gleamed from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s rousing speech earlier this year where she calls out Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam for “a spike in threats to the free flow of information.” The financing of these covert mesh networks and the publicizing of pro-freedom speeches is part of a US strategy of opening-up countries to communication from which it is hoped democracy and possibly other freedoms such as global entrepreneurialism will follow. Against Clinton’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu defended China’s policies. A Chinese state-run newspaper labeled Clinton’s words as “information imperialism.” It seems to me that the rhetoric and practice of information imperialism is ripe for anthropological curiosity.

As these cases point out, national institutions deploy a bevy of rhetorical and technical practices to promote their agendas. $70 million is a small sum when compared to other State Department activities and doesn’t even pay for a toilet seat in the Pentagon but it does represent a very public intervention in the autonomy of other nations. Now, with the internet in a suitcase, cosmopolitan revolutionary cyber-celebrities, and Stuxnet-like code weapons information imperialism is well-beyond the vaguely inspirational and threatening pontifications of a seasoned bureaucrat.

Where do we as scholars and activists stand on these issues? In what ways is the project of affirming national or ethnic sovereignty complicated by the euphoria about new media and its role in promoting decentralized and agenda-afforded communications networks that can promote democracy? Is the development and use of pro-communications technologies an act of imperialistic info-warfare or a savvy form of legitimate democratic promotion? Is there a difference? How can anthropology address these important issues?

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

49 thoughts on “Information Imperialism?

  1. I think there’s a big difference between trying to bomb people into democracy, and “not respecting the autonomy” of assholes, honestly.

    Not that there aren’t interesting academic (and critical theory) questions to approach here, but I’m not really sure I’d want to start off on the basis of calling this “imperialism” a priori.

  2. “ ‘not respecting the autonomy’ of assholes”
    Many of those assholes were “our” friends before they were “our” enemies.
    Look at the US response to Iran and now Syria, as opposed to Saudi and Bahrain
    Look at the history of response to Mubarak.

    Jadaliyya: Three Powerfully Wrong–and Wrongly Powerful–American Narratives about the Arab Spring.

    Imperialism is a buzzword, better just say hypocrisy.

  3. Why not “realpolitik”? If the primary purpose of supporting the asshole is to maintain stability, the asshole’s failure to maintain stability is, prima facie, a good reason to withdraw support and look for other allies.

    “Hypocrisy” is, like “imperialism,” mostly a way for tender-minded souls to express their shock and horror before returning to their hobbies.

  4. John, your assumptions beg the question. “Realpolitik” in the service of what? And who’s to judge? Kissinger was an incompetent Machiavel. He gave himself the title “Realist” as you seem to do, but titles mean nothing.

    I’d suppose you should be a fan of Niall Ferguson. The US claims to act with the best intentions for all. That’s a lie and Ferguson says that lie weakens US resolve. But empires go to successful Machiavels, so we’re back to that word again. So maybe Ferguson is criticizing soft Americans like you? Why not call it Imperialism?

    So if you have the guts to call yourself a hard nosed realist explain how backing Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is the realists’ choice. Explain how Netanyahu is intelligently gaming the system to his country’s advantage; make the case no sane person has been able to make; defend Avigdor Lieberman. Defend Mubarak against the angry millions. Defend Ben Ali.
    Did you even read the link?

    I don’t remember you ever offering more than hot air in any argument. “I marched when I was young” doesn’t count.

    Ted Koppel in the WSJ: “Israeli officials want a public commitment from Washington to protect the Saudi regime should it come under threat.”
    Notice too Koppel’s reference to the Shiite “minority” in Bahrain. Call it sur-realism
    Steven Walt‘s not bad.

    “‘Hypocrisy’ is, like ‘imperialism, mostly a way for tender-minded souls…”

    Snide condescension from imagined authority.
    Do us all a favor and return to your hobbies.

