What Social Media Offers Diplomacy

By Lola Adeniyi 

Discussion of topical news events such as the Arab protests, the Wikileaks fiasco, or the 2009 Iranian student movement cannot be complete without considering the increasing relevance and impact of social media on commerce, politics and activism. From pure entertainment to business networking, the democracy of social media platforms presents an opportunity to acquire and assess the public’s perception of current events. Conversely, it provides the chance to tap into the public’s conscience on political and activist issues.

The crackdown on pro-democracy Iran campaigners on Twitter and news of China’s "cyber-policing" of Google reinforces the information security and censorship challenges that social networking creates for less democratic nations. But there is a unique opportunity to use social media as a platform for international politics. In examining the current media trends in activism and politics, we can see how social media platforms can be incorporated into public diplomacy strategy.

An idea or image transmitted through YouTube, Twitter or Facebook becomes a meme that quickly goes viral and becomes the topic of water-cooler conversation. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. With each transmission, the meme has the power to mutate, grow and become even more significant in impact. Due to the cyclical nature of social media networking, each message feeds into another forum, gaining speed and ferocity, resulting in a strong online presence for the message or issue. End-users then spread the message digitally within their additional networks. This effectively creates public relations disasters and successes, depending on the way the message has been presented and received.

Social media platforms like the aforementioned Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are increasingly user-friendly and disseminate information across vast international networks in a matter of seconds. Add to the mix the increasing use of Smartphones and Wi-Fi tablets – at a relatively low cost – and this means that middle class citizens of developed countries no longer need to settle in for the evening news. But this evolution has done more than change middle class culture’s TV viewing habits.

Politicians need to become educated on the social media practices of their constituents. According to Digital Buzz Blog, 1 in every 13 people on Earth use Facebook, with users in the 35+ age range accounting for more than 30 per cent of users. The same site reports that Twitter statistics show a 55 per cent female skew and primarily 18-34 age distribution at about 45 per cent of all users. The people comprising these statistics represent influential voting demographics that can be tapped for political and humanitarian activist campaigns.

ReadWriteWeb’s analysis attributes the success of US President Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change to his awareness of social media influence. By the end of the Democratic National Convention, in the run up to the 2008 Presidential election, Obama had about 450 million blogs published about him, with over 100,000 followers on Twitter. Though analysts  see a strong correlation between social media users and Democratic Party followers, it still stands to reason that any political campaign that ignores social media – regardless of its leaning – is doomed to fail.

Accordingly, President  Obama has chosen to announce his 2012 re-election bid via video on his website. Similarly, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan announced his candidacy for president in the 2011 elections on Facebook, creating the impression that he is a modern man of the people, even while corruption charges were being laid against his First Lady. Political campaigns using social media are inexpensive compared to traditional methods and can deliver a far superior impact, provided the target audience is media-savvy and fully plugged into the digital world. By engaging a core group of credible supporters, politicians can propagate their message and gain influence in public opinion. Of course this also puts the onus on social network users to exercise discretion in their absorption, assimilation and repetition of the digital messages they encounter.

Yet in the activism and humanitarian sectors, organisations  are combining social media networks with donor contributions. For instance, the UN World Food Programme’s Free Rice donates 10 grains of rice for each correct answer given to questions on their site. Another “aid by click” campaign is offered by The Hunger Site where a bowl of food is given when a visitor clicks to link to a sponsor site. Again, these sites feed into other popular network sites, so a donor can share his or her aid activities with his or her network. Network members can then subsequently view the social networking action and then repeat it.

As in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the Red Cross and Salvation Army have given the public the option of sending a text message to donate to the ongoing relief work in Japan. Social networking appears to have also boosted collaborations between the private-commercial and charitable sectors. Such efforts in merging forces  boost online presence and participation. A good example of this is Farmville’s partnership with Save the Children which has created a programme in which proceeds from purchases made through the social media gaming network are then sent toward the effort in Japan. Groupon, a daily discounts site, has partnered with the International Medical Corps to have donations on their site used to support the Corps’ efforts in Japan. In order for governments to properly tackle the new way that international events and efforts are received and interpreted, it is necessary for foreign affairs ministers and diplomats to get on board with the social networking trend. Terrorist networks have been using social media platforms to gain support and sympathy for years now. It is about time that the diplomats catch up.

How can social media serve as an effective channel for public diplomacy? In the wake of the Wikileaks scandal, the world now knows more about diplomacy than ever before, or than is necessary, as some would argue. This is a ripe opportunity for government workers to embrace social networking and reap the benefits of cultivating a public image that appears more transparent. This, in turn, will provide government with greater influence over its constituent public’s perceptions, either of the home government or of other countries and international events.

Government change may be slow, but it is beginning. The US State Department is arguably the most visible foreign relations department on Twitter, has a Facebook account, and has launched a social networking site on its own web server, to varying responses ranging from cynicism to approval. India’s Ministry of External Affairs’ Public Diplomacy division recently won an award for its innovative use of social media networks and Web 2.0 in government. In academic and diplomatic circles, panels are being convened to research the validity of adding social media expertise to foreign relations departments.

Information is no longer contained by geo-political boundaries or the sovereignty of states. Where traditional media forms, such as newspapers and television, have been restricted or are cost prohibitive, the public has turned to the easily obtained messages produced and replicated in social media. If one of the goals of public diplomacy is to gain ideological support, social media networking is a necessary tool in a foreign relations department’s arsenal.


Lola Adeniyi holds an MA in International Studies & Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her research interests include Public Diplomacy and Media.


18 April 2011