Homeland Security: Lost in translation

ATHENS, Ohio -- The Department of Homeland Security has launched another ill-conceived scheme to identify potential threats. Now it wants to develop software to monitor "negative opinions" of the United States in overseas publications.
Homeland Security has awarded a three-year, 2.4 million grant to university researchers to test the system on foreign articles published in 2001 and 2002 reacting to topics such as President Bush's use of the term "axis of evil," the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the debate over global warning, and the coup attempt against Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
But this information is already available, every day, in every U.S. embassy around the world, where media experts analyze news and opinion from leading newspapers, magazines, and Web sites. Many of these experts are former journalists, hired for their political savvy, knowledge of the local media scene, and ability to read between the lines of official pronouncements and put them in context.
Add to this the news and opinion summaries from other governments, media monitoring groups, policy and advocacy groups and various bloggers and we could easily conclude that one more tracking system was simply redundant.
Not so, says Homeland Security. The software, it says, will allow more rapid and comprehensive monitoring of global news media, helping intelligence agencies "to identify common patterns from numerous sources of information which might be indicative of potential threats to the nation."
Thus, the objective is to speed up content analysis by using a coding system to analyze articles to determine the frequency with which specific names or phrases appear, or how a public figure or policy issue is presented. Coders cross-check a sample of articles to make sure they agree on how words and phrases should be coded. Factors such as story length and placement are also considered.
It is laborious work usually performed by underpaid graduate students, and Homeland Security can be forgiven for not wanting to wait for an academic journal article or dissertation to come out to learn that anti-U.S. tirades were common in provincial weeklies in western Uzbekistan five years ago. But it is also more systematic and sensitive to nuance than any computerized system.
Take the issue of translation. The researchers say that the goal is to distinguish levels of rhetoric -- for example, the difference between "dislike and excoriate."
I had to dig out my 1,000-page Concise Oxford Russian Dictionary to find out how Vladimir Putin would handle "excoriate." The verb is raznosit or raznesti (in Russian, the difference is between always excoriating, or just excoriating something today). But in the Russian-English section, the two words have at least six meanings, ranging from the benign "carry" or "note down" to the aggressive "smash up" or "slam."
In other words, meaning depends on context, and in some Russian sentences, "dislike" could actually be the harsher sentiment. In languages rich in proverbs, metaphors, and historical and literary allusions, it will be challenging to discern the shades of meaning "indicative of potential threats."
In other words, no software system can replace an experienced media expert, fluent in local languages and sensitive to political culture. In authoritarian regimes, where media are censored or tightly controlled, what is said is only part of the story. What it means depends on who said it, when and where it was said, and the audience to which it was said. Some governments consistently churn out anti-American rhetoric for domestic consumption while privately telling Washington that they value U.S. support.
Another problem with the Homeland Security plan is that it completely ignores television -- the main medium of news, information and opinion for most world audiences.
How can we possibly gauge foreign opinion without analyzing the lively debates on the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya satellite networks in the Middle East, or coverage on the Venezuelan-backed Telesur network in Latin America? What are viewers in the world's most populous Islamic countries, including Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria, learning about the United States from television? Moreover, software cannot analyze opinion on television, where pictures and body language convey more complex meaning.
Our 2.4 million would be better spent on hiring local media experts (or even graduate students) to analyze media. At least, they'll weigh the context. That way, we will know whether a "We excoriate the bourgeois Yankee imperialists" rant was delivered at a mass rally -- or at a comedy club.
David H. Mould is professor of telecommunications and associate dean for research and graduate studies at the Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. This article was written for Global Beat Syndicate. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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