  5. Seth, you ask a good question. Assessments based on Realpolitik require assumptions about the national interest. During the cold war the assumption was that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus, the classic mot juste, “He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard” seemed plausible to many policymakers. In retrospect, it seems unwise. In too many cases, the blowback (as Chalmers Johnson would put it) has been severe.

    Idealistically speaking, it would a better world if the powers that control its various parts would unite in pursuit of justice rooted in the common interest of everyone on Earth. It is, as Hamilton wrote of the debate about the Constitution in Federalist 1, more to be desired than expected. To me it seems that self-righteous howls, “imperialism” or “hypocrisy” contribute little to that end and may be counterproductive.

  6. A question I would add is why are some people not touted as cyber-celebrities. I am thinking of Elliot Madison for example, the man arrested for his tweets during the G8/G20 protests in Pittsburgh last year.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/10/08/us-rights-twitter-idUSTRE5965LB20091008

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/05/nyregion/05txt.html

    The Pentagon’s reaction to Wikileaks is another case to consider, as is the report from NATO Parliamentary Assembly prescribing such democratic actions as infiltrating and persecuting (sic) Anonymous “groups” (lol).

    http://www.nato-pa.int/default.asp?SHORTCUT=2443

    Have anyone heard H. Clinton’s advocacy for the “free flow of information” then ? This could not possibly be called hypocrisy, could it ?

    Or maybe there’s the good free flow of information versus the evil free flow of information, or the free flow of good information versus the free flow of evil information. This is getting complicated.

  7. During the cold war the assumption in Washington was that if the Italian Communists were allowed to win an election there would be a gulag on the Po.

    Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.

    The factory owners told the Haitian Parliament that they were willing to give workers a 9-cents-per-hour pay increase to 31 cents per hour to make T-shirts, bras and underwear for US clothing giants like Dockers and Nautica.

    But the factory owners refused to pay 62 cents per hour, or $5 per day, as a measure unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament in June 2009 would have mandated. And they had the vigorous backing of the US Agency for International Development and the US Embassy when they took that stand.

    To resolve the impasse between the factory owners and Parliament, the State Department urged quick intervention by then Haitian President René Préval.

    Democracy is a more stable form of government than dictatorship, or kleptocracy. US foreign policy has never been based on that principle. What’s worse Americans have the bad habit of lying to themselves. Americans are self-described idealists: therein lies the hypocrisy. Like the defense of Israel by “liberal Zionists” as if it weren’t an oxymoron. Fuzzy thinking leads to bad strategy. The debate here isn’t worth having. The title of the post shouldn’t even be a question. But there it is. Americans want to identify with their government. I’ve always found that odd.

  8. All sorts of public statements by politicians and diplomats can be called “hypocrisy.” The question I raise is the public benefit of shifting discussion away from whether it would be in the national or global interest for the U.S. to supply technology potentially useful to “democratic” forces and disruptive of hostile regimes to the meagre satisfactions of self-righteousness to be gained by labeling public figures hypocrites.

  9. “The question I raise is the public benefit of shifting discussion away from…”

    The question concerns how the US should respond to the fact that most of the world sees its policies as hypocritical. I’ll forgo happily any use of the term myself if the result is the end of propaganda and more importantly of self-deception. There’s a reason I have more respect for the rulers of the PRC than the leaders of the US. It’s the same reason I have more respect for right wing than “liberal” Zionists.

    rationalists…
    rationalize.

    Two articles on Obama and the War Powers Act.

  10. No one needs to convince me that the Pentagon are not a force for peace and democracy in the world. I’m just not seeing the moral equivalency of giving North Koreans cell phones with firing hellfires into wedding parties — nor the logical necessity of equating them because similarly-aligned parties undertake them. Saying that there is a necessity is falling for the trap of assuming that the state acts with a single purpose and a single hand, rather than being a nest of competing interests and actors.

  11. ““ ‘not respecting the autonomy’ of assholes”
    Many of those assholes were “our” friends before they were “our” enemies.
    Look at the US response to Iran and now Syria, as opposed to Saudi and Bahrain
    Look at the history of response to Mubarak.”

