Social Media and Foreign Policy

image Last week, Heath Kern Gibson,the editor-in-chief for the State Department blog DipNote, asked her readers for thoughts on how social media will affect the making of foreign policy in the future

Secretary Rice has called the Internet "…possibly one of the greatest tools for democratization and individual freedom that we’ve ever seen." We are seeing this when people blog from Cuba and Iran and other societies in which restrictions are placed upon their personal freedoms.

Last year, along with the creation of the Department’s own YouTube Channel, this blog signified the Department’s foray into social media. Since then, the Department has created a Flickr photos profile, began microblogging using Twitter, distributed audio and video podcasts to iTunes and others using ten RSS feeds, and last week, launched the Department’s first official Facebook page. We encourage you to explore these products and let us know how we can better utilize them.

There have been many books and articles written on the relationship between traditional media and foreign policy, with the question often asked as to what degree the news media influences foreign policymakers and vice versa. What has not been discussed as much is the impact of social media on policymaking and the foreign affairs community.

It may not be quite clear yet as to what impact social media will have exactly on foreign policymaking. What is evident, though, is that foreign policy does not operate in a vacuum, and it must incorporate or respond to changes in communications. We are interested in your thoughts on how social media — how these changes in communication — will affect foreign policymaking in the years ahead.

The post attracted a number of comments (23), including the expected noise one would a USG blog to get. Fortunately, there is some worthwhile feedback (including the one from a senior State Department official).  The highlights are below the fold.

My thoughts on the subject: these are good steps forward. Whatever engages the global audience, US and non-US, is a good thing. Fostering engagement, creating transparency, and humanizing the “machine” all work toward building trust and legitimacy. The State Department today must recreate itself to reach out and engage state and non-state actors at all levels, from the grassroots to the top, regardless of the size and structure of the “organization” that may range from an individual to a multinational corporation to a state to a potential terrorist group. To do this requires reconceptualizing the utility and value of information, breaking the barriers preventing the effective use of information, and encouraging engagement. 

Social media, or more broadly “New Media”, can be and is used to persuade, mobilize, and facilitate support and action from audiences that dynamically constituted irrespective of region or traditional connections. The Internet democraticized information by reducing (or in some cases virtually eliminating) costs to produce, share, access, and share again. Social media further flattened the hierarchy, creating and fostering direct connections dynamically tunneling through and between bureaucracies and stratified organizations. It is important to remember that social media does not require formal software like flikr, twitter, or Facebook. It’s all in the way you network in the new environment.

State must educate, empower, equip, and encourage its employees to use social media to remain relevant (the 4-E’s are shamelessly stolen from LTG Bill Caldwell).

A step in the right direction to better utilize social media is to start by training its people, all of its people, to interact with the media, traditional or otherwise. An example is the Swedish Foreign Ministry who puts every Ministry employee through media training and gives them a wallet card tip sheet. The Ministry encourages “everyone” to “sit on TV sofas” (e.g. talk shows) to discuss the Ministry’s business. It’s part of the Ministry’s effort to build a positive impression of Sweden abroad and of itself to Swedes at home. The wallet card makes the following recommendations: Respect the role of the journalist; Be helpful in providing information; Never lie; Take the time to check facts; Assume you are on the record; and Stay calm. The card also provides a Swedish phone number to contact the press service, including a number to call after hours. Different cultures of openness offers the most obvious barrier to full adoption of the Swedish plan, but the point is everyone should be comfortable and empowered to speak about State to the media, at least within their lane and if they can’t, actively locate someone who can.

State should explore the Swedish model while also exploring LTG Caldwell effort in which everyone at Command and General Staff College has been told to blog. The recent blogger roundtable with Under Secretary Jim Glassman was a good step in the right direction. Until recently, DoD had a monopoly on US Government blogger outreach that was not so indicative of State absence as much as Defense realizing the need (and having the right guy at the right place to put it together). Let’s see more of this from the lower echelons as well as host foreign call-in roundtables out of our embassies in local languages and make the transcripts available in the local language and English. 

DipNote and’s blog, the blog for non-US audiences, should become vehicles for frequent and deep conversations between the State Department and the global public.

Success will mean relevance in a world where we need a Department of Non-State as well as a Department of State. It will also mean a functional merger of the bifurcated engagement model in which we artificially and uniquely among our peers separate foreign from domestic in the global information environment. 

Below are highlights from the comments on DipNote’s post asking for input.

First up is DoS Spokesman Sean McCormack’s comment: 

Many of you raise an important question about the ability to influence large organizations, in this the case the State Department, through social media. Of course, there are a variety of ways this happens every day on sites not related to the government. We are different because of the relatively closed nature of the policy-making process (this applies across different administrations) so we acknowledge our limits up front. What that does not mean, however, is that you or we should accept those limits as immutable. One way in which I hope this blog evolves to involve you more is in bringing to our attention events (breaking or slowly unfolding). When we receive such information, it is my hope that we can internalize, analyze, and, when possible, act on the information. We are a ways from that model now, but over time culture changes. When I refer to culture in this case, I mean the State Department. It is an inherently conservative (and by that I mean slow to accept and implement change) culture. In less than a year, though, I see change with more posters coming forward to us with material they want to share with you.

I will work with you on the flip side of the equation, in which your feedback or suggestions make their way in to our decision-making processes. I’m reading a great book now, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies . While the book is directed at use of social technologies in business, I can see some parallels on which we can draw, especially in modifying internal processes.

There’s “Eric in New Mexico” who wrote “An informed public actually helps inform the gov.”

“Meg in California” wrote the most thoughtful comment (not to mention she gave a shout out to MountainRunner):

It is nice that State is branching out into various social media. It might help them connect, and share information with new audiences (though I doubt many people will be drawn to these state sponsored efforts). More importantly it will teach State how to better engage in this new environment.

Ultimately, State, and most USG offices will learn that to be most effective they can’t toot their own horn but will have to find ways to engage trusted, established, credible sources in the world of social media.

And clearly, State is learning…For instance: yesterday Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Glassman held a teleconference with bloggers…then MountainRunner, a popular blog on U.S. foