AmericanOpinion

Drawing the line

In social media, where does public diplomacy stop and virtual crusading start?

By Rory Medcalf

From coup rumours in China through crusade-mongering in Africa to revelations of revolution in the US State Department: social media is cutting a trail of creative destruction across international affairs in 2012.

I have argued in previous columns how diplomatic and intelligence institutions need to move with the times and embrace social media to gather, share and spin information in their respective nations’ interests. One would think that the foreign services of smaller nations have an opportunity here to erode the tyrannies of scale—social media can be inexpensive and reliably agile.

Curiously, though, it turns out that the United States is combining size and speed, taking a lead in the harnessing of internet 2.0 for foreign policy goals, thanks to some sustained and sweeping innovation at the State Department.

This pleasantly surprising tale is told in a new research paper, Revolution@State, by Brookings Institution visiting fellow and Lowy Institute scholar Fergus Hanson. With tens of thousands of downloads (surely a think-tank record) in its first few weeks, thanks to assiduous dissemination via yet more social media, this paper tells a welcome good news story about how America’s foreign policy establishment is transforming itself.

Encouraged by social media convert Hillary Clinton, State is wisely showing itself willing to risk the occasional petty scandal by freeing up the talents of many hundreds of its staff online, including through blogs, Twitter accounts, wikis and even custom-made mobile phone apps. With this contemporary toolkit, American diplomats—and not only the freshfaced kind—are acting as soft power force multipliers on everything from counter-terrorism to consular assistance, from information sharing to the promotion of internet freedom in authoritarian societies.

In a stunning rebuff to the notion that governments are becoming marginalised in this global age of so-called transnational actors, it turns out that Washington’s diplomats have already amassed a direct audience of 8 million direct readers via social media—greater than the subscriber base of the nation’s top 10 newspapers alone. And this is just
the beginning.

I particularly like the fact that Foggy Bottom’s social media insurgency-from-above is finally puncturing the dull idea that humour can have no place in the diplomatic armoury. The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, writes Hanson, is a “freewheeling office, where staff are given great leeway in crafting
messages”, including those that ridicule the hypocrisy of jihadist terrorists, for instance the prostitute predilection of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Beyond the headlines of relative decline, war weariness and economic malaise, all of this is a reminder of America’s capacity for reinvention. Even during (or perhaps because of) tight budgetary times, and despite (and most certainly because of) the need to deal with a unique image problem, the United States is leading the way in dragging diplomacy into the 21st century.

What is baffling is how long it is taking some smaller foreign services representing liberal democratic societies, including Australia, to get the hint. Yes, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Canberra headquarters offers a quotidian stream of tweets (including rather random-seeming bursts of trade data), but where are the authentic voices of envoys in the field? 

What is less surprising is the extent to which the public diplomacy and, even more so, the domestic propaganda machinery of authoritarian states is being thrown off balance by the social media phenomenon.

In China, there are now more than half a billion internet users, thanks in good part to that country’s decades of success in raising literacy and income. Staggeringly, something like 300 million Chinese reportedly have a microblogging account, using domestic Twitter-like services like Weibo. (Access to Twitter itself is banned within China, which makes it extra piquant that the editor of the Communist tabloid Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, now has a Twitter account for interaction with the wider world.)

The very new fact of such vast numbers of curious and communicative individuals being online is now colliding directly with ingrained official obfuscation. Censorship will surely become all that more noticeable and grating when it confronts millions of active readers at a personal level, by delivering blank results on search terms that worked for them just the day before.

This happened notably with the temporary suspension of elements of leading Chinese microblogging services in the wake of coup rumours around the March 2012 purge of Bo Xilai. In the words of the valuable and forthright Seeing Red in China blog:

“The authorities … are simply not able to keep up with the speed at which these rumors are spreading. Much of Weibo’s controls rely on mass blocking of a few key words (like Bo Xilai), while individuals scour posts for oblique references to the parties involved. The Bo story may have simply gone viral in a way that censors were unprepared and ill-equipped for … Chinese has so many homophones and puns that blocking keywords can hardly be called an effective way of stemming discussion of sensitive topics.”

The implications may be hard to predict, but they will be real, and it is hard to see how they will not involve damage to the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s rule.

But the biggest social media story in international affairs for early 2012 would of course have to be the bizarre ‘stop Kony’ war wagon (and no I am not going share their Twitter handle; they have all the exposure they need). At one level, it is hard not to be impressed at this no-holds-barred campaign by a California-based non-government organisation, using all the tricks of Hollywood and the web. You can’t have missed its use of leading-edge internet marketing to rally global public opinion against someone who undoubtedly deserves the public enemy mantle: messianic lunatic Joseph Kony, he of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who has led mass murder and enslavement from Uganda to the Central African Republic.

But where does the virtual crusading stop? This is a time when America’s comprehensive national power needs desperately to consolidate, concentrate and repair after a decade of expeditionary wars gone awry. Washington heeds the Kony model of net-driven interventionism—led from behind by crowds and celebrities—at its peril.