    Surely the question of whether U.S. support for “digital dissidents” is a continuation of their harmful policies of supporting dictators is an empirical one? If the Empire is forced to adapt, we should question rather than assume whether its adapted methods are more in line with human interests or not.

  12. Consider the possibility that the rest of the world seeing the US as hypocritical is a positive thing. In a world where hypocrisy is the diplomatic norm, a perfectly principled US, lacking the overwhelming economic and military superiority of the post-WW2 years, becomes, instead of a bully, increasingly ridiculous. A normally hypocritical US is a country that other countries can work with to address issues of common interest.

    I am not claiming that the US never enjoyed the soft power that came from the demonstrated idealism that supported, for example, the Marshall Plan and the ending of the Occupation in Japan. It may be worth considering whether, in a world where that soft power has already been squandered and is unlikely to be revived, moralistic stances left or right contribute to addressing the very real problems the world now faces.

  13. I’m most familiar with the view from China on internet openness/censorship. The Chinese state’s control of the web is commonly called the Great Firewall – the association being an extension of images of China as being shut off from the rest of the world. As far as my understanding goes, that misreads the way that internet censorship works. It is less about cutting off information from outside of China, and more about erasing information within China. Anyone who wants to can get a VPN for cheap or even free and get around the GFW. They can’t, however, post things on forbidden topics on Chinese webpages – such as Weibo,Renren, Douban, etc. – that will be easily accessible to the masses of internet users who aren’t actively seeking alternate information sources.

    I’m also not so sure how the spread if information inherently threatens the Chinese state – as Tom Friedman recently argued. Even with net censorship, there is endless talk of political corruption, regulatory failures (most prominently food quality), and social inequality – all of which are implicitly or explicitly critical of the Chinese state. If all a revolution took was a critical mass of people who were dissatisfied with the government, it would have been toppled long ago.

    But when that state is willing to deploy military vehicles to confront protestors, as it did earlier this month, I’m not so sure what the use of an internet suitcase would be. So, while software that protects the identity of Chinese internet users is pretty ubiquitous – I’m using it right now as I type – I don’t see how it could be useful in taking on the Chinese state.

  14. “If all a revolution took was a critical mass of people who were dissatisfied with the government, it would have been toppled long ago.”

    Pew Research: Upbeat Chinese May Not Be Primed for a Jasmine Revolution.

  15. “Pew Research: Upbeat Chinese May Not Be Primed for a Jasmine Revolution.”

    I was talking more about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/13/world/asia/13china.html?ref=asia

    “The clash, in Xintang, in south coastal China, was the latest in a series of violent protests that have struck Chinese cities in recent days. At least 1,000 riot police officers were patrolling the streets of Lichuan, in Hubei Province, after days of unusually large protests over the death of a local legislator who had been in police custody.

    In China’s Inner Mongolia region, ethnic Mongolians clashed with security officers last week in protests over the death of a Mongolian who had been run over by a car driven by an ethnic Han.

    Chinese authorities recorded 127,000 so-called mass incidents last year, but most were too small to gain wide notice.”

    I’m running with the assumption that the Chinese state would underreport mass incidents, so the fact that they’re reporting so many, and that they’re reporting increases every year, is significant. So, while by Pew’s account Chinese people have been growing more satisfied while by the Chinese state’s account they have been becoming more inclined to protest.

    I’m somewhat skeptical of public opinion polls as a way of gauging how people feel on complex subjects. All I can say in response is that in my experience it is not very uncommon for people to express critical views of the government in casual conversation, (as a response to innocuous questions, like “How’s business?”), and in contexts where you wouldn’t expect it (e.g. business meetings). Its very common for any number of things to become explicit critiques of the Chinese state (e.g. high rent, inflation, socioeconomic inequality, tainted food) and among groups of people that you wouldn’t expect it from (e.g. Chinese state bureaucrats). I do, admittedly, interact with a very skewed slice of the Chinese population – relatively young, educated professionals in 1st tier cities – and don’t assume that’s reflective of all of China.

