EurasiaNet reports a new $10M plan by the Pentagon to build foreign-language web sites in support of U.S. foreign policy.
Let’s count the ways that the plan, as described, is dopey:

  • Ten million dollars?? Ten million dollars?? Do you know what Sunlight or Global Voices could do with ten million dollars? Madon’, if this was somebody else’s wedding…
  • DoD invented the damn Internet. As a peer-to-peer information-sharing platform. They of all people should have the savvy to know that brochureware is about as effective in 2009 as those ranks of musketeers who shoot and reload like they did in the War of Independence.
  • It’s inauthentic. The websites, in languages including Russian, Farsi, Georgian, Azeri, will feature “news and analysis that helps garner support for US policies.” Right, like your average Farsi-speaker is going to go to the U.S. Department of Defense for fair and balanced analysis of anything they care about.
  • It’s not DoD’s job. Diplomacy is State’s job. And journalism, in this case, is the job of “government-funded mass media outlets,” like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Blurring the line between news and propaganda would be like having a newspaper’s ad sales department tell the editorial department what special news sections to create, or letting U.S. foreign policy be dictated by White House political operatives (not that that would ever happen).
  • And who’s got the contract to do all this? Not Ogilvy. Not Seth Godin. Or Google. No, it’s General Dynamics. Why would you ask a traditional military technology contractor to implement a new media strategy? Traditional government software contractors, in the words of free software guru Eben Moglen, “have never had to make a good program because they never made a program for anybody who had a choice of any kind about anything.”

Journalist Deirdre Tynan puts it simply in the Eurasianet article: “Editorial freedom will be crucial if the new websites hope to gain credibility among skeptical readers. …” But Tynan quotes military blogger Joshua Foust, who said, “It’s doubtful the Pentagon would allow these news outlets [websites] to have editorial freedom and highlight US missteps.”
If DoD wants to get a pro-U.S. message out to foreign audiences, hostile, uninformed or otherwise, it should do the equivalent of what car companies did around the turn of the last century when customer message boards got crowded with product complaints: Send clearly-identified representatives into the online communities where Russians, Iranians, Georgians and Azeris are already spending their time, and have these real humans reach out and advocate, and listen, according to the norms of that community. Even better, look for ways to deputize, or enlist, or invite, local citizens to take pieces of the U.S. agenda and disseminate them in their own voices and on terms that actually correspond (assuming they do) to local needs and problems.