PD Opportunity: Arab Spring

In times of existing conflict or political unrest, public diplomacy can be leveraged to support the changing perspective countries may have about other countries like the United States. For example – during the Arab Spring when the United States remained closely tied to Mubarak, the Egyptian people verbalized their disappointment and disagreement with the United States  (posters with Ant-US messages along with Twitter and Facebook messages directed at the United States). For a country that preaches free elections and freedom of speech and the right to protest for what you believe in – the Egyptian people immediately questioned prior public diplomacy efforts of the United States where the country had tried to educate the Egyptian people on these values. When the United States rushed to Mubarak’s side in the waking of the Arab Spring; U.S. popularity remained low and the disagreement was clearly seen through social media and international news stories. The United States had been working at this point throughout the Middle East to normalize relations with Arab communities.

However, when an Islamist party came to rule; the United States needed a new strategy; as the domino effect only continued. Once accepting the new reality – that throughout countries in MENA more and more Islamist parties would be ruling; the United States shifted its approach with public diplomacy and identified new opportunities to support the transitioning countries that recently completed free elections. Through various public diplomacy means – a country like the United States can support transitioning countries by providing resources to build the infrastructure necessary to promote free elections, provide technical support and financial support to civil society organizations and journalists to support a free country; and provide necessary assistance to help the people.

As Jillian York  points out in her article “The Arab Digital Vanguard” – many journalists and bloggers in the Arab Spring countries were arrested if not physically attacked for what they wanted to publish. A public diplomacy initiative around supporting these bloggers and journalists; as well as supporting the government with better understanding the value and importance of the principles of free speech would be a great public diplomacy initiative for a country like the United States to take on.  

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PD in the Arab Spring: Useful inside and out

Did social media play a pivotal role in the Arab Spring? A recent report from the United States Institute of Peace says maybe not.

“New media outlets that use bit.ly are more likely to spread information outside the region than inside it, acting like a megaphone more than a rallying cry” (Aday, 2013). Despite this claim, one cannot fail to acknowledge how much of a role this played in making the movement that came out of the Arab Spring successful.

A prime example of this is the way the protests played out in Egypt. First quiet on the ordeal, thinking that a regime change was not imminent, the Obama Administration did not pressure Mubarak. When it became evident, through coverage with the help of social media, Obama then supported an “orderly transition.” When the protests started to go full scale, Obama publicly called for Mubarak to resign.

The Arab Spring has had less effect in countries that maintain a strict control on social media. In Bahrain, the Al Khalifa monarchy has deployed a mostly successful strategy of preventing major protests from unfolding in the capital city and implanted a harsh crackdown on activists and opposition parties. In fact, knowing how effective social media can be in propelling protests, two years ago “six Twitter users were sentenced to a year in prison each by a Bahrain court for allegedly insulting King Al Khalifa on an online blog” (Rowder, Business Insider, 2013).

Syria is another country that, while not coming from the actual nation itself, has had its conflict elevated by social media. Activists like Kenan Rahmani have initiated social media devices to draw attention. His “Syria Updater” program has taken over Facebook and Twitter feeds alike. It’s not just for the opposition; Assad regime supporters like the Syrian Electronic Army have also employed communications strategies in favor of their cause.

Either way, social media has been proven to ignite and add to unrest and conflicts. Whether from inside the nation or out, it will continue to shape and contribute to debates well into the future.

Smith-Mundt Modernization Act: What is it?

In 1948, the US Information and Educational Exchange Act was passed, placing limits on how the U.S. government conducts public diplomacy. This act, also known as the Smith-Mundt Act, prevented materials meant for foreign audiences to be distributed in the United States. Now, 65 years later, Smith-Mundt is being modernized to fit in with 21st century standards.

 

The Smith-Mundt modernization act has no meaning for many U.S. citizens but for those who practice public diplomacy it is a step in the right direction. The media atmosphere was very different in 1948 than in 2013. There was no Internet, or cell phones. The world was not as interconnected as it is now.