  16. NPR did an informative piece on related issue last year: how different countries define cyberwar differently. While U.S. defines it as attacks on network infrastructure (impact on machines), several other nations–Russia, China, India, Brazil–focus on the ideological power of that which flows across networks (impact on minds).

    The latter view seems more in tune with anthropological approaches, for instance, governmentality is clearly impacted by real time global flows of information. The techno-centrism of the US view is also expressed in terms like “Twitter Revolution.”

  17. Thanks everyone for the excellent commentary. My point was to show the three forms, from the most insidious to the most pop to the slightly applaudable, in a spectrum which begins or ends in classic boots-on-grounds warfare. Where do our political values and nurturing affinities tend to lean towards–the technoutopian or the neoluddite in this realm of socio-technical intervention? I think anthropologists have the tool kit to get into these debates but don’t for a number of institutional and boring reasons. So I applaud you who dig in. As for the title, please take note of the question that follows the phrase. I am to blame for unquestioningly appropriating the lexicon of the Chinese editor who calls it all ‘information imperialism.’ I agree I could pronounce a more nuanced terminology to describe this middling praxis of techno-public intervention and activism advocacy. But I fell in line with the fetish we anthropologists have of using the indigenous theoretical phrases from the ground to meta-critique a wider field of experience and practice.

  18. I don’t know if “Information Imperialism” is indigenous language anywhere outside of the People’s Daily or Global Times newsrooms. But it is an interesting question. I think that there are two things going on here. The first is the idea that a political ideals map onto an ideology in some direct way, so that Twitter is Western Liberal Democracy and spreading Twitter spreads these political ideals. That’s clearly ridiculous – it would be perfectly possible for political factions that are not democratic to make use of information technology to come to power. And it would be possible for people to take these tools and do something completely apolitical with them – organizing underground churches, for example.

    And the technology isn’t really sufficient to topple repressive regimes, is it? If Egypt didn’t already have a developed civil society sector, if the army had decided to crack down on the protestors, what could Twitter have done to intervene?

    Then there’s the question of how these technologies are going to be used. Presumably, the US State Department will have clear ideas of what sorts of activists deserve access to their technologies. In making those choices, they will be doing the same sorts of interventions that they’ve always done – not supporting “freedom” in the abstract, but supporting people who they feel best advance US interests in a given state.

    So, I’m curious if there’s anything really new here. I don’t like repressive regimes, but I’m skeptical of US attempts to undermine them. What does the technology involved really add to that equation?

  19. These are the good old techniques used extensively during the Cold War:

    “Many economists maintained correspondence with their

    colleagues in Eastern Europe, which included discussions of ideas and
    techniques as well as the exchange of articles and books. American scholars

    found it easy to send books because, upon request, the CIA would
    purchase and send books in any scholar’s name to individuals in the East
    Bloc” (Johanna Bockman, Gil Eyal, “Eastern Europe as a Laboratory for

    Economic Knowledge: The Transnational Roots of Neoliberalism”, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 108 Number 2 (September 2002): 310–52, p. 326).

    …and, of course, books were only a top of an iceberg. Scholarships, conferences and loans followed.

    Anyway, I can imagine a day when these stealth technologies will finally be used by US activists. One day they gotta bring freedom home ;-)

  20. AF: “Where do our political values and nurturing affinities tend to lean towards..”

    “Our”: And again the people are synonymous with the government, not withstanding the foreign policy that is not expressing the political values that you claim for yourself.

    Laobaixing: “And the technology isn’t really sufficient to topple repressive regimes, is it? If Egypt didn’t already have a developed civil society sector, if the army had decided to crack down on the protesters, what could Twitter have done to intervene?”

    The army and neoliberalism are in control, but it’s still in flux.

    Discussions of Twitter.

