​State Dept. wrote to Sony for help in countering Islamic State, Russian narratives

Emails published this week by WikiLeaks reveal that a senior State Dept. official asked the CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment for help in countering the narratives of the Russian Federation and the so-called Islamic State.

Internal Sony correspondence that was leaked to the web following last year’s colossal SPE hack and now mirrored by the anti-secrecy group shows that Richard Stengel, the US under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, asked for Hollywood’s help in advancing the State Dept.’s agenda as recently as November 2014.

“As you could see, we have plenty of challenges in countering ISIL narratives in the Middle East and Russian narratives in central and Eastern Europe. In both cases, there are millions and millions of people in those regions who are getting a skewed version of reality. And it's not something that the State Department can do on its own [by] any means,” Stengel wrote in an Oct. 15 email to SPE CEO Mark Lynton, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic militants also known as ISIS.

“Following up on our conversation, I'd love to convene a group of media executives who can help us think about better ways to respond to both of these large challenges. This is a conversation about ideas, about content and production, about commercial possibilities. I promise you it will be interesting, fun and rewarding,” Stengel wrote.

The State Dept. official re-sent the email two days later, and nearly a month down the line Lynton responded with the names of five other media execs, including representatives for Disney and Fox.

“Is that enough for you?” Lynton asked.

In the span between emails, Stengel sent another brief communique from his personal Gmail account in which he asks “Who are folks…I can or should see in NY re: anti-Russian messaging – and also anti-ISIL messaging?”

The emails do not indicate if the meeting ever occurred, but Marie Harf, the State Dept.’s active spokesperson, told RT’s Gayane Chichakyan during a scheduled press briefing on Friday that the US government doesn’t hide its effort to combat threats abroad.

Screenshot from wikileaks.org

Harf said the State Dept. reaches out “to social media organizations, entertainment organizations, other people on the outside that are unaffiliated with the government” with regards the anti-ISIS actions of the US.

“I wouldn’t draw any big analytical statements” from the email, Harf said, “…other than we’re very clear that we believe people who have platforms who can speak out against ISIL should do this.”

With regards to “Russian narratives,” however, Harf said disinformation originating from Moscow has spawned a much different challenge for the State. Dept.

“There is a challenge with the extraordinary level of Russian propaganda. Factually, blatant lies about what Russia is doing in eastern Ukraine. That’s one challenge for us. There’s a very separate challenge that we’ve talked about in terms of the piece of the anti-ISIL coalition that deals with their propaganda and their narrative, and they are very different,” Harf said.

Last year, hackers penetrated the computer network of SPE and pilfered a trove of sensitive data, including thousands of internal emails. Although the data has been accessible on the web in the months since, WikiLeaks published the cache on the transparency organization’s site this week and along with a feature that allows visitors to search the stolen contents.

Nearly 30 emails hosted on WikiLeaks were either from or to Stengel, and RT reported previously that the correspondence includes dozens of messages between the entertainment company and officials from the US and UK government, including ambassadors others within the Obama administration.

“This archive shows the inner workings of an influential multinational corporation. It is newsworthy and at the center of a geo-political conflict. It belongs in the public domain. WikiLeaks will ensure it stays there,” editor-in-exile Julian Assange said Thursday.

"Working with the entertainment industry is a very small piece of the anti-propaganda efforts. A lot of what we’ve talked about is working with religions leaders, for example, who have platforms and credibility who can speak up against ISIL’s propaganda as well," Harf said on Friday.

Stengel was sworn in to his current role with the State Dept. last February, and previously served as managing editor of TIME magazine from 2006 to 2013.