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Marching into Cyberspace

Author: Greg Bruno
December 26, 2007

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When Rear Admiral Mark Fox kicked off the Defense Department’s first briefing for online journalists in February 2007, he made no secret of his views on traditional media (PDF). “I know you guys dig into many of these issues deeper than most of the journalists I regularly deal with here,” Fox, then the communications director for Multi-National Force-Iraq, said by telephone from Baghdad. “I appreciate how bloggers allow [us] to get our message through the media filter directly to the American people.”

Fox isn’t the only bureaucrat warming to the blogosphere. In press-weary Washington, at least half a dozen government agencies have started blogs that wade into the minutia of their offices, from postings on obscure tax laws to the details of environmental legislation. One of the most recent—Director’s Blog, from the Congressional Budget Office—went live December 5. The Pentagon’s Bloggers Roundtable, which dates to February 2007, offers a new twist to Internet outreach: it links military commanders with bloggers to discuss current events and posts briefing transcripts online. Other new government blogs include the Homeland Security Leadership Journal and GovGab, a U.S. General Services Administration site filled with tips on good living. The blog that has caused the biggest stir, however, is arguably the U.S. State Department’s Dipnote. Inaugurated in September, it features observations from department employees and encourages readers to comment on U.S. foreign policy. Some do, and candidly.

Gauging traffic to government-run blogs is difficult. Heath Kern, editor of Dipnote, says four thousand users have signed up to receive syndication alerts since his site’s launch. Online journals have also reported a modest spike in hits (National Journal) originating from “.gov” blogs. Yet no government blog has cracked the top 100 blogs as measured by search engine Technorati. Dipnote ranks 13,829.

Some media observers hope it stays that way. Ken Silverstein, Washington Editor for Harper’s Magazine, says the Pentagon’s roundtable seeks to bypass the traditional media in favor of bloggers, many of which have “a heavily conservative tilt.” Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, says that when public officials are blogging (AP) “you're seldom going to get a different point of view or an inside story.” But it does give the public the opportunity to give feedback to those officials, he adds.

Criticism aside, the Bush administration’s embrace of the blogosphere is a significant turnaround for a White House once considered stingy with information (NYT). In some ways Washington is making up for lost time. As Matt Raymond notes in the Library of Congress Blog, the Internet has redefined how people get and share information, something the public figured out long ago. But easing access to information is only one reason behind the Bush administration’s Web explosion. Expanding its global reach is another. Feedback at the State Department’s Dipnote, for instance, comes from respondents as far away as Syria and China.

Of course, Washington bureaucrats are not the only ones rushing to the Web. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, has a blog, and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a site dedicated to his personal philosophies. Al-Sahab, the media arm of al-Qaeda, recently invited journalists (AP) to send questions to its No. 2 figure, Ayman al-Zawahri, via online forums. Al-Qaeda already uses the Internet to disseminate information on religious training, guerrilla tactics, and to issue calls for jihad (Jamestown). Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., tells the Associated Press in the article cited above that al-Qaeda’s “media capability is sophisticated as ever.”

Given the competition, Washington has a lot of catching up to do. Yet some observers, including Craig Hayden, a postdoctoral fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, are encouraged by what they see. Hayden says sites like Dipnote have the potential to show that “someone in the U.S. government is actually listening to the outside world, and that its opinions matter.”

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