  21. Come on Seth, I know there is no totalizing We or Our and I am undead enough to realize that if there were such a glob it couldn’t be related one-to-one to a nation. By referring to “Our” I was inviting anthropologists, not an unrealistic undifferentiated mass of nationalized humanity, to consider what are “our” disciplinary and personal proclivities in the techno-interventionary domain. What are the disciplinary perspectives on this phenomenon and how do those jive with our, that is subjective, perspectives.

  22. WW, thanks for providing that reference. I had intuitively noted some of the interconnections discussed by Bockman & Eyal.

  23. John wrote : “The question I raise is the public benefit of shifting discussion away from whether it would be in the national or global interest for the U.S. to supply technology potentially useful to “democratic” forces and disruptive of hostile regimes to the meagre satisfactions of self-righteousness to be gained by labeling public figures hypocrites. ”

    I don’t care about “US national interest” (or any other “national interest” for that matter) , or, more precisely I don’t think such a thing exists. I don’t think “global interest” has any concrete meaning either.
    I don’t think this is the right way to frame the discussion if there is to be one. An egyptian factory worker doesn’t have the same “interests” as a chinese CEO, an american employee of starbucks doesn’t have the same interests as an american owner of a media trust.
    Capitalism is a system with a lot of internal dynamics who often are in relation of mutual contradiction. Discourses about “national interest”, is, in my opinion, an often obnoxious distraction from the real questions. Those who “lives off profit” do not have the same interests as those who live off labor (no, it’s not a marxist observation, Adam Smith made it before).

    The kind of question that I would prefer to discuss would then look more like that :
    What is the relationship between what Adam describes here, the different interpretations thereof, and contemporary processes such as the end of american hegemony, the systemic global crisis (or restructuration of capitalism maybe), and, for example, the political and economic trajectory of China ?
    How does the “free flow of information” advocacy from some sections of the american “power elite” fits in all this ? And how does it fit in the present state of the political game in the USA ? Does this kind of moves really have geopolitical objectives, or is it produced for domestic “consumption” before all ? What is really at stake here ?

  24. @Jeremy

    A long time ago, a wise sociologist named W.I. Thomas wrote that what men believe to be real is real in its consequences. You may regard national interest as an illusion. Until you persuade those with the power to make decisions or enough of the powerless to combine their voices in support of your views to become a political force, your opinion can and mostly will be ignored. That’s not my being snarky; that’s just a fact of life.

  25. @John,

    I certainly don’t deny that talking and thinking in terms of “national interest” can have very real effects (like wars for example). I merely think the anthropologist’s job isn’t to uncritically take as her own the definition of the situation propounded by some actors (in that case, politicians) and to define her questions in these terms.

    The best chance for my “opinion” to be ignored is to silence it. And if anthropologists were afraid of their views being ignored because they don’t take the dominant definition of the situation as granted , because it criticizes the doxa, they would soon be out of job, wouldn’t they ? Or maybe they would conform to the doxa in order to be heard. But then, I wonder how they could say anything worse hearing.
    I am afraid we’re straying away from the main problems though.

  26. @Jeremy I appreciate your insistence on criticality in the discipline and applaud one of us finally bringing it back to the role of the anthropologist as critic in these emergent and experimental issues of transnational tech-interventions. But what to do when the informant, in my case a secondarily sourced Chinese journalist, not an elitist or politician, is already using the critical language of ‘imperialism’ to describe the thing yet un-investigated and critically interpreted by anthropologists? How do we work with and against a minority but insider viewpoint that the phenomenon is already ‘critical’? Surely simply siding with the informant is cheap and easy–which I am guilty of doing here– but also attempting to contradict the informant’s statement forces us to affirm the US stance of ‘spreading democracy’ by peaceful and inevitable technological fixes–that isn’t cool either.

  27. @Adam,

    I don’t think you are “guilty” of anything. The questions you asks are, in my opinion, very worse thinking about. I don’t have satisfiying answers just yet. But I send this comment now to let you know I don’t neglect it. I’ll try to find a translation of the original chinese article containing the phrase “information imperialism” for starters. Thanks for your kind answer.

