Hard News by Russell Brown


Macon Phillips: We need to talk about America

Macon Phillips has had quite a career path. He was director of strategy and communications at Blue State Digital, the web and communications firm that helped Barack Obama to the US Presidency in 2008 and was a key internet strategist for the campaign. He was then hired as the White House director of new media, where he had responsibility for first the Presidential transition and then for the operations of the Whitehouse.gov website.

Late last year, he was tapped by US Secretary of State John Kerry to head the Bureau of International Information Programs and tasked with the overhaul of America's "digital diplomacy" efforts.

He's speaking via live video stream at The Project, a seminar being held at AUT University on Wednesday and Thursday (tickets here). I spoke to him by phone last week and asked him a few questions …

What exactly is your turf at the International Information Programs Bureau? What do and don't you do?

IIP's focus is on the relationship between the United States and foreign audiences around the world with an emphasis on the role public participation plays in advancing American policy priorities.

Many times that means a behind the scenes role in support of our colleagues at different embassies, such as the one in New Zealand. Other times it requires a more direct role, such as developing communities of interest that may transcend borders and collaborating with our policy experts here and our missions abroad to figure out our best course of engagement.

It's a challenge to balance our strategic priorities with a rapidly changing world and oftentimes you find yourself refining something that you couldn't anticipate a week before.

I do try to spend some time both getting out of the office and getting out of Washington DC, and going abroad and learning about what's happening in our missions there, but also getting out of government learning from best practice in the United States and abroad about public engagement. It's really important to have that balance.

Your job has been hitherto talking to Americans -- now it's talking to people in other countries about America. What's been portable into this new role?

The fundamental idea is that it's not enough to talk to people anymore. You have to be able to have a conversation and that also includes listening and a healthy dose of empathy. People talk about engagement a lot, particularly social media. And many times that's code for a new way to broadcast: I want more people to share my contents, I want to get more likes so it's seen. And that only gets you so far.

The true opportunity with social media is dialogue. And dialogue is the fundamental engine of diplomacy. And so, really looking at how we can both use the new tools and networks to get information out and reach audiences in a more efficient way, but also to empower individuals to engage with government around issues they care about.

You're saying "have a conversation", but how do those conversations manifest?

That's the fun part of this job, is that every country, every situation's a puzzle. I'm very cognisant that my experience has been with the American information environment globally. And so one of the things we do with every engagement effort is try to understand the information environment that we're dealing with.

When for example we're looking at engagement around Ukraine in Russian language, we need to understand what those networks are that we're using. When we're trying to look at the next generation of young African leaders, we need to understand how those tools and networks are being used. And so each situation's its own puzzle.

With the Young African Leaders project you're targeting young people -- is that a strategy for you?

Just targeting young people is probably an incomplete strategy, but realising that young people are essential to progress in any situation is certainly something that the President understands and I think it's reflected in our own foreign policy. So when we look at Africa, you can just understand the numbers in terms of the 'youth bulge' -- where you have this incredible proportion of the population that's under the age of 25 or 35. Just on the numbers you want to be speaking with those people.

But when you look for innovation in the public sector, the private sector or the non-profit sector, young people are the ones that have new ideas. We've seen that in the United States in Silicon Valley and in a lot of the most exciting aspects of our economy. We've seen that in terms of political activism and young people really pushing big institutions to change. I think it makes total sense that young people can be those actors for innovation in other countries as well.

It strikes me that many of those young people will know America through its popular culture. Is that an important element of American soft power in what you're trying to do?

Absolutely. The prevalence of American pop culture and the channels through which that culture is delivered -- namely, satellite television, the internet, a lot of technologies that didn't exist a few decades -- also point to changes that the State Department has to make in terms of its own public diplomacy. There was a time in which the State Department was the only source of information about America in parts of the world. I don't think there's a single part of the world where we are now. And that's not so much a competition as an opportunity for us to focus even more on our own policy priorities, rather than just explaining America, because that's being done in many different ways already.

One that that's often been said about what Blue State Digital did is that in that 2008 election campaign you sold Barack Obama as a product. Are you now in a position where you're selling America as a product?

No. I get asked a lot what the secret sauce was for the Obama campaign and first and foremost I should say it's not for me to say. I worked with an incredible team of people in Chicago. That said, one thing people overlook when they talk about how that campaign used technology and how the President has gone on to use technology in the White House and how it's influenced foreign policy is that his first job out of college was as a community organiser. He understands innately that organising for change requires working with people and not merely selling yourself to people, but actually selling the idea that people themselves can effect change in their communities.

