CO117 Will Wilkinson on Community and Ideology

Will Wilkinson is the vice president for research at the Niskanen Center.

He’s also and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He was previously, a correspondent for The Economist and a research fellow at the Cato Institute.

We discussed his research paper The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash.


Most of you won’t have listened to a radio service called Voice of America, and there’s a good reason for that. Actually, it’s not just radio any more; they describe themselves as a multi-media service. And it’s owned and funded by the US government. So why haven’t you heard it? Because that’s not allowed.

Not to say that you’re not allowed to tune in, but they, VOA as they’re known, aren’t allowed to broadcast to you. In the good old days of shortwave radio broadcasts, that meant that they would aim their broadcasts at other countries, never at the USA. The main targets were Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East, and their job was to promote the American point of view. It’s a propaganda station.

They’ve never really been that successful, they don’t have the brand recognition that the BBC World Service has, certainly not the level of trust. Like their Cold War competitors Radio Moscow, they had a pretty heavy-handed bias that undermined their credibility.

By the way, you shouldn’t confuse Voice of America with Voice of Europe, which is a clickbait conspiracy website. Anyway, the reason that VOA isn’t aimed at you, even though you can hear it if you really want to, is because the US constitution is a bit sniffy about the government controlling the media; so the solution was that the broadcasts would be aimed exclusively outside the US.

The dozens of languages that they broadcast in – including Khmer, Swahili and Kurdish – reflect the places where the US wants to influence public opinion. It’s all well and good targeting Cambodia, Tanzania or Kurdistan, but targeting the US is seen as off-limits.

That brings us to a tender put out by the Department of Homeland Security a little while back. They regularly advertise for external companies to contract to do work for them. But this particular call for applications was a bit different. They were looking for a contractor to monitor traditional news sources and online social media and identify any and all coverage related to the agency or events that might interest it.

That’s pretty broad. They went on to say that the winning bidder would have to “provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers”. According to themselves, the Department of Homeland Security has “a critical need to incorporate these functions into their programs in order to better reach federal, state, local, tribal, and private partners.”

Now the democratic case why the US government – or any government for that matter – shouldn’t be paying to influence media coverage aimed at their own citizens is pretty obvious, but why is the Department of Homeland Security – the Department of Homeland Security looking for tools to monitor what private citizens are blogging and tweeting.

And why are they interested in identifying top media influencers? If they were keeping tabs on suspected terrorists, seeing whether what they say in public indicates that they are planning crimes in private, that would be one thing, but this has much more of a ring of trying to mould public opinion.

If the DHS or any other branch of government wants to encourage people to speak and think highly of them, then the best way to do that would be to do a good job, not try to bully, threaten or cajole influencers into saying nice things about them.