  28. @Jeremy

    Fair enough. Having been involved in situations, in both advertising and in politics, where people try to make some real difference in the world, I am occasionally annoyed by academic chatter that seems to think that simply announcing an opinion amounts to anything. My hobby horse, my bust.

  29. @Adam, and others interested in the issue :

    A brief historical account of the usage of the phrase “information imperialism” in the chinese press can be found here :

    http://cmp.hku.hk/2010/01/28/4212/

    The article the Huffington Post relies on is very probably this one :

    http://opinion.globaltimes.cn/editorial/2010-01/500324.html

    I can’t help but wonder why the HuffPost journalist didn’t provide a link. The argument is a bit more elaborated than what appears in the Huffington Post’s article.

  30. @Jeremy, Ah, yes. so the term ‘information imperialism’ is already a state branded term, proliferated as a talking point, to all counter-US/West information intervention schemes–with Google censorship dilemma being the most obvious. I get it! Great research.

  31. @Adam, I am sorry. I am not sure I understand your last comment. I sense a bit of irony though, but I may be mistaking. I only wanted to share what I had found, which of course isn’t much. I found some points from the Global Times’ article were worth considering (those about unequal information flow).

  32. @Jeremy

    Thanks for the link.

    @Adam

    This is one of those cases in which irony online totally misfires. “Information imperialism” is, as far as I can make out, the new terminology for what used to be called “cultural imperialism” and is an issue of concern to the highest levels of government as well as the media and academic circles throughout South, Southeast and East Asia. So long as English remains the lingua franca of dissemination of pop culture, political critique and other (dis)information on the Internet, and most of the readily available content is generated in the Anglo-American West, those who worry about their nations being overwhelmed by a flood of material shaped by Western values and prejudices are not wrong to be concerned.

    Whether that means, rolling over and accepting uncritically such local shibboleths as “Asian values” is, of course, another issue.

  33. @John and @Jeremy

    John, great points, the terror of information imperialism is a akin to the fear of cultural imperialism but branded differently. But, gentleman I was being sincere. No irony, just overt excitement. Jeremy’s quick bit of scholarship was impressive and it helped me develop the idea that ‘information imperialism’ is a talking point for the public-facing Chinese delegates. Hyperbolic and capable of resonating transnationally as the specter of colonialism and imperialism remains.

  34. ” those who worry about their nations being overwhelmed by a flood of material shaped by Western values and prejudices”

    I linked to this here two years ago. Sad I have to do it again This Alien Legacy The Origins of “Sodomy” Laws in British Colonialism.

    And this: America’s Kingdom
    Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier

  35. @John
    ” So long as English remains the lingua franca of dissemination of pop culture, political critique and other (dis)information on the Internet, and most of the readily available content is generated in the Anglo-American West, those who worry about their nations being overwhelmed by a flood of material shaped by Western values and prejudices are not wrong to be concerned.”

    The Chinese language internet is pretty ginormous – they have their own content, online cultural practices, memes, etc. So I don’t think you can take English to be the lingua franca of internet information. It clearly isn’t for people who don’t speak English.

    But, yes, the Chinese state is really good at using a critique of imperialism/colonialism in its rhetoric.

    @Adam
    “‘information imperialism’ is a talking point for the public-facing Chinese delegates.”

    The Global Times is a Chinese state mouthpiece – while they do publish some brilliant content every now and then (http://beijing.globaltimes.cn/two-cents/opinion/2011-03/630731.html And yes, that is satire) their comments on substantive political topics can be assumed to be Chinese state press releases. (They published the first non-acknowledgment acknowledgment of the detention of Ai Weiwei – justifying it without actually saying it happened)

    When the grammar is bad and the phrasing unnatural you know that its a sensitive topic that was written directly by the Chinese editorial staff, bypassing the expat English language editors. Reading this article, I’m guessing it was the case here.

