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Under Secretary Stengel: US in Information 'Battle' with IS, Russia

FILE - U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel
FILE - U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel says that in the face of strong foreign propaganda machines such as Russia and the Islamic State, the U.S. needs to harden its "soft power" with its own participation in the global conversation.

Speaking in Washington Tuesday at an event hosted by the non-partisan American Security Project, Stengel called engagement "a sign of strength," and said the United States should be the nation that listens.

He said recent changes in technology, including the rise of social media, are suitable to making public diplomacy more important in the 21st century than ever before, as the world is seeing "a reemergence of history, a reemergence of blood and borders" from Ukraine to the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy also met Tuesday in Washington to discuss the impact of international broadcasting and recommendations for engaging foreign audiences.

'Competition' with Russia

On Russia and the global conversation about the Ukraine conflict, Stengel said when he took up his post at the State Department in February, he was "surprised and displeased" by how powerful the Russian propaganda machine was - not just in Russia, but in the surrounding region of Russian speakers.

He said competing with Russian news, which he described as "nothing like what we think of as objective," is something the U.S. is now focusing on, including through the Voice of America. VOA Director David Ensor was present for Stengel's remarks.

Stengel, who came to State after seven years as the managing editor of TIME magazine, said the U.S. is focused now on getting its point of view out in the Russian language, but not through broadcasting, which he called "an old model." Instead, he said the U.S. is turning to social media.

The Russian leadership has been criticized recently for a wave of Internet restrictions that appear designed to stifle dissent online. The closing off of the Internet information space has "grave implications" for public diplomacy, said Stengel, and it is a trend against which he said he is trying to campaign.

The Kremlin denies allegations of censorship or pressure on the media, but online activists and journalists have been increasingly concerned that President Vladimir Putin is seeking to tighten control over Russian society, amid the bitter dispute between Russia and the West over Ukraine's future.

'Information Battlefield'

Stengel also addressed the rise of the Islamic State militant group, which has overtaken large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria, saying that apart from its "savage" beheadings of American journalists and other violence, the group has proven "very adept" at information warfare.

Staffan Truve, an analyst with the social media monitoring group Recorded Future, told VOA recently that more than 60,000 Twitter accounts this summer were talking about Islamic State extremists in a positive way.

Patrick Skinner with the Soufan Group, a security intelligence services company, says the Islamic State's international recruitment drive is equally skillful. He says the group's message is carefully tailored to specific demographic groups in Europe, the United States and South Asia, as well as locally in Iraq and Syria.

Stengel, fresh from a trip to the Middle East with Secretary of State John Kerry, said the U.S. is in a battle with the Islamic State that is not just being fought on a "kinetic battlefield," but on an "information battlefield" as well. But he said the group's ability to recruit foreign fighters has more to do with conditions the U.S. does not control, such as region specific economic and social problems.

Broadcasting Reform?

Some media advocacy groups have expressed concerns about the U.S. government waging "information warfare" through its international broadcasting institutions such as VOA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia. Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire issued a statement in May saying that would be extremely regrettable.

Deloire's statement came in response to a bill the House of Representatives passed in July that would overhaul U.S. international broadcasting to support U.S. foreign policy.

The bill would reduce the scope of VOA's coverage from world news to coverage of the United States and international developments that affect the U.S. - a change some current and former VOA journalists say would be "devastating" to VOA's credibility and integrity.

But supporters of the bill say it would help the U.S. fight back more effectively in the war of information against countries like Russia and China. Democrat Eliot Engel, co-sponsor of the House bill, says the legislation will require U.S. broadcasting agencies to remain "objective sources of news and information," not just "a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy."

A similar U.S. broadcasting bill must pass in the Senate, and the legislation must be signed by President Barack Obama in order to become law.