 

Beginning July 2, 2013, public diplomacy practitioners will be able to disseminate certain public diplomacy material within the United States, its territories or possessions, if requested of them.  The modernization act allows program material to be made available within the United States under limited circumstances:  upon request; in English; at the Department; following release abroad; for examination only by representatives of U.S. press associations, newspapers, magazines, research students and scholars and, upon request, for examination only to Members of Congress. This new rule only covers those materials produced after July 2. The act is not retroactive – older publications will not be covered.

 

The amendments eliminate the outright ban on domestic dissemination of program material, but the ability to distribute program material without a request remains quite limited. It might also not be as flexible in allowing materials to be shared with other U.S. government entities who focus mainly in communications with a domestic audience.

 

As the world becomes more interconnected, the Smith-Mundt Act will probably continue to be revisited. Governments can no longer afford to lag behind. With growing diaspora populations and worldly youth, the U.S. government needs to keep their domestic audiences informed in the same way as their foreign audiences in order to meet their policy goals.

Challenging the Challenge of Time

In his book Real-Time Diplomacy, Philip Seib repeatedly argues that international media plays an increasingly larger role in decisionmaking and has accelerated “the information process” vital to diplomacy (2012, 86). This in turn has created an environment in which diplomats no longer have the “cushion of time” (7) they once enjoyed, where they must react to situations as quickly as the information is being disseminated (86). Even just 50 years ago, events on the other side of the world still took time to reach home, where then the bureaucratic wheel would take the time to churn out a decision, and then send the orders back to the embassy. Now, in the era where video of protests in Turkey is simultaneously uploaded to YouTube as the event is taking place, there is an expectation from publics that governments should take action immediately, whether or not the action is the politically wise one.

And if the collapse of the time cushion effects diplomatic practice, it is certainly effecting public diplomacy practice as well. Public diplomacy works best in the long-term, as has been discussed in several posts on this blog and in many of our class readings. A PD initiative may not yield results until months (more likely years) down the road. But how do you create or bolster a PD initiative that has to react to nearly instantaneous global information flows? India’s response, or lack thereof, to the gang rape issues is one such example of how taking the time to “wisely” engage publics may not be the best strategy when the publics are being rapidly fed information about a situation. The challenge then for nations engaged in PD is to balance between the bureaucratic structure of message formulation and the effective use of new media tools (such as social media and the Internet) to add real-time engagement to face-to-face engagement practices.

As Seib states, it is important for nations to be a part of this growing web of information if they are to engage with publics in the way that publics actually communicate (120). But the lack of time means that as the role of diplomacy is being redefined, the role of public diplomacy must be clearly (re)defined as well. Without understanding what it can do and how it can be utilized in this new rapid-fire information ecology, public diplomacy won’t be able to adapt, and therefore won’t be able to be as effective a tool for nation-states, both in the short- and long-term.

Impact of Social Media on PD

In recent times with the boom of social media, PD practitioners have taken the leap on their smartphones and Ipads to launch Twitter and Facebook pages for their perspectives offices and / or leaders. Research suggests that in certain cases – the use of social media may have a positive influence on communicating with foreign publics and may help with encouraging dialogue about the United States. This in turn, creates an opportunity (a new venue) to support public diplomacy strategic objectives in specific areas of the world where social media is a popular vehicle for communicating. However, research also suggests that many times communicating over social media for US public diplomacy may be extremely ineffective.

For example, in his article “The Challenges of the Internet and Social Media in Public Diplomacy” Matthew Wallin points out how dialogue over social media requires constant interaction but also requires receiving approval…which if it has to come from Washington it may take a long time. Social media is about instant gratification and consistent dialogue – so the lack thereof possesses a problem for PD practitioners to interact effectively with target audiences. However, even when certain State Department employees have the autonomy to go off and respond on their own they position themselves this may cause a new level of issues on its own. Tweeting one perspective – may result in this perspective defining the strategy itself as the author points out which can cause more challenges than anticipated.  

