Voice of America 2.0? We Need a Smarter Digital Media Strategy in Wartime.

Lots of consumers lobbied Google, Amazon, Netflix and more to turn off digital media delivery to citizens in Russia. In a cavalcade of announcements, the leadership of Netflix, YouTube Premium, Amazon Prime Video and more have responded, and either shut off entirely or severely restricted their operations in Russia. Right now, it’s basically an all-or-nothing approach, with varying degrees of turning off switches for monetization.

But is outright shutdown of thriving media delivery pipelines like Netflix, YouTube, Apple App Store etc., to consumers in adversary nations the most effective thing we can do with these platforms of reach and scale? Or might it be smarter to encourage or even compel those companies to instead intersperse federally approved Public Service Announcement (PSA) messaging into their programming to certain geo-targeted locations during certain times?

When I was a radio DJ in college in the 80’s, we had a set number of PSA’s per day set by the station’s program director. The PSA’s needed to come from a set of scripts that sat beside the turntables. We read these PSA’s over the air. We could choose which one to read, but we needed to deliver at least one per three-hour show.

PSA’s generally aim to raise awareness or change behavior. Some of the most common in the United States are for Emergency Preparedness or personal health. Contrary to popular belief, the Federal Communications Commission does not mandate PSA’s. They are instead voluntarily offered up by the station. The incentive comes from being a good citizen, but also resume-building: Federal Communications Commission factors in whether a company is acting in “the public’s interest” when renewing or expanding licenses.

Here in America, PSA’s are quite prevalent. In 2014, the Center for Disease Control commissioned a study to look at the delivery volume for just one of its campaigns. The amount of donated airtime to television alone generated up to 251 million impressions for each PSA. And that’s just for one campaign, one client, and one media channel: television. If you’ve ever heard about disaster preparedness or getting tested for blood pressure, or getting a COVID booster, chances are it came from a PSA.

Seems to me something analogous to this approach might be beneficial in the digital media age.

Imagine if we had a live, open source media repository of wartime PSA’s ready to go, but always being updated/expanded. These would be video clips, audio segments, and short written text. They wouldn’t have to be too heavy-handed. They wouldn’t even have to reference the ongoing conflict. They could simply be referencing things we value, like freedom or self determination, or the essential benefits of principles like women’s rights, or what have you. There’s no reason this repository shouldn’t be publicly available to the US for scrutiny. These would be, of course, messages we’d like to go out to the world, subject to Executive Branch approval, Congressional oversight, and the subjective judgment and commentary by every citizen and journalist. It’d be open source.

An appointed government agency would act as manager of this repository, approving or denying contributions to it, overseen by Congress.

Digital media companies like Netflix, Apple and Google have their own brands to protect, of course. So it should be up to them to determine which messages “fit” with their brand, and which do not. They can and should even be contributors to the repository. They could create their own and “pull-request” them into the media repository. Apple, for instance, might make a killer ten-part series about the values that make it great. Many of these corporations are phenomenal at consumer marketing, story-telling and message delivery.

This could be a live, transparent media repository with a variety of messages approved by the US government, from which corporations would be encouraged to choose. Perhaps they’d show the human suffering or destruction on the ground that’s censored from view. Or perhaps they’d report on how the front is truly going. Or explain, as diplomats are doing today, how we have no beef with citizens, but do strongly disagree with the current administration, and why.

Digital media corporations could, at their choosing, pick from this repository and intersperse these messages. Just what might encourage them could be a variety of things. It could be voluntary, based entirely on what their own corporate leadership believes is the right amount of good citizenry. A light touch seems wise, especially given the scale of audience: corporations could even be allowed to present the “Skip” button after n seconds (generally 10), as they do with other ad-driven content, or even a setting to turn it off, as long as the default setting starts with “On.” Even if the vast majority skips through them, messages would still likely reach millions, plenty to encourage conversation.

Perhaps corporations could get a tax break for delivery of these messages. A much more aggressive approach (which I do not favor) could be taxation/fees levied by the US federal government if they failed to meet thresholds of delivery. Or perhaps an agency could outright pay for delivery of these messages. With such a novel program that is prone to launch risks and product-market fit issues, I think it’d probably be best to make it entirely voluntary on the corporations’ behalf initially, but corporations should be encouraged to report their PSA delivery, and how they’ve acted in the public’s interest.

Surely, hostile authoritarian regimes would block platforms which do this over a certain threshold. Putin’s regime has already clamped down very hard on what people can and cannot say. But isn’t it better for adversarial governments to be the one to block entertainment and productivity services from their own populace than to have the US and European-based corporations be the ones who can be blamed as bad guys?

Jack Shafer writes in Politico that Putin is unlikely to win the propaganda war, long-term, in 2022. I fully agree. He’s already off to a very bad start in that regard. Seems we have an opportunity to leverage our cultural power and reach, rather than just treat it like a needed resource akin to oil or wheat, in which termination is seen as punishment. We can be more nuanced in our strategy.

Even with substantial efforts to block and jam signals of Voice of America, it reaches an estimated weekly global audience of more than 311,000,000 people. Doing this kind of “leave service open, but insert messages on occasion” also is far less likely for these corporations to lose global consumers for good. Seems like there’s mostly upside to giving it a try.

This is just a nascent idea at this stage. Obviously such an idea would have substantial second and third-order effects, and those would need to be carefully considered. And I admit, I haven’t thought carefully through the ramifications of this long-term. But I think there’s a kernel of a better strategy here, rather than just turning off the spigots outright.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.