Public diplomacy in the Facebook age

Towards the end of the first term of the American President Franklin Pierce, an editorial appeared in the London Times newspaper, criticising his political style.

“The statesmen of America must recollect that, if they have to make, as they conceive, a certain impression upon us, they have also to set an example for their own people, and there are few examples so catching as those of public diplomacy.”
The article was published in 1856, and is widely held to be the first use of the phrase “public diplomacy.” But the desire to influence, persuade and appeal to the public is as old as statecraft. Governments with a good grasp of how to appeal to foreign publics can build valuable alliances with overseas business communities, civil society and other governments. Strategic use of the media is essential. With the explosive growth of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in recent years, governments with a message cannot afford to ignore them.
Governments’ selective dissemination of information, both to rivals and to friends, is nothing new. Chanakya, an Indian political scientist, wrote a detailed guide to wartime propaganda in the 4th century before Christ. His student Chandragupta Maurya used the methods Chanakya described when he founded the Maurya Empire. Even earlier, Persian Emperor Darius the Great celebrated his early victories by commissioning the Behistun inscription, boasting in several languages of his numerous military victories. The inscription, carved into the side of a cliff, survives to this day. It is as much a tribute to the importance rulers place on instilling respect into their citizens as it is a memorial to Darius himself.
Of course, psychological warfare against military rivals will always be part of warfare. But modern public diplomacy is a more complex art than military propaganda, and has many aims. Of course, the overall goal is to influence public opinion in other countries. It is both an extension of diplomacy and a form of intercultural communication.
The 15th century reformist Martin Luther was probably the first person to use modern mass communications for political purposes. Outraged by the Catholic doctrine that God’s forgiveness could be bought with money, the German pastor-theologian waged a public relations campaign using the cutting edge technology of the day – the printing press. Luther’s mass-printed tracts were spread far and wide, pinned up on church doors. They were instrumental in initiating the Reformation, which challenged the basis of political power across the continent.
Mass communication stayed at the heart of political change in Europe throughout the following centuries. The growth of ideologies such as nationalism and socialism depended on the ability of their proponents to create a sense of shared identity among a huge, widely spread but increasingly literate audience. Governments were also quick to spread political messages through mass communications. During the Cold War, radio broadcasts into Eastern Bloc countries were an important part of the West’s campaign against Communism.
“Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools are perhaps today’s equivalent of the Cold War’s Radio Free Europe or Voice of America broadcasts,” says Alex Burns, an analyst and researcher at Victoria University in Australia.
“They are able to mobilise autonomous, self-regulative networks of people on a salient issue, and allow government agencies to reach a wider audience.”
It is possible to divide social networking sites into two categories. The first works on the basis of individual profiles – member’s personal home pages, which act as a kind of bulletin board. People can post on each others’ pages, sharing private or public messages, photos, website links and so on.
The second kind of social networking is less profile-centric. Youtube, for example, encourages people to subscribe and set up a profile page, but its primary purpose is to host videos. Private, commercial or non-profit subscribers can upload anything from home-made films, through comedy and music clips, to serious documentary films and advertising.
Youtube offers immense opportunities to political activists. Students at recent demonstrations in London against tuition fee hikes used Youtube as a means of exposing what they said were harsh police tactics, challenging the narrative given by the police – that the demonstrators started the violence. Youtube also runs a political blog and video site, CitizenTube, which compiles videos on “developing trends in the use of YouTube by news organizations, activists, politicians, and governments.”
If the main achievement of Luther and, later, the nationalist agitators of 19th century Europe was to challenge established authorities’ monopolies over information, users of Twitter and Facebook are carrying on in that tradition. By creating space for un-censored debate, they are both democratising and globalising the sphere of public discourse. This is as true in the Middle East as anywhere.
Twitter is a profile-based network that allows users to send ultra-short messages that appear instantaneously on the screens of their “followers.” During the unrest following Iran’s presidential elections in 2009, it became almost a cliché among Western commentators to write about the site’s role in mobilizing and coordinating opposition protests.
Journalists were not alone in noting this. At one critical point, the US State Department asked Twitter to delay a planned server upgrade, allowing the site to carry on functioning. This clearly implied official recognition of Twitter’s mobilising power.
But the opposition protests failed. Forces loyal to the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad were able crush them by force, beating and arresting activists and silencing their leaders. Twitter had been a crucial mobilizing tool, but in the end, brute force took precedence.
According to an academic paper by Alex Burns and his colleague Ben Eltham, from the University of Western Sydney, the Iran case highlighted the limitations of “soft power” and social media for bringing about social change. While Twitter had been a useful tool for opposition activists, the authorities had also used it – to gather intelligence and entrap activists.
“The societal diffusion of a new technology platform inevitably means that different actors will use it for unintended uses, tactical advantages and ‘systematic learning,’” noted the authors.
But Burns says social networking can nevertheless be a broad platform for debate among various actors in society, beyond the more traditional, narrow platform offered by television or radio news.
“Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools have the potential to broaden debate, mobilise political networks, and to globalise civil society,” he says.
“(But) these same qualities also mean that particularly for Twitter, social networks can be used to spread rumour and propaganda.”
Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia which anyone can contribute to, is one obvious target for internet activists with an agenda. The Yesha Council, an Israeli settler organization, recently organized a course to teach pro-Israel activists how to edit articles on the site. The attendees were mostly religious residents of illegal West Bank settlements. They set out to make Wikipedia, in their words, “more objective and Zionist.” Of course, they are not alone – Wikipedia pages are a ground for many ideological battles between all kinds of interest groups.
Dick Stroud, a marketing consultant who has written extensively on how businesses can use new technologies, also notes this down side of social networks.
“Stories about the value and empowering qualities of these websites are being matched with negative tales of them enabling children to bully their classmates and for containing ultra-right wing political advertising,” he says.
