Social media’s democratic promise has reached such success that, in 2011, Hilary Clinton, USA’s Secretary of State, declared internet freedom as one of its department’s goals for the international community. But can social media really change the art of diplomacy?
Social Media: A Tool, Not A Solution
The narrative surrounding social media’s democratic promise is less clear cut when you analyze its effects on a citizen’s ability to scrutinize the government and the state’s ability to conceal its intentions and drive public opinion. Social media does revolutionize citizen-state diplomacy by increasing the potential for government’s accountability to its citizens, but it also provides new opportunities for the state both to reduce transparency in its international relations and to influence public opinion more efficiently.
The argument that social media is the 21st century’s tool for greater democracy, accountability, transparency, and principled action in international diplomacy is grounded in the belief that social media makes the state subject to continuous and immediate scrutiny. Whistleblowers may be lurking in any department’s offices and avid bloggers are on the lookout for controversy. As social media decentralizes the dissemination of information and supply of narratives, states face an unprecedented and growing audience that not only enjoys the drama of the international scene but is also not shy to give the state-actors a piece of its righteous mind. Normative development of state diplomacy on the international arena no longer solely depends on bilateral or multilateral understandings of appropriate behavior among states.
Discipline and Punishment on Social Media
Instead, a new voice rises, a louder voice of civil society, interest groups, private sector, social entrepreneurs, and, most importantly, the average individual who cares little for great power games relative to the livelihood, safety, and respect of his or her own family. In the tradition of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bentham’s Panopticon is reversed and inverted until unruly states are captured by the unrelenting gaze of an unforgiving audience that demands less violence and oppression and more humanity, democracy, and freedom.
Social media becomes the central tower covered in tinted glass, and the state the individuated prisoner kneeling in the cell. Individuals, the private sector, interest groups, or the broad civil society may or may not be looking at this exact cell, but the state, imprisoned by its own fear of the risk that they may be watching, begins self-regulation.
There are numerous indicators that social media is exerting this sort of influence on international diplomacy. A key point in social media history was the Collateral Murder video leaked out of Iraq, where a helicopter gunning down Reuters journalists and civilians made the public question the war in Iraq. Now even government departments have Facebook pages justifying themselves. For example, the Israeli Defense Force has a Facebook page boasting over 50,000 followers on Twitter while conveying its own take on the occasional skirmish or rocket fired out of Gaza.
Similarly, social media provides an outlet for raw footage that influences public opinion more forcefully and, in turn, exerts more pressure on public officials forming foreign policy to engage with that which riles up their population. Compared to civil wars and genocides or decades past, officials, at least in the West, no longer have the option of completely ignoring the civil war in Syria because amateur footage of unjustified violence keeps popping up and circulating freely on social media sites.
Chinese Social Media
In China, social media may not overthrow the rules of the Communist Party and install democracy, but it does allow citizens to get the state to listen. After the deadly Sichuan earthquake in 2008, a cyber-firestorm engulfed Chinese micro-blog sites drawing attention to corruption in the construction of schoolhouses that proved as sturdy as houses of cards during the earthquake. The Chinese government reacted and increased its anti-corruption campaign. Earlier this summer, another firestorm struck China when a story of a forced late-term abortion dealt an unprecedented blow to the one-child policy, with members of the Development Research Centre of the State Council, a leading think-tank with advisory status to the cabinet, suggesting immediate “adjustments” to the policy.
This may not be the direct domain of foreign policy, but these two examples illustrate the effect that social media has on the state’s sensitivity, first, to domestic public opinion that may or may not be paying attention to blogs and, second, an on-looking international social media audience that may or may not be holding a negative image of the ascending world superpower.
Should You Be Afraid of Social Media?
Despite the promise of democracy, social media has the potential to turn the international community into a more secretive and less accountable arena that exploits the very characteristics that make social media a vehicle for democracy. The media may have forgotten about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, but the magnitude, reach, and perseverance of the leaks made it a historic event.
Any leak-affected entity would replace the failed precautionary measures for secure diplomatic communication with a new generation of stainless steel locks and barbed wire, thus raising secrecy in international relations in the name of diplomatic confidentiality. For better or worse, actual policy formulation and execution has not yet been abdicated to social media, and states’ safeguards against its democratizing potency are catching up.
Social media outlets can be hijacked by an interest group and turned against the very democratizing ideal that social media promised to uphold. Realizing the dangers of the internet where anyone can create an account under any name, society warns children of meeting strangers online and ridicules the truthfulness exhibited on online dating sites’ profiles. Yet, social media maintains an aura of sincerity. The decentralized, unfiltered, and uncoordinated nature of social media makes it seem like not one entity can exert complete control. Thus, with the exception of censorship, which is too inefficient due to the explicit exertion of state power, it would seem that nothing can control it.
Is Social Media Controlling or Freeing?
The potential for control over social media exists in the same form that the KONY 2012 campaign was able to rile up the fickle masses. Online material goes viral when it strikes a chord with our emotions. Demagogues have known this for centuries, and today, when posts of no more than 140 characters substitute a state’s official public statements, the art of influencing public opinion comes of age into the new Millennium.
We are predisposed to pay closer attention to and believe material that directly affects us, interests us, and fits our worldview, so, in an overcrowded and fast paced environment where our attention span is under more strain; the threat of demagoguery is more powerful. Social media failed to improve on the media landscape that allowed disinformation about Weapons of Mass Destruction to start a democratizing mission in Iraq.
With traditional media, you could influence public opinion with descriptive evidence in the form of sound bites, but with social media, all you need is 140 emotionally charged characters.
The Verdict on Social Media Diplomacy
The verdict on social media’s democratizing influence on international diplomacy and formulation of policy is up for grabs. In the realm of international diplomacy, social media has been heralded as the new impetus for political and social progress, making foreign policy more democratic, transparent, accountable, and liberally principled. However, social media also has the potential to drag diplomacy and international relations in the exact opposite direction.
As the story of social media’s place in human history is still being written, it remains up to Generation Y to make or break the promise of social media in international relations and diplomacy.