Pakistani demonstrators riot in September 2012. / Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images
Filed under Good Intentions and Good Money for Naught: the U.S. television ad campaign last year in Pakistan to persuade locals to stop hating America.
Steve Tatham, a British military officer and expert on propaganda efforts, penned a report on U.S. "information operation and strategic operations" that the Army War College published last week. One of his case studies involved television ads the U.S. government purchased in September 2012 on Pakistani national television to denounce The Innocence of Muslims, a video offensive to Muslims. The ads featured statements by President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sounds reasonable, right? Perhaps to an American. Not so much to a protesting Pakistani, Tatham points out:
"In assessing the Pakistan TV advertisements, a number of questions arise, chiefly about accessibility and reach," Tatham writes. "First, of the large body of people who chose to riot, probably only a very tiny percentage had actually seen the offending video. The video is 74 minutes in duration and a little over 400-megabytes (MB) in size. 'Highlights' could therefore have been available to smart phones, but it would be next to impossible to view properly without access to the web. While Internet penetration in Pakistan is undeniably growing, literacy in Pakistan is still less than 55%, and around 30% to 40% of the population live beneath the poverty line, which suggests limited access to the Internet via computer. At the same time, viewing the U.S. response required both access to a TV set and the ability either to understand English or to read the superimposed Urdu script. It is a reasonable supposition, therefore, that many of the rioters had probably never seen the original video, nor the presidential address that followed, and that their knowledge of its existence was largely second hand, transmitted through trusted community leaders and/or social networks such as mosques."
Tatham suggests that anger over the video was intensified by the perception that the "U.S. hates Muslims" based on the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and desecrations of the Koran both intentional and accidental.
"In this context, it seems optimistic that a few words in a TV advertisement from the U.S. President, the embodiment of the western 'infidel,' could appease an enraged mob," Tatham writes.
And, unsurprisingly, they didn't.
"The ads have been running this week on seven different Pakistani television stations in cool tempers over the film," ABC News reported at the time, as Tatham points out. "But today's protests were the largest seen so far since the controversy began in Pakistan last week with the attempted storming of the U.S. embassy."
Tatham credits the U.S. government for trying. But that's faint praise. He concludes failures of U.S. propaganda since 9/11 stem from "susceptibility to ambitious contractors, an absence of 'intelligent customers,' and an apparent absence of understanding how communication can, and cannot, be realistically employed to mitigate crisis and conflict."
His findings track with what USA TODAY has found in two years of reporting on those propaganda: hundreds of millions of dollars spent on poorly tracked programs that have enriched contractors.
Tatham takes note of our coverage, labeling me a "long-standing critic of the Department of Defense's (DOD) Information Operations (IO) efforts." That coverage has often been dismissed by the Pentagon's IO community, he writes.
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