The increasingly close relationship between Google and the US “democracy promotion” apparatus recently took a new turn with the launch of a new, private, non-profit organisation designed to leverage the resources of major US corporations in manipulating democratic movements in (initially) four nations: Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Russia.
Strengthening America’s Global Engagement (SAGE) marks the latest permutation of the long-established nexus of US foreign policy and the interests of capital. It represents a new blueprint for US “strategic communication” which promises to create a new arm for US propaganda, able to do things that traditional government-led operations can’t, to work more quickly, and to insulate propaganda efforts from partisan wrangling, budget cuts and elections. In the words of the SAGE business plan, as a 5013c non profit private corporation, “SAGE will be independent of government, nonpartisan, and will transcend presidential administrations”[i].
Not necessarily. The Executive Board and the SAGE Public Diplomacy Initiative Working Group represent a high-powered mix of the usual suspects (the Washington defence and foreign policy establishment, well-connected academics, think tanks, foundations, NED., etc.) and leaders from advertising and PR agencies, as well as media organisations. Google is represented on the Markets, Countries & Networks Subcommittee by Scott Carpenter, Principal at the company’s “think-do tank”, Google Ideas.
The plan, released late last month, is remarkably candid. Describing SAGE as “primarily...a grant-making organization”[ii], it promises to “leverage the power of the private sector – where the bulk of American ingenuity, creativity, technological innovation and resources rest – to strengthen communications with foreign publics, in support of U.S. national interests.”[iii] That strengthening will include promoting “moderate voices to counter violent extremism and ideologies”; “sustainable independent media entities in the developing world”; “the application of new technology for public diplomacy purposes” ; and “public-private partnerships and the free exchange of ideas and information”[iv]. The initial funding is tiny - $10m - but the intended reach of the scheme is extensive and, as we shall see, shows characteristically scant regard for national sovereignty or self-determination in the target countries.
What would these aims look like in practice? The plan is explicit (emphases added):
Promoting Moderate Voices to Counter Violent Extremism and Ideologies
- Facilitate the ability of anti-extremist writers and thinkers from around the world to disseminate information, network and communicate with each other
- Facilitate exchanging culture-related documentaries between private broadcasters and/or commission original programs and productions, or co-finance productions with other partners in return for distribution rights in key regions
- Support the translation/distribution of controversial works governments may find politically unpalatable, or works by non-Americans (such as a moderate Muslim cleric in Indonesia) whose writings should receive more exposure worldwide.
- Reach mass audiences, including those most prone to recruitment by extremists, through original programs and productions that can be distributed via broadcasting, publications, theaters or online.[v]
Promoting innovative Ways to Build Ties Between Americans and the Rest of the World
Here the plan talks about recruiting a network of “cyber diplomats” across the US to develop online relationships with people in the target countries (“For example, SAGE is exploring a partnership in Egypt with the Federation of Economic Development Associations (FEDA), a country- wide, grassroots umbrella organization of over 120 local business associations, to develop dialogue between Egyptian and American small- business owners.”[vi]). Elsewhere, the plan points out that the idea of SAGE is to communicate American values, rather than be linked directly to policy. In case we were in any doubt, we are told that the “cyber diplomats” would provide rapid response “in crisis situations to counter misinformation or the impact of actions by Americans (e.g., Koran burning) that are in opposition to core American principles, such as religious tolerance”[vii].
Promoting Sustainable Independent Media Entities in the Developing World
- Provide grants to regional and local media loan funds
- Support independent news outlets in keeping pace with technology
- Support business training for journalists running news operations who lack the business skills and financial experience required to run a profitable company[viii]
Promoting the Application of New Technology for Public Diplomacy Purposes
- Invest in technologies with potential public diplomacy applications
- Serve as a clearinghouse for best practices
- Promote the next generation of Exchange 2.0 initiatives — that is, technology-enabled programs embedded in curricula and with a cross-cultural educational purpose
- Support experimentation and development of new, state-of-the-art methods of measuring success that can benefit the entire public diplomacy community[ix]
Among the examples of such technology are “on-person devices that instantly translate speech, text or handwriting from any of the world’s 6,000 languages; contact lenses with Internet connections capable of displaying subtitles in the wearer’s field of vision; texting by thinking; electronic paper; video leaflets; 3D printing; holographic wall screens; and actually “being” in a video game.”[x]
Promoting Public-Private Partnerships and the Free Exchange of Ideas and Information Between Public and Private Sectors
- SAGE will establish a research council to consist of leading members
- of the international public-opinion/market-research community from both the private and public sectors and universities to share audience and market research. Multinational companies spend billions more dollars on such research than the government, but there is currently no ongoing venue through which non-proprietary data can be shared with government officials and vice versa.
