Agility or Anglocentricity? Fighting Daesh and why monolingual myopia just doesn’t cut it

The Australian Defence Forces operates the bilingual Fighting Daesh twitter account, which is intended to interrupt ISIS’ online recruitment. The trouble is that for all its fact-checking glory the account isn’t run with any particular kind of social media literacy. I mean, would you start DM’ing a journalist out of the blue with details of the staffing and strategic planning behind the account?

Now it turns out that when Fighting Daesh tweets in Arabic, it actually doesn’t tweet in Arabic: the tweets are a mix of Arabic words, strung together with little to no sense of grammar or meaning. But that’s okay – foreigners find that kind of myopic monolingual Anglocentrism supercute, right?

Jason Murphy writes in Crikey:

This small but significant failure in the fight against IS raises questions about the culture of Defence. Does a culture of secrecy mean standards can slip to the floor without the slightest repercussion?

Nice try, but no cheese. This isn’t an example of a momentary slip-up in standards. This isn’t about the culture of secrecy in Defence (although boo to that, too). This is a symptom of Australia’s appalling disregard for Languages Other Than English. This is about the fact that no-one thought that in order to tweet in Arabic it might be a good idea to actually speak Arabic.

The ABC report cites a security analyst who has some sympathy for  Fighting Daesh struggling to get the message right on social media:

We give them a hard time about some of the mistakes they’ve made but you have to fail in order to get this stuff right so I hope they’re not dissuaded and they do more of this kind of activity.

Again, no. It is absolutely inexcusable to Google translate* your way through another language while claiming some kind of phantom expertise in it. This is not a whoops-redditors-overtook-our-hashtag- sort of a social media fail you could even be forgiven for (whilst still being mocked, of course). This is a cock-up of such magnitude that I can’t help but wonder who the “Arabic” tweets were actually for. Were they there just to make it look as though some level of cultural competence was involved in the exercise? Were they to be screengrabbed and inserted into a report as evidence against the ‘reaching out to a range of stakeholders’ KPI? And what does it mean that a Defence spokesperson stated that “Arabic language tweets [have been] suspended. Defence is currently examining alternative IT solutions as part of the @Fight_DAESH program.” What “IT solutions”? Better translation software? Hire an actual honest-to-goodness person! A person who understands twitter and is at the very least fluent in both English and Arabic.

There is an enormous blind spot in Australian public life regarding other languages. Think about how many companies attempt to do international business entirely in English. Think about what a novelty it was having a bilingual Prime Minister (and then watch this trilingual doorstep interview with Finland’s then-PM, now Finance Minister Alexander Stubb). Australia is a multicultural country: think about how much of a wasted resource all those unspoken languages are in the workplace, in education.

Fun fact: not one of the Go8 universities, otherwise so keen to attract international students, has its web page available in a language other than English (the Go8 group page at least has some Chinese content).

The new PM, Malcolm Turnbull, would like Australia to be “more agile”, which Robert Merkel argues means putting “the customer, and identifying and responding to their needs, at the very heart of product development.” Putting aside the fact that ‘customer’ and ‘product’ are appalling terms to use about the community and policies that affect it, if you want to respond to someone’s needs you need to speak their language – literally.

If you want to get agile, get multilingual.

*Excuse the flair. Apparently the tweets were initially translated by qualified translators, but got jumbled up going from one platform to another. Why they weren’t proofread by a fluent speaker before posting is just as mystifying, though.

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