The internet and especially social media have had dramatic impact on diplomatic as well as state-internal communications and relations over the past many months. The 2010 post-election Iranprotests were perhaps the first significant demonstration of the new power of social media used by a large populace. The Wikileaks release of reams of confidential U.S.diplomatic cables just barely preceded the Arab Spring ‘Facebook’ uprisings of early 2011. All of these events have significant ramifications for traditional diplomacy, mandating changes in practices, philosophies and norms that have existed for a very long time. This has left diplomatic organizations such as the U.S. State Department and others around the world in unfamiliar waters. The implications of new media are broad for state and for non-state actors, as the effects of technology-enabled communications will almost certainly influence all diplomatic endeavors of consequence from here forward. How policies or government actions will play in the court of public opinion, how to (attempt to) control a message, and how to win hearts and minds in a chaotic media marketplace all require a very different approach.
Public diplomacy in and of itself is still a somewhat controversial practice. While funding is being cut for diplomatic efforts in general, the harder to measure, longer term and somewhat elusive practice of public diplomacy is even more vulnerable to scrutiny and cutbacks. Yet the option for governments to go light on public diplomacy is increasingly being taken away by the omnipresence of professional and amateur media, and an instantly connected populace who are taking more matters into their own hands. The power structure has simply shifted and a new reality must be faced. Today, public diplomacy takes many forms, one of the most significant of which is through new media because it enables many of these disruptive activities, because it underpins an increasing share of contemporary life (who is not tethered to their mobile device these days?), and because it has the potential to enhance or undermine a government’s efforts.
The rules of the new media environment are significantly different from the traditionally bureaucratic character of diplomatic organizations. Credibility and influence require giving away some control of the message. The trick is balancing the right amount of give in order to sustain a higher overall level of control. The issue is not if but how, and how successfully, diplomatic ministries around the world will adapt their dogmas and practices in light of this new power shift.
To test the impact of new media channels as tools of public diplomacy, I conducted a brief, unscientific, but none-the-less telling survey of young Saudis about their media consumption habits and the influence on their impressions of theUnited States. The survey results are slanted, since all 13 of my respondents had attended university, read and spoke English, were mostly current students or working in technical fields, and were between 20 and 30 years of age – a rather elite population, but a cream of the crop group that stands to have status in Saudi civil society, and who are reachable through multiple media channels.
All respondents use Facebook, almost all use Twitter and You Tube, and 63% seek news and information about countries other than their own on a daily basis. Seventy-seven percent watch Al Jazeera daily or several times per week, 78% consume Al Arabiya, and 50% consume BBC news daily or several times per week. Exactly 0% consume U.S.-sponsored Alhurra.com with that same frequency, although 75% said they do look at it ‘only occasionally’. State Department sponsored Radio Sawa fared just slightly better, with 22% saying they listened to it a few times a week. Of those who do consume the U.S. broadcasting channels, not one person said those channels have a positive impact on their impression of the U.S. When asked if other social media had that impact, 60% of the group said yes, but the impressions were unfavorable. When asked what makes news credible for them, they all (unaided) referenced trustworthiness of the source.
Realistically, this survey reflects just a micro sample of just one target population in one country, but it raises some interesting considerations on where the State Department has its new media work to do. Other governments should only benefit by following suit. In fairness, the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors are in uncharted waters here (as are many in the private sector), and are bound to suffer a few mis-steps in the learning curve. That they have undertaken a significant new media effort to date is laudable. But with some failures behind, they must now course correct, apply what has already been learned, keep an open mind, and seek more outside guidance in how to cultivate a better approach. This will require changing bureaucratic culture (a typically painful and slow process that in this circumstance cannot drag out), empowering more staff to publish according to guidelines but not always direct content review, staying on top of new media in other countries, and encouraging open discussion on issues of true import.
The Short and the Long Term
Noted internet expert Clay Shirky argues that the potential of social media lies mainly in its support of civil society and the public sphere, which will be measured in years and decades rather than weeks and months. He also advocates that the U.S.should “maintain internet freedom as a goal to pursue in a principled and regime-neutral fashion, not as a tool for effecting immediate policy aims country by country.” Well, sort of…
The reality is that new media need to be adeptly deployed for both short and long term situations, and regime-neutrality is a nice goal but not necessarily realistic for the United States. U.S. hesitance to call for Mubarak’s ouster did not stop young Egyptians from toppling their government – it just made us look unprepared and uncertain. The traditional State Department aim to promote civil society over the long run is and will remain a crucial objective. But today, civil societies and other actors are moving at their own speed, in timeframes than couldn’t have been imagined even a few years ago. If the U.S. wants to maintain its position of global prominence and influence, the realities imposed by new media and an interconnected world must be addressed head on. Can we muster the will and the agility to do it?