Here at the State Department it's less about selling American and more about selling the core values of America to do public diplomacy. Which is embracing the freedom of ideas, embracing the freedom of speech, not being afraid of criticism but also showing up and having conversations with those critics that help them understand where we’re coming from. That is something that has made American democracy as durable as it is and it’s a central tenet to what we think about every day with our public diplomacy.

In those terms, there have been the revelations about the NSA and surveillance, which shaken trust in America in other countries. How do you win people's trust and do you rebuild it in those situations where they're not certain about American motives?

I think part of it is understanding what people outside the United Stes care about. Not just showing up and trying to convince people of the things that the United States cares about, but trying to find areas of mutual interest where we can work together. So you see that with our economic agenda where we really think of shared prosperity --  how can we work with other countries to increase the amount of entrepreneurship and open up trade, so that American companies benefit but also companies in those countries benefit.

On the [NSA] disclosures specifically, I think what you're now seeing is that the dialogue and the debate around these policies in the United States is a testament to its strength, to the fact that when there are contentious ideas, those aren't just brushed under the rug. And that’s something that the President has really tackled. He's addressed the issues specifically, he's got a process he's going through to actually look at reforms to the system and I think that's a really good example of how American democracy can process these big challenges.

It does appear that other countries maybe aren't buying it. This administration has seen a really notable restoration of America's standing with the rest of the world, but if you look at the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, it lately seems to be showing an erosion in those perceptions -- most notably in China. Why do you think that this, why does it matter and what can you do about it?

I'm not familiar with that specific poll, but I think that having been part of the campaign, having been at the White House for four and half years, I never put a lot of stock in one moment in time in terms of any specific poll. For us, I's really to focus on identifying issues of mutual interest and not showing up and speaking at people but actually engaging in dialogue. To improve our policy, improve our approach and to help people around the world. That's a strategy that has been successful in the long term and will continue to be successful.

Moving on to democracy itself, it's election year here in New Zealand and as usual, all parties will be using the internet as a channel -- but there will be no equivalent to the kind of big data approach to voter mobilisation that we now expect to see in US elections. Apart from anything else, it's just too expensive. Is that model replicable outside the US?

It is interesting to think about how the way the American campaign financing system works can have an impact on investments in technology versus other systems where there's more public financing and perhaps a lower overall spend. We see a lot of money historically going into TV ads in American politics, but as those become less impactful could that funding actually shift into more technology?

I don't want to say it's not replicable, but I definitely acknowledge that we've seen a lot of innovation here that might be more difficult in a lot of other countries. That said, doing something the first time is always harder than doing it the second time. So one hope is that you're seeing a lot of the innovators in terms of American politics working with people in other countries to apply those same lessons learned. David Axelrod had just announced he'd working with a party there, so you're seeing some of that election expertise and understanding move beyond American borders.

Part of that step of moving to technological solutions and outreach in elections is also a move away from mass media. Is there a danger that when you target people so tightly with messages that you end up with silos and echo chambers?

I share this concern, very much so. I would encourage you to check out a guy called Eli Pariser, he wrote a book called The Filter Bubble. He looked at this idea that Google uses 25 or so variables to prioritise search results. So it's quite possible that when you and I search for "elections" on Google, we would get different answers. When Google starts thinking about what it thinks you'll be interested in based on what it knows about you and people like you, so start to see that that sorting can be quite pervasive -- and also not necessarily clear to the end user.

In addition to that unseen filtering you're also seeing people sorting, finding people who reinforce their views, rather than testing their assumptions. One of the ways were trying to get at that trend is not simply engaging with people who agree with us, but finding people who might not share our views to engage in that dialogue -- making the effort to do that. But it's an active support -- something that's going to take real discipline. When you explain it, most people say, yeah, that is kind of a problem  -- how to solve that is still unclear.

So how can these great new tools be used to enhance democracy, rather than just win elections?

One of the most exciting technologies that I'm learning about now are the massive online learning courses, virtual learning courses. One of the most important aspects of a democracy is an informed electorate, people who understand issues. And one of the challenges isn't apathy or that people don't want to, it's that they don't have time or they don't have access to information about things they care about. As we see technology make information and learning more accessible to people, I think you're going to see a reinvigoration of debate and an engaged electorate.

It's not simply the tools of elections themselves where I see most of the promise it's really a more empowered electorate and more engaged citizens. Because ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to achieve anyway.

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