- It will be a network hub for collaboration among government agencies, civil society, businesses, and academia.[xi]
“Anti-Americanism and violent extremism threaten the commercial and investment climate for U.S. businesses in countries that are essential energy sources and potentially significant markets... SAGE will contribute to more stable markets where American business can thrive.”[xii]
The rationale for the scheme is clear. US policymakers have been looking for ways to maximise the use of “soft power” to complement American military and economic dominance, and for ways to place the interaction of the state and corporations in the propaganda effort on a stable footing, since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. They perceive a threat, not only from China and from “extremists”, but from alternative media such as al-Jazeera, and the disruption and instability created by phenomena as various as social networking sites and the Arab Spring. They have also noted, with alarm, the phenomenon of the graduate without a future:
“The youth bulge across the Middle East, as well as in the developing countries of Asia and Africa, is taxing education and health care systems, natural resources and labor markets. As was seen in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, the result can be politically explosive. In Egypt, university graduates have the highest unemployment rates, and they were the Egyptians who were in the vanguard of the revolution.
Given the sheer numbers of youth in developing countries around the world, the need to focus on improving their well-being, their limited exposure to the U.S. and American citizens, and their innate openness to new ideas, global engagement initiatives must make the youth segment a priority in order to have an impact over the longer term.”[xiii]
There are particular reasons why SAGE is testing its model in the four target countries. The plan cites 2011 Pew Research data showing the majority in Muslim countries who perceive the US as a threat, with particularly deep antipathy in NATO ally Turkey. Then it highlights the instability arising from the revolution in Egypt, and its strategic importance in the region; Pakistan’s influence over events in Afghanistan; while Russia is targeted, for a whole range of obvious strategic reasons from nuclear security to its status as a member of the BRIC quartet.
US Department of Google
The interaction between Google and the policy priorities of Washington is in itself instructive, and offers some further indication of the context in which SAGE has developed. Google Ideas was launched in 2010 by Jared Cohen, formerly an adviser to both Condoleezza Rice (herself an honorary co-chair of SAGE) and Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Indeed, it was Cohen who had intervened to ask Twitter to postpone its maintenance upgrade during the 2009 protests in Iran.
Last June, Google Ideas hosted a high-profile Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) in Dublin, co-sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival. Jonathan Githens-Mazer, co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter, resigned, with a colleague, from their involvement in the project in response to its specifically apolitical focus:
“We became increasingly concerned about a strategy that seemed to focus on denuding political violence of its political context. By sticking 'formers' - skinheads, gang members and chosen (safe) 'Islamic Extremists' (the majority of whom had never participated in any form of violence) on the same stage, and to claim that this violence is only a result of a search for camaraderie and identity; to deny any authenticity to ideas of national liberation, struggle in the face of oppressive power, and/or a sense that sometimes violence is, while hateful, perceived as the only viable option in some struggles, seemed more like a radical defence of the status quo rather than a deeper search for answers to violence. In fact, it seemed that to qualify as a former, you not only had to renounce violence, but in addition any idea that had underpinned the violence in the first place.”
Githens-Mazer’s objections are consistent with critiques of the NGO movement going back to Petras (1999)[xiv], and indeed could be applied to much of Google’s other activity in this area. Looking at the company’s European Public Policy blog, it is striking how the targets of Google’s activism map so closely against those of US foreign policy, while the themes have the very same depoliticised character noted by Petras and Githens-Mazer.
Google likes to portray itself as a stout defender of its users’ data against government snooping, but it is clear that the corporation has become every bit as entwined with the US foreign policy and propaganda establishment as the lobbyists, advertising and PR agencies with which it is collaborating in SAGE.
John Brissenden is a co-editor of New Left Project.
Guilhot, N (2005) The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order. New York: Columbia University Press
Roelofs, J (2003) Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism. Albany: SUNY Press
[i] Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2012) Creating an Independent International Strategic Communication Organization for America, p4
[ii] Ibid., p3
[iv] Ibid., p4
[v] Ibid., p13
[vi] Ibid., p14
[vii] Ibid., p15
[viii] Ibid., p16
[xi] Ibid., p17
[xii] Ibid., p10
[xiii] Ibid., p8
[xiv] Petras, J (1999) NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism. Journal of Contemporary Asia 29 (4): 429-440