In his article, “State’s Digital Outreach Team May Do More Harm Than Good”, Cameron Bean points out that even when State Department to avoid this at times employees don’t respond. But this approach may be more ineffective and damaging than people realize. Bean used the example of a Twitter post about by a follower indicated that America’s mission in Afghanistan is to “kill Muslims”; with no response to this Tweet, we are unsure of the type of message this may have sent to the audience. As the saying goes…”sometimes not saying anything at all..says it all” and people may speculate more than you that it may be an admission of guilt – which is the totally opposite direction of what the DoS employer was trying to do with his educational campaign.

Finally, Bean points out in his article how we can’t control the level of responses and the type of responses to social media posts that come up – at many times we see that the negative posts can outnumber the positive points and in this way, the PD goals are being obstructed because readers may be more influenced by the level of the negative and the type of negative messages that exist about the US that the DoS messages get completely lost in the mix.

With all this in mind – social media has its pros and cons. What’s the most important is to be aware of the local context and ensuring the messaging is appropriate for the local population; tracking the messaging and the responses and working to ensure that all replies to responses stay in line with the strategy outlined for the given PD office.

Social Media: Holding Governments Accountable

Social media has proved to be great for engagement with foreign audiences. It allows for two-way conversations and the possibility to engage on a variety of topics. However, it also has its limitations. Some public diplomacy practitioners see social media platforms as dumping grounds for information. They believe Facebook and Twitter are there as information holders. This is not an effective use of social media. Social media requires a strategy. Yes, it might be an instant form of communication, but in order to make an impact and engage with your audience, a plan is needed. I think that before social media, people put more thought into their campaigns. This care and attention to detail also needs to be applied to social media.

Another limitation is the overload of information that now exists on the Internet. Audiences are spending less time reading materials online and less time exploring webpages. This allows people to pick and choose what they want to read. When print materials were more popular, people read everything from front to back. However, now you decide which Tweet you will read and which one you will ignore. I think this makes it harder for public diplomacy practitioners to spread their message. They are in competition with Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. Governments need to get more creative and innovative in order to hold their audiences’ attention.

I do not think that critiques outweigh the advantages. Today’s audiences are used to receiving their information directly from the source and not from secondary sources. People want the ability to go on Twitter and see what the U.S. government has to say about a certain issue. This direct engagement allows governments to be in control of their message by controlling which images are shown and what content they place on their sites. Social media also holds governments accountable. People are free to express their thoughts – good or bad –and governments are expected to engage back. Social media has in many ways brought government back to the people.

Intelligence: A PD Nightmare

“Intelligence has never played so prominent a role in the public affairs of western societies as it does today” (Scott & Hughes, abs, 2009).

Following September 11, 2001, this statement has taken on a new meaning of truth. Nations have to address to what end they are willing to push intelligence for the sake of national security, to what place intelligence gathering is going in the future. Moreover, the more technology advances, the easier it becomes to collect crucial intelligence. In the face of today’s challenges with terrorism and cyber threats, critical questions must be answered on how the intelligence community (IC) will approach them in the future while instilling confidence that the process works in the favor of public interest.

As our nation draws down from two devastating conflicts, the IC has serious questions to answer about what role they will play in the future. Our country will inevitably – as recent events have shown – have to continue to fight a global war against terrorism and extremism, but as the fog of 9/11 lifts, both policymakers and the public will levy more scrutiny on intelligence gathering processes. In addition, as the focus has been so intimately on counter-terrorism in the Middle East and surrounding areas, it remains to be seen on how the IC will adjust to the new foreign policy missions and threats that face our nation.

In the realm of how foreign nations view our country, this also lends a prominent face to the US. With the latest reveal of NSA wiretapping programs, and the ill-fated PRISM, it will inevitably be harder to convince the world that the goals of US foreign policy are to promote freedom from tyranny. The main argument for the two programs is that they are consistent with FISA statute, and only used to target foreign citizens. While the mainstream media is focused on whether or not these programs violate our own citizens constitutional rights, they should also take into account how this will be messaged to foreign populations. PD should be used to communicate this, but it is likely it will be lost in the internal debate in the US.