Why you should care about the ‘Third Dimension’ of government information

One of the biggest publishers you know. .gov via www.shutterstock.com

Government secrecy and the government’s collection of personal data on citizens are a daily part of the news we read.

Reporters cover these two subjects routinely, just as they do the Pentagon or Interior Department. Many days, such stories dominate the front page, as has been the case recently with the contentious congressional debates over the collection of bulk telephone records. This week, the Senate passed the USA Freedom Act, which removes some data collection powers from the government, and is expected to be signed by President Obama.

Another aspect of government information, however, receives almost no attention at all. This is the government’s provision of it.

Despite its absence from the news, this “Third Dimension” (as I call it) of government information is as capable of subverting democracy as the other two.

The visible pros and cons

On a positive level, government information is indispensable to democracy.

The 18th-century political thinker Jeremy Bentham argued that government must make its deliberations known so ordinary people are “placed in a situation to form an enlightened opinion, and the course of the opinion is easily marked.”

The government’s provision of information, however, has grown beyond Bentham’s call for “publicity,” a term that once enjoyed more positive connotations than it does today.

Weather reports help us plan our Sunday outings or prepare for a hurricane; economic data help us invest more wisely; nutrition studies help us live healthier lives.

But the government communication apparatus can also be turned to less salubrious uses. It can insert blatantly political messages into public service announcements.

In 2004, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service issued press releases that ostensibly reminded citizens of the upcoming date for filing taxes but included this comment:

“America has a choice: It can continue to grow the economy and create new jobs as the president’s policies are doing or it can raise taxes on American families and small businesses, hurting economic recovery and future job creation.”

Also, the government can be deceptive. After the invasion of Iraq, a Pentagon program to promote democracy in that country covertly funded news operations that purported to be independent.

From time to time, reports surface about public money being used for self-promotion, as when the Department of Education created materials to accompany an address by President Obama to schoolchildren.

In it, children were asked to “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals.”

Reports such as these are episodic. In a strange sort of paradox, we know surprisingly little about our government’s programs to inform us.

What we don’t know

In 1913 Congress passed legislation forbidding, without its expressed approval, the expenditure of appropriated funds on publicity experts.

“It does not seem to me,” said an architect of the legislation, “that it is proper for any department of the Government to employ a person simply as a press agent.”

Indeed, the term “press agent” was made verboten as a government job title. But when the United States entered the Great War four years later, this law was a finger in a dike that overflowed with government information.

Influencing diets during World War I. Washington, DC; scan by Pritzker Military Library, CC BY-SA

This flood came from a new agency created by President Wilson, the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI, the subject of a book I am writing, was the first government agency to attempt to systematically shape the views of American and foreign audiences through news, speeches, posters, films and ads, some of it covertly.

The CPI was abolished at the end of the war. Its policies lived on in such positive forms as the Federal Register, but also in the increasingly sophisticated manipulation of citizens’ opinions.

A proliferation of communicators

To this day, no government official carries the title of press agent, but communicating information is a full-time job for thousands of government employees, many of whom carry titles that seem divorced from such activity.

The senator from Arkansas asking questions. Department of State

“It is unlikely that anyone in the Federal Government knows how many people are engaged in ‘opinion-shaping’ information activities,” Senator William J Fulbright wrote in 1970. He was particularly concerned about the Pentagon’s information machine, which has grown so much the brass cannot easily control it today.

Following the US’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld increased the number of staff working on strategic communications, which many people considered shorthand for policy advocacy and spin.

Five years later, after Rumsfeld stepped down, the vice chief of staff of the Army, General Peter W Chiarelli, set out to determine how many people were involved in “stratcom,” as it was called.

“Couldn’t do it,” a military chief public affairs officer told me. Many working on strategic communications held unrelated job titles. Commanders did not cooperate. Senior officers relied on these people to promote their programs as well as themselves, and feared that Chiarelli would eliminate the positions.

To cite another example of the proliferation of communicators, consider the State Department’s relatively new enterprise, “ediplomacy.”

In 2002, the Office of eDiplomacy employed six people; a decade later, 80. Altogether, 150 people scattered throughout the State Department worked on ediplomacy, connecting with more than 900 staffers overseas.

The State Department, said a 2012 report on ediplomacy, “now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the 10 largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms.”

Time for some definitions

The Third Dimension of government information is all the more nebulous because much of it is anonymous. Twitter accounts, which can be found in every government agency, often do not state who is authorized to tweet. Government blogs often don’t identify authors.

In addition, the government outsources propaganda to the private sector.

As one example, advertising contracts, estimated a Congressional Research Service report, totaled US$892.5 million in fiscal year 2013.

These expenditures, said the author of the report, Kevin Kosar, are difficult to calculate because there are no reporting requirements and “there is no government-wide definition of what constitutes advertising.”

Congress has passed a few additional anti-propaganda statutes since 1913. Partisan messages are forbidden, as is covert propaganda. But Congress also has not defined the terms “publicity” and “propaganda.” No federal agency monitors compliance. Only occasionally does a congressional committee or its Government Accountability Office look into a small corner of government information to see if these rules, such as they are, are being followed.

A starting point for managing the Third Dimension of government information is to define it, not simply in the dictionary sense (although that is needed), but in establishing baseline measurements.

How much is spent each year; how many people are engaged in the process and what do they do?

These data are unlikely to be collected unless Congress requires it.

At a minimum, citizens deserve to know how the government uses their tax dollars to shape their views. Once voters, Congress, and the news media realize how pervasive the Third Dimension of government information is, they are likely to ask for more accountability.