  36. @Laobaixing

    No question about it. China’s internal Internet language is Chinese, and given the size of the population in question that makes Chinese a huge presence on the Internet. The same, on a somewhat smaller scale is true of Japanese and Korean. Spanish, Hindi and Arabic are also major contenders. The issue is that, by historical accident, the relationship between these languages and English is asymmetrical. Their speaker/reader/writers also speak/read/write English; native English speakers mostly don’t speak/read/write them. Thus, information imperialism is more likely in one direction than the other.

  37. P.S. The advantage in the language-of-information wars is not entirely on the English side. Among other things the asymmetry in who knows what languages allows nations whose national language is not much read outside their borders to separate message streams by language. I would be very interested to hear Laobaixing’s thoughts on the relationship between the content of the Peoples Daily in Chinese and that of the English edition I now access via an iPad app.

  38. “I would be very interested to hear Laobaixing’s thoughts on the relationship between the content of the Peoples Daily in Chinese and that of the English edition”

    I try to spend as little time as possible reading either – I tend to only read the Global Times editorials when they’ve published something over the top. I do recall the Chinese version of one of their Ai Weiwei editorials having the phrase “And that’s why we hate them” in a discussion of “the West’s” use of human rights to criticize China that was mysteriously absent from the English.

    But that I do hear about something similar in my research into business practices. Since English is presumed to be the default language of international business transactions, some American firms only focus on the English version of a bilingual contract. However, according to Chinese law only the Chinese version is considered relevant for settling disputes. Or, as also happens, they’ll only sign an English version and both parties will be at the mercy of whoever the court hires to translate it.

  39. some American firms only focus on the English version of a bilingual contract

    This is one of those “some”s that cries out for quantitative data. Similar problems were once part of the folklore passed on by old hands to newcomers to Japan. The legal departments of most large transnationals are totally aware of this issue and totally on top of it. I can see an entrepreneurial new venture whose executives lack foreign experience getting trapped this way. Hard to imagine for any of the Fortune 1000.

  40. The Sound of Cairo

    The Sound of Egypt

    Symposium on Public Diplomacy and Smith-Mundt

    Filling the largest room of the Reserve Officers Association on Capitol Hill, the symposium was a frank, on the record discussion among a diverse group of stakeholders, practitioners, and observers from the Congress, the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, and outside of government to discuss public diplomacy, strategic communication, or whatever their particular “tribe” calls communication and engagement. Many of the attendees never had a reason to be in the same room before, let alone share tables to discuss surprisingly common interests.

    The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was passed as the U.S. was beginning a “war of ideology… a war unto death,” as America’s Ambassador to Russia described it at the time. But two decades later, instead of promoting international engagement through information, cultural and educational exchanges, the law was distorted into a barrier of engagement. From its propaganda and counter-propaganda intentions, it transformed into an anti-propaganda law for reasons that had little to nothing to do with concerns over domestic influence and far removed from the original intent of the law. The resulting firewall has never been extensively explored or debated, the effects of which are broad and deep. The Smith-Mundt Act is believed by some to cover the activities of the State Department, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Defense Department, the Agency for International Development, and more. It is time to put the law into its proper context, especially in today’s global information environment.

    Smith-Mundt bans propaganda by the US government directed its own people.

  41. Having your country beset by US-funded Twitterers may be more pleasant than being bombed, but the aims of both approaches are the same.

    After Egypt’s “twitter revolution” earlier this year, Hosni Mubarak met with with his CIA handler, Frank Wisner, who told him that he would be replaced by Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt’s secret police.

    Does it really matter whether Suleiman was installed by tweets or bomb blasts? The Brzezinski group may advocate for the tweets and the Cheney group may push bombing, but it makes little difference to Egyptians which group gets hired to carry out their county’s regime change.

  42. @seth edenbaum

    Al Hurra, the US Government funded Arabic news channel, may be a joke, but Al Jazeera, the British Government funded Arabic news channel, is pretty impressive.

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