Back Issues of PDAA Today

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“Perception Hacking” and “Information Laundering” Discussed at First Monday Forum

by Joe B. Johnson

Participants in the July 6, 2020, First Monday Forum heard from Bret Schaefer (upper right), of the German Marshall Fund, discuss “perception hacking” by China, Russia and Iran. Dr. Sherry Mueller (lower left) and Joel Fischman (lower right) represented the Public Diplomacy Council and the Public Diplomacy Association of America. Mike McCurry (upper left) moderated.

Attendees at First Monday Forum got a data-drawn picture of the extent to which the world is being assaulted by disinformation and propaganda, with the United States in the bullseye. What is public diplomacy’s role?

“Perception Hacking: How Russia, China, and Iran Use (and Abuse) Western Information Platforms” was the title. Bret Schaefer, Media and Disinformation Fellow of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, spoke at First Monday Forum on July 6, 2020.  You can view the entire program on YouTube at

Schaefer drew on the Alliance’s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard to trace the growth of content from often-deceptive digital media sponsored by the United States’ biggest adversaries. The Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard  tracks official statements and state-funded media output “to increase our understanding of the focus and spread of state-backed government messaging across various information mediums.”

Both Russia and China fund large global media networks. For example, Russia’s RT television service in Spanish is very successful throughout Latin America. Official social media accounts for their embassies as well as legions of fake social media accounts (detectable in Schaefer’s charts) are well known.

Schaefer presented charts showing the volume of comment from these sources over recent years, comparing all three countries, showing when comment rose and fell, and measuring how much attention was devoted to various topics.  The data tell how digital media connects to foreign policy for these rival powers.

  • Iran’s Twitter posts spiked when the United States pulled out of the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
  • China’s official output surged during the Hong Kong riots.
  • Russian and Chinese content on the covid-19 virus covered the United States more than with other nations.
  • Mostly, Russian output about the U.S. seeks to cause or increase division and conflict, while China tries to show the superiority of its system and promote its narratives on world affairs.

Information Laundering by “perception hackers” illustrated. Screen shot c/o Bret Schaefer, German Marshall Fund.

Schaefer coined a term that was new to me: information laundering. Online propagandists aim to introduce half-truths and falsehoods into mainstream news media in the same way that illegal drug cartels launder money: by moving it to and fro to hide its origin. They put out the stories on their own digital or social media, and then repeat and amplify those stories until they find their way into, say, a news aggregator from some third country. After some time, the bogus article or photo gets picked up by search engines.  In some cases, it will be cited by a reputable news publication as a claim or rumor.

Schaefer noted: “A lot of what Russia does well is not the message; it’s the distribution.” Russian programmers use Twitter robots to retweet media stories they like, posting those stories in multiple places and platforms, and filling “data voids” — search terms for which relevant data is not available. For example, internet searches for White Helmets, Nord Stream II, Sergei Skripal or Ukraine, which don’t get much Western coverage, are likely to turn up mostly results sourced to Russia.

Playing Defense

How can public diplomacy organizations oppose these campaigns? Fighting fire with fire would destroy our very concept of public diplomacy. We are vulnerable on defense.

Schaefer called for aggressive policing of social media platforms to minimize bots and fake accounts, and ventured that organizations could take legal action against sponsors of false information. For example, all platforms now ban impersonation; a suit against state entities that set them up might work. The social media giants still fall short on self-policing, he said.  Facebook has condemned “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” but Twitter has shared publicly much more information about the phenomenon. Schaefer called for more transparency about false accounts by the social media including Google, and said that a “fusion center” to “monitor bad actors” would be helpful.

PD on the Offense

The United States’ public diplomacy also possesses powerful offensive resources. Here are some that come to my mind.

  • The Global Engagement Center, State’s inter-agency team that has the lead mandate on countering false narratives. The GEC does not share much publicly about what it’s doing – probably for good reason.
  • Independent USG-owned news media starting with the Voice of America. Their traditional independence from government has made them more successful than Chinese or Russian media. That’s why so many are watching the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media with concern.  (See Alan Heil’s recent post.)
  • Long-standing allies. Schaefer pointed out that British and Baltic diplomats in particular are faster to respond to and correct false stories than the large, process-oriented State Department. Schaefer’s sponsor, the German Marshall Fund, is an example of the relationships built over 75 years by U.S. public diplomacy.
  • Nearly 200 U.S. missions and consulates, which operate their own websites and social media accounts tailored to the interests of their host countries. All fully attributed and identified, those digital media magnify themes and messaging from the Department of State.

What’s Really at Stake?

Afterward, considering Schaefer’s presentation, I asked myself: which is scarier? The deterioration of the United States’ image and damage to foreign policy goals under attack by China, Russia and Iran? Or the corrosion of American society and political norms? With the advent of our national elections in the middle of a pandemic, racial tensions, and political hostilities, I’m personally a lot more worried about the latter.

