Ignoring YouTube: Imam Feisal's Flawed Approach to 21st Century "Media"

Imam Feisal's talk at the Council on Foreign Relations reveals the Imam's surprising portrayal of a monolothic Media which has lost control of his message, and has allowed itself to be "hijacked by extremists." He demands, "You, the media, can fuel the radicals or you can limit their airtime." He blames the media for creating a "witch's brew" by shaping "political, socio-economic, religious, perceptions" in the Middle East. But perhaps most surprisingly, Imam Feisal goes so far as proposing that the media not report on suicide attacks, an argument that naïvely underestimates the power of new digital media outlets, like YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.

This perception of the Imam's seems outdated and misguided when, in the age of Web 2.0, media is the opposite of monolithic. There is no "media" anymore: just many disparate channels, and an audience of hundreds of millions of empowered users. This perception seems particularly narrow-minded when considered against the Obama Administration's YouTube Diplomacy efforts.

Interestingly, the Imam and YouTube Diplomacy have something in common: they have both been valuable inroads for the Obama Administration's engagement with the Muslim World. But they have been two very distinct approaches: the Imam's tour, backed by the State Department, is shoe leather diplomacy. This approach puts an American Muslim face in person to person communications with local communities in the Middle East. Alternately, YouTube Diplomacy is "21st Century Statecraft," which actively engages with the Web for public diplomacy, and other, purposes. This approach enables US diplomats to put a virtual American face anywhere on the Web, and both control and engage around the message. Through YouTube Diplomacy, President Obama's message to the Iranian people on Nawroz, and his seminal speech in Cairo, were actively distributed in many translations across the Internet, globally.

The Imam also has pursued a shoe leather diplomacy approach in the US for his Cordoba House. He has engaged in face-to-face discussions, hosted press conferences, and written op-eds worldwide primarily with the intent of being covered by the traditional media. His perception of a monolithic media distorting his message seems to derive from newspapers and television coverage of his endeavors, which have actively reported the most extreme arguments that questions both the intent and the symbolism of the Cordoba House.

Rather than blaming the media, perhaps the Imam would be better served to not pursue a shoe leather diplomacy approach exclusively. For instance, an interesting question is whether the Imam would be better served by pursuing something akin to YouTube Diplomacy. YouTube Diplomacy was a logical extension of the President's use of YouTube in his 2008 campaign. The President continues to use YouTube as a channel for his weekly addresses, making it a proven tool domestically. Were the Imam to film videos explaining his intent behind the Cordoba House or to counter arguments made in the media in real-time, and use YouTube to actively distribute those videos, the Imam might be able to regain control over his message.

But the Imam could also take a 21st Century Statecraft approach by using the many different tools of Web 2.0 to communicate and share the Cordoba House's purpose. The web offers countless tools to the Imam's advantage: a customized Google Map could highlight for users why the argument that TriBeCa is hallowed ground is, in fact, a hollow argument. An interactive Flash or HTML5 walk-thru of the proposed Cordoba House could provide an engaging counterpoint to the worst fears of conspiracy theorists. He can post images from his visits on Flickr, or his tour itinerary on multiple travel tracking sites. Facebook can offer a particular forum for people to engage with these materials. Openness, and the Web 2.0 tools that encourage it, can only help the Imam.

Of course, the Web is not a cure-all. The violent and hateful rhetoric we have seen in some online debates, and outside 51 Park Place, may be good reasons for him not to engage in some online fora (i.e., Twitter). But he has many channels and tools at his disposal, and he is not engaging in them. Additionally, the value of YouTube Diplomacy remains to be seen in the long-run, as it is still a relatively new tool.

But YouTube Diplomacy has arguably contributed to improving the US image in the Muslim World, and it has helped the US communicate its understanding that the problem in the Muslim world isn't with "99-point-whatever percent" of all Muslims, it is with the empowered micro-few that are extremists (who continue to use the tools of Web 2.0 for both publicity and recruitment purposes).

For this reason, it is important to remind the Imam why YouTube Diplomacy was pursued in the first place. The image of the US was damaged in the Middle East, millions of Muslim youth were increasingly engaging online, and many governments saw a convenient scapegoat in the US. The message was not getting through, so rather than pursuing government-to-government messaging, the Obama Administration distributed the videos via Government to People and People to People distribution channels. The message simply could not be blocked or misinterpreted. It was there for all to see, in multiple translations.

The lesson of YouTube Diplomacy for Imam Feisal, then, is openness, engagement and distribution successfully can counter misinformation. For all its virtues as a communications channel, the Internet presents two challenges to the Imam. First, unlike President Obama, the Imam is not an ideal messenger. He is not as comfortable speaking extemporaneously than when reading from prepared remarks. Second, he may simply not understand the Web, or be surrounded by people comfortable with the tools at his disposal. There was no mention in his talk of the blogosphere, the Twittosphere, or any other medium; instead, he simply focused on media coverage.

The CFR event reflected the second reason: the Imam's problems derive from a lack of familiarity, if comfort, with the Internet as a medium. But moreover, it reflected a problematic disconnect in Imam Feisal's understanding of messaging as it was in the 20th century, and messaging as it is in the 21st century. This disconnect can be remedied if the Imam aggressively embraces the tools of a medium that can only help his cause.