Such concerns reflect the worries of governments about many kinds of web applications. In November, Google became embroiled in a border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, after a Nicaraguan commander cited Google’s version of the border map to justify a raid on a disputed border area. Both sides dispatched troops to the area, prompting the US State Department to step in and mediate. Officials met with Google managers, who admitted the map had been inaccurate.
The case highlights how dangerous apparently innocuous pieces of information can be. But the local ripples that this case set in motion were nothing compared to the global tidal wave of scandal set off by the internet activists of Wikileaks.
Wikileaks describes itself as “a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public.” It says it acts in the name of transparency and freedom of information: whistle-blowers on governments or companies can submit secret documents to the group’s website, remaining anonymous thanks to an advanced encoding system. The organization’s staff and volunteers then examine the documents for reliability and release them to major newspapers in the United States and Europe.
In late November, Wikileaks began publishing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables, which it claimed was “the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.” The cables included explosive material on US diplomats’ dealings with countries around the world, covering everything from straightforward political relations to terrorism, human rights and the characters of foreign leaders. Governments around the world were incensed.
Nicholas Cull, Professor of Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, says Wikileaks was a game changer.
“There have been leaks in the past, but the scale of this boggles the mind,” he told The Diplomat.
“It has exposed the power of a single person to act where once it would have required an enormous bureaucracy of a state or a commercial enterprise susceptible to state pressure.”
This has profound impacts for the way governments secure their most sensitive information. But even before Wikileaks burst the dam, many administrations were engaged in serious efforts to plug the gaps through which previously privileged information is now being freely distributed.
Google’s recent showdown with the Chinese government is a case in point. Beijing had reacted to the search giant’s refusal to carry on censoring search results by refusing to renew the company’s license to operate. The two had a six month standoff before finally reaching a compromise.
The ability of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube users to instantly make information available to a global public represents an even more pressing challenge for governments. The scale of the challenge is vast. Facebook and Youtube are the second and third most visited website in the world, respectively, according to the internet statistics tracker Alexa.com. In July 2010, Facebook welcomed its 500 millionth member. The potential for spreading political messages, organising protests and contacting supporters through such networks is immense.
It is clear that governments cannot afford to ignore these changes in the communications sphere. Indeed, social networks offer ample opportunities for public diplomacy. Alert governments have been quick to see the benefits offered by social networks and similar new technologies.
Al-Najjar, writing in a blog for the University of Southern California, says Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) provides a good example of “indirect and productive public diplomacy efforts.”
If you visit KAUST’s home page, you are directed to pages on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, where KAUST has a channel dedicated to videos of conferences, symposiums and campus life. The strategic goal here is to appeal to an international audience, emphasising Saudi Arabia’s appreciation of scientific research and countering the negative images of the country that have been propagated since 9/11.
“Social media is placing more power in the hands of citizens in this region,” notes Al-Najjar.
“Regional governments from now on will have to take a pro-active approach in conducting their public diplomacy campaigns and efforts.”
The administration of President Obama, too, has been keen to make use of new technologies for public diplomacy. Mr Obama has considerably improved the image of America abroad, particularly in the Muslim world. In terms of image management, he has the considerable advantages of being young, charismatic and eloquent. But he is also good at using social networks to reach out to publics abroad.
Before Obama visited Ghana in July 2009, he gave an interview to AllAfrica.com, using questions received from Africans across the continent via the internet. The White House also offered Africans several other platforms for contacting Obama, including text messaging with unique country codes, a Twitter feed (#obamaghana) and a Facebook page for the visit.
Experts say governments are starting to realise that the interactivity of these networks gives them opportunities for a new kind of reciprocal communication.
“Web 2.0 has great potential to assist diplomacy, NOT because it provides a new mechanism to broadcast but rather because it has the potential to facilitate two-way communication and to allow the nations of the world to listen,” says Nicholas Cull.
“My concern with Web 2.0 today has been that most users have used it for one-way communication and don’t seem to follow foreign twitter feeds for example. I know that is beginning to change.”
Governments were not the first to realise this potential. The private sector is leading innovation in terms of how to use social networks – and not just for image management. William Baker, a professor of marketing at San Diego State University, surveyed 1,600 executives and found that firms which make extensive use of external social networks scored significantly higher results on a measure of innovation than companies that don’t.
Social networks can help promote conferences and events, increase information sharing among members of the same firm, and offer various platforms for recruiting and marketing. Facebook, for example, allows members to create groups around a specific interest, giving instant networking potential to people in similar professions or with similar political interests but from around the world. Twitter helps companies hunt down the best potential employees via their personal profile pages.
Established news organisations, too, are making effective use of new technologies. They offer various platforms to contributions from citizen journalists, once seen as a threat. News channels regularly appeal for, and broadcast, videos taken on mobile phones and digital cameras by people present at newsworthy events. This was a primary source of footage from the Iranian demonstrations, which foreign journalists were forbidden from attending.
The BBC’s Arabic TV channel hosts a regular debate programme in which viewers can put across their views in various ways – via phone calls and emails, but also via short videos recorded on computers and submitted via the programme’s website – offering citizens new ways of putting their views across to a wider audience.
According to Manuel Castells of the University of Southern California, the space for debate on public affairs has shifted from the national to the global; this allows traditional forms of diplomacy “to act beyond the strict negotiation of power relationships by building on shared cultural meaning, the essence of communication.”
For governments willing to take advantage of them, new technologies such as social networks offer the opportunity to move across that crucial gap: from monologue to dialogue. The relationship between governments and civil society, and the mode of their public interaction, define the political make-up of societies. And a relationship defined by dialogue is better for everybody.

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