I asked Schaefer what he thought Russia would do between now and November. He couldn’t offer a crystal ball, but laid the ultimate responsibility for an orderly and fair election season on American voters and the general public.  He’s right. Public diplomacy cannot cover up the flaws in our society. But it must be preserved and not distorted if it is to defend U.S. interests and values abroad.

Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More.

Reprinted by permission of the Public Diplomacy Council.

First Monday forums are cosponsored by PDAA, PDC, and USC’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

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John Matel recollection by Christopher Datta

by Christopher Datta

John Matel

I am writing to mourn a friend, John Matel, who passed away unexpectedly.

John and I are both retired Foreign Service Officers. We were not close friends, but I enjoyed working with him in the State Department, and he often came to my annual Fourth of July party, which, of course, I cannot hold this year.

John loved to talk about politics, and on Facebook we often disagreed with each other. But the debate was always civil and reasoned, so rare to find today.  And, about 80% of the time, we found we could reach an accommodation we both thought we could live with. Sometimes, he actually changed my mind, and sometimes I changed his.  How often does that happen?  Not that the nation’s political leadership was listening to us.  Sadly.

John was a conservative, and I’m a progressive. But John was a conservative in the conservation sense of the word. He loved nature, and he had a tree farm. He was dedicated to the support of renewable resources, most especially when it came to wood, and building with wood. He was an advocate for the replanting of native wood species, which is what he dedicated his tree farm to accomplishing.

John went to Iraq in an attempt to make our policy work in that country. I was opposed to the war, but respected John’s commitment to put his own safety on the line and to do his best to try to help the people of Iraq build a better life for themselves. John never shirked his duties as an American diplomat, even when it would have been easier to have done that.

John loved beer, and he often posted pictures of himself on Facebook enjoying a mug. I love beer, as well, so that was another thing we shared. I know we both agreed with Ben Franklin when he so famously said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

John was an avid bicyclist. He knew all the bike paths, and although he lived some distance from me, he always rode his bike to my July 4th parties. He was certainly in better shape than I.

John was kind, thoughtful, a hard worker, and a dedicated public servant and husband. We need more like him today, and I will miss him. Rest in peace, my friend.

—Christopher Datta

John Anthony Matel, age 65, of Vienna, VA, passed away on June 22, 2020. He was born in Milwaukee, WI, to the late John Matel, Sr., and Virginia Haase Matel. He is survived by his wife, Christine M. Johnson; his daughter, Mariza Matel (Brendan Williams); his sons, Alex and Espen Matel; and his sister, Christine Matel Milewski (Greg Milewski) of Oak Creek, WI. After serving 32 years as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, John became a self-professed “Gentleman of Leisure…a sometime diplomat, conservationist & seeker of insights.” John purchased his first forest land in 2005 near Lawrenceville, VA, and as a landowner, certified tree farmer & naturalist, managed nearly 500 acres of Virginia forest for timber, wildlife and water quality. He actively served on boards for Virginia Tree Farm Foundation and the Forest History Society, and promoted southern pine ecology and working landscapes. John led by example, and worked to restore longleaf and shortleaf ecosystems on dedicated parcels of his land, a promise for the future and a beauty today. John’s diplomatic posts with the U.S. Department of State in Brazil, Norway, Poland, Iraq, and the U.S. let him do what he loved: working to understand societies, information, and behaviors, and shape strategies to engage networked publics. His proudest accomplishments included working with Iraqis to rebuild their communities after ousting al-Qaeda in Anbar Province, and sending over 26,000 Brazilian students to study STEM fields in top American universities. His career in diplomacy included broadening experiences as President of the Fulbright Commission in Brazil, Senior International advisor at the Smithsonian Institution, and State Department Fellow at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. A memorial celebration will be held at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made to The Nature Conservancy, Directed Gifts. Online condolences may be made at

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Robert A. Powers

Robert A. Powers

Robert A. Powers (age 88) passed away on June 8, 2020. He is survived by his two sons Patrick (Margaret Anne) of Richmond VA, and Michael of Springfield VA. He had three grandchildren Lt Zachary Powers, USN, of Bremerton WA, and Erinn and Mallory Powers, both of Richmond VA. Bob was predeceased by his devoted wife of 58 years, Betty Rae.

Born and raised outside of Boston, Bob was the youngest of six children in a large, Irish Catholic family. Growing up in a family that had fallen on hard times during the depression, he became a genius at repairing broken down engines, often repairing the cars of his father’s friends. After graduating from high school, he joined the Air Force and left for Korea after the war broke out. He later quipped, ‘I told them I wanted a career and they thought I said Korea!”

