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Social media and public diplomacy, what have we learnt?

by on April 3, 2014

Social media has given way to a new platform of interaction for the world to communicate with and public diplomacy communications are not exempt. What is significant is that the rise of social media has meant that there is now an unprecedented access to information to much of the world, a level that has never been seen in history, although not completely ‘leveling out the playing field’, it has provided a platform at least to be heard. Is there a danger of government being drowned out by noise from the public? What does this mean for public diplomacy? twiplomacy

Twitter and Facebook specifically seem to be winning the battle of longevity and have solidified themselves as staples in the world of public diplomacy. President Obama has amassed a more than respectable following of 42.3 million accounts[1] on twitter, it is difficult to determine what this number necessarily means however it has been used to push Obama Care in the past and eventually gave way to its own account @ObamaCare[2]. Sure, for many social media has enhanced their ability to be politically active and involved in public diplomacy but this could this just be a avenue into real life public diplomacy affairs. Without doubt, social media has opened up potential for participation in diplomacy that was not seen with traditional methods seen in the past.

However, some issues surrounding social media and its influence on public diplomacy is debatable. Using social media effectively is more difficult than practitioners anticipate, though if done properly it can be effective yet time and labour intensive. So is it worth the transition to a more interactive form of public diplomacy which gives equal footing to the public in the public diplomacy stage? Perhaps on paper, but what remains to be seen is whether or not social media is just a facilitator or rather the cause of a more public inclusive diplomacy model being adopted. This revolution in communications has raised standards that diplomatic actors must adhere to, there is a section of their audience who realistically do not use any other medium to be involved in diplomacy. In regards to questions about adapting to the times, public diplomacy actors and governments were very successful at adapting to radio and television in the 20th century and neither of those were the answer to diplomatic problems entirely. It’s important to acknowledge the change in methods and popularity of public diplomacy but more so to remember that the end goal of public diplomacy has also remained unchanged, meet the targets of statecraft.

Social media can be beneficial as it is seen to be comparatively cheap, fast and utilises buzzwords like ‘Web 2.0’ to increase its appeal. This assumption fails to recognise that parts of the world don’t have access to social media and worse, some are prevented from using it. In March, Chinese internet services blocked searches for the phrase “mìshū bāng”[3] (secretaries gang) in an effort to stop curiosity regarding government corruption. Along with peoples access to online content, other barriers include the amount of literate citizens in a state as well as more overlooked factors like the luxury of electricity to charge devices.

Some benefits are exaggerated but there are also many that are overlooked, social media has the previously absent ability to strengthen existing relationships between diplomatic actors via promoting regular interaction within (an illusion of?) a mass public forum. The measuring of effectiveness is somewhat shaded, awareness does not necessarily imply action by everybody. There are few reliable ways to know if audiences are being reached, likes and follows are superficial in the bigger picture that fails to give recognition to censorship and blocking in some states. In some situations the government can just shut down the internet to curb protests growing[4] in size, thus social media is sometimes useless against the hard power of governments.

The best use of the internet by diplomatic actors might not be to create, but rather to steer conversation and monitor public perceptions, here it will be an effective tool in terms of influence but also more so as a component of a larger strategically objective. Egypt demonstrated the power of twitter in what was coined a ‘revolution’ but also confirmed that the public have used twitter better than any diplomatic actors, however in a few years time, people will not look back at the social media revolution if states like Egypt haven’t made any real strides in development, as we experience the revolution in real-time the end result is unknown to us until time passes. The rise of the NSA[5] also shows that western governments are using information collected on social media outlets to their advantages, controversial as it may be, as a response to the rise of Wikileaks.









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