The Cognitive Crucible podcast and discussing "The Irony of Misinformation: USIA Myths Block Enduring Solutions"
A chat moderated by John Bicknell with Chris Paul and me
On December 14, 2022, John Bicknell of the Information Professionals Association’s The Cognitive Crucible podcast interviewed Dr. Chris Paul and me about our article The Irony Of Misinformation: USIA Myths Block Enduring Solutions. The 54-minute conversation, aka Episode #128 Matt Armstrong and Chris Paul on the U.S. Information Agency and Foreign Policy, included some Q&A with IPA members and can be heard at the link above or directly below. You can also subscribe to the podcast in your favorite listening app.
I should disclose that I’ve been on the board of advisors of the Information Professionals Association since the organization’s launch. Before IPA went public, I objected to the name “Information Professionals Association” as it seems more befitting a group of librarians (a group who deserve our respect, praise, and, if school librarians, substantial pay raises). Neither fact helped, or as far as I know, hindered the invitation for this interview.
This was my second appearance on The Cognitive Crucible, with the first being a 90min (I know, only ninety minutes!) discussion centered around the misinformation, disinformation, and truths about the Smith-Mundt Act. That was Episode #49 Armstrong on the Smith-Mundt Act. This was also Chris’s second appearance, and not that I noticed they invited him before me (proving my advisory board position didn’t help). His earlier appearance was Episode #20 Chris Paul on the Firehose of Falsehood, which centered around his very worthwhile article, co-authored with Miriam Mathews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model.
The article “The Irony of Misinformation,” published at 1945, came out of a conference Chris was at – the Phoenix Challenge – where “bring back USIA” brought applause from the audience. Chris and I have known each other and have worked together for over a dozen years (he brought me on as an adjunct at RAND a long time ago to help with a report). I discussed the article in one of my first Substack posts back in July:
In the podcast, we went beyond the article to discuss the barriers to a successful organizational capability and posture. Too often, these discussions center on how we can better react to adversarial challenges. (The “great power competition” framework is fundamentally a reactionary framework, limited in scope to boot.) We need to start with a purpose, which must be more than shouting “Stop It!” in response to adversarial informational activities. Any solution must also recognize that “information” is more than nouns and verbs on a page, whether printed or virtual. All policies have an information – or psychological – component whether we like it or acknowledge it.
Topics that we touched on include:
The myth of the USIA and how it represents a failure, not a success, in the information space as it had fewer authorities, less integration, and didn’t enjoy the leadership position at the foreign policy coordinating tables the agency it replaced had.
The myth of USIA as being charged with “countering foreign propaganda” as it is known today.
Why leadership is so important and why the organization chart doesn’t matter if leadership is not firmly and consistently committed and engaged. This was the basic point of our 1945 article: changing the boxes on the org chart will not magically manifest a (little or big “s”) strategy or leadership; this will only bring limited tactical success until the rotations kick in.
What capabilities and authorities do we need to have? Another question where the answer depends on what we want to do and how we want to do it. Starting with the organization first is like building a road before designing the car, let alone knowing where the on-ramps and off-ramps should be, at least initially. Further, too many folks are focused on the right organization out of the gate while willfully ignoring current organizational defects (yes, defects) they hope to paper over as irrelevant.
What other governments are doing this right or are there other governments we could take a page from? This was a good question that highlighted our unique requirements.
State and Defense can’t engage domestically. This spoke to the not-USIA issue of domestic challenges to disinformation and misinformation.
I hope you listen to the podcast. Any questions, post them below or in the chat.
"Any solution must also recognize that “information” is more than nouns and verbs on a page, whether printed or virtual. All policies have an information – or psychological – component whether we like it or acknowledge it."