Upon returning home, his musical prowess was discovered by a local disc jockey, and the next thing you know he had enrolled at the Berklee School of Music. He sang professionally for a time and even landed a gig with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey! Eventually he realized that a performer’s life wasn’t for him, but music continued to play a big role for the rest of his life.

While still a young man, he started work as a field representative for a cutting-edge photographic typesetting system. His technical skills led to a job at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Philippines, where he installed a new printing press for the United States Information Agency (USIA). While in Manila, Bob met the love of his life, Betty Rae, with whom he would spend the next 58 years until her passing in 2019.

He subsequently became a Foreign Service Officer, and throughout his career, Bob and Betty Rae lived all over the world. He loved his work and always appreciated the friendships he made across the globe.

He had numerous adventures during his time abroad, tales of which he enjoyed sharing. In 1967, while at his second overseas posting in Lebanon, Bob ran the embassy evacuation during the Six Day War. As one of the last Americans left in blacked out Beirut, he received transfer orders to Vietnam. From the frying pan into the fire! On his next foreign assignment, while managing the Binational Center in Guadalajara Mexico, he noticed he was being followed to and from work. The US Consul General had been kidnapped the year before, so bodyguards were assigned to him and his family. His two sons thought that was pretty cool. This was followed by a posting in Santiago, Chile. After returning to Washington and studying at the Inter-American Defense College, Bob became the US Public Affairs Officer in Panama City, Panama, during the turnover of US Canal Zone to Panama.

Bob then took a sabbatical from the USIA to work for the Multinational Peacekeepers (MFO) overseeing the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. During this period, he was stationed in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Rome, Italy. He returned to the USIA and ran the Regional Program Office (RPO) in Vienna, Austria, where he had a front-row seat to witness the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. He finished his career as a Senior Foreign Service officer in Washington, DC.

In his retirement Bob joined a writers group and began recording his life story. He penned individual stories until, over time, he amassed enough for a book. Unfortunately, age and cancer made it difficult for him to complete his quest. Finishing his book is now a goal for his sons. Bob lived life to the fullest with his sweetheart Betty Rae and loved every bit of it. Amazed at the life he lived, he often said “I never thought I would live this long!”

In lieu of flowers the family requests donations be made to the American Cancer Society.

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Public Diplomacy Critical at a Perilous Time

by Joe B. Johnson

Distinguished scholar Nancy Snow, who teaches at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies in Japan and holds the Walt Disney Chair at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University in Beijing, warned against cutting ties with China at First Monday Forum on June 1.

Professor Sherry Mueller introduced Prof. Nancy Snow at the June 1, 2020, First Monday forum.

Professor Snow discussed both the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions dominating the news in the United States and around the globe. Not only are there hot zones of viral contamination; there are “hot zones in our thinking.  We’re about to close our channels of communication with China,” Snow asserted.

Public diplomacy answers an urgent need at this moment of inequality and pandemic, she continued – “opening minds to understand the other side.”

Calling out political leaders, Snow said, “Right now, at the very top, there’s a lack of empathy and understanding.”

China’s aggressive diplomacy is rooted in the belief that its story has not been shared with the rest of the world, according to Snow. However, her Chinese contacts are worried that China’s Wolf Warrior stance invites “blowback” that will limit the country’s ambitions for technological advancement.

Nearly 100 guests participated in the session via the Zoom conferencing platform. First Monday Forum is sponsored by the DC-based Public Diplomacy Council, the Public Diplomacy Association of America, and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

“The global pandemic,” according to Snow, has killed 900 people in Japan, a relatively small number for a nation of 125 million. “If you look around, people everywhere are wearing masks almost universally in Japan as well as in South Korea.”

People in those two countries are serious about prevention measures, which were applied early in Taiwan as well: a remarkable feat for three governments adjacent to the People’s Republic of China, where the disease originated.

Snow summed up:

“Edward R. Murrow warned about the necessity of respect for other societies ….  We can all be change agents.

“These are mournful times, but telling America’s story to the world remains a challenge, and an opportunity to make a real difference. We public diplomacy practitioners can make that real difference through dialogue in many settings, including one-on-one conversations with influential friends abroad.”

Snow co-edited the second edition of the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy with Nicholas J. Cull of USC. The Handbook came out in January of this year.

Snow fielded questions from multiple participants in the hour-plus dialogue, which can be viewed at

Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More

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Out and About from Home

by Patricia H. Kushlis

As a Santa Fe resident, I’ve been spending most of my time working from, eating at, and practicing my oboe from home as well as taking walks along the arroyo next to my house since the novel coronavirus first crept into this southern Rocky Mountain state by mid-March. I thought momentarily once quarantine was announced here, that I would use the time to organize my files, read some books, take naps, and binge watch movies while scarfing on pickup lunches and dinners from favorite restaurants plus having groceries delivered to my front door.

It has turned out differently.

After sending out numerous emails postponing the Santa Fe World Affairs Forum’s annual April symposium on the Warming World until, hopefully, April 2021, the board decided to embark upon a different and novel programming approach: a summer webinar series. Its title is: Summer with SFWAF: Hot Weather, Hot Topics. Several of us had already started watching webinars by other organizations. Luckily for us, Krista Peterson and Steve Kerchoff – both board members and former FSOs who were experienced with information technology and willing and interested in seeing whether we could make the new technology work for us – were the most enthusiastic and experienced. After watching numerous programs by other organizations, we then ran two internal trials – programs for board members by two board members who had recently volunteered abroad – to help us work out as many of the bugs as we could before embarking on a more ambitious, public effort. These trials convinced us we could move programs online.

So. . . the first webinar we will be offering to SFWAF members and friends will be on Wed., May 20. It will be by Ambassador John Lange, a specialist in pandemics and now a senior fellow at the UN Foundation. The Ambassador had previously agreed to be a 2020 symposium speaker on climate change and disease spread until, of course, the symposium was put on indefinite hold and his travel cancelled.

What have we learned thus far about this new technology? ( 1) The webinar platform – despite its increased cost – is far superior to a Zoom meeting platform for our type of programming; (2) A single effective speaker for about 30 minutes then comments and q’s/a’s from viewers for about another 20-30 minutes is, for us, more effective than a panel – at least at this point; (3) It takes a small team of two to three people behind the scenes to make the program work comfortably and the webinar platform is more complex to operate than a meeting;( 4) Depending on the topic and the ease of the speaker using PowerPoint, such a presentation can be very effective in a webinar, particularly if pictures are integral to the talk; (5) Instructions to viewers as to how to participate in webinars at the beginning of the session are really important; (6) It is important to ask viewers to hold questions (unless they are points of clarification submitted in writing) until the end of the talk and then asking them to submit the questions either in writing or orally, with the manager controlling the order of questions to keep the flow of the presentation intact – but also allowing plenty of opportunity for viewer participation.

Our plan is to hold two webinars a month on Wednesdays from 11:00 to 12:15 MT over the summer, and we are currently looking for foreign affairs experts comfortable with the webinar format and willing and interested in speaking to our audience. Moreover, if conditions necessitate it, we will continue the webinar format into the fall.

We know that the two International Visitor Committees in New Mexico (Global Ties Albuquerque and the Council on International Relations in Santa Fe) are holding webinars that are different from ours in terms of approach. We also understand from Peter Becskehazy in Tucson, AZ, that the International Visitor Committee (Citizen’s Diplomacy Alliance) there is “planning a Zoom conference with three retired Ambassadors to discuss how the countries they served in are dealing with COVID-19, and the executive director is in touch with former IV grantees about how they are coping in these trying times.”

But, we also wonder about public affairs offices abroad and how effective it is for their staffs to be confined to contacts exclusively through the Internet.

We still have many questions ourselves here in Santa Fe about programming in the age of COVID-19 including financial ones for webinars, but most of all we’d like to hear from you about your experiences and activities during this peculiar period in 21st century history. So please be in contact and let us know how you are and what you are doing. You can reach me at or on my cell phone: 505-550—6392 and leave a message. I’ll return your call.

PDAA Board Member Patricia Kushlis

Pat Kushlis is a member of the PDAA Board of Directors and president of the Santa Fe World Affairs Forum.

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Virtual First Monday Recording Added to PDAA Video Channel

The recipients of this year’s Awards for Achievement in Public Diplomacy were featured in a Virtual First Monday program on May 4, 2020. To view the recording, go to

PDAA has added a new recording to its video channel on Vimeo. The new recording presents the “Virtual First Monday” forum that took place on May 4, 2020, in which the four recipients of the 2020 PDAA Awards for Achievement in Public Diplomacy discussed their efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The forum was part of the regularly scheduled First Monday program sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Association of America, the Public Diplomacy Council, and USC’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. Normally, the forums take place over lunch and are hosted by George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Because of the ongoing novel coronavirus health emergency, the May 4 program was conducted via the Zoom® video-conferencing software.

The four recipients of the 2020 awards featured in the program are:

  • Zennia Paganini, Public Affairs Officer, Yemen Affairs Unit (based at Embassy Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)
  • Public Affairs Section, Embassy Luanda, Angola (Deneyse Kirkpatrick, Public Affairs Officer)
  • Meghan Luckett, Assistant Public Affairs Officer, Embassy Vilnius, Lithuania
  • Riad Yazbeck, Cultural Affairs Specialist, Embassy Beirut, Lebanon

Information on the four recipients and on the annual awards program is available here.

The video of the Virtual First Monday program is available at It joins other PDAA videos, including the October 7, 2019, First Monday forum that focused on the twentieth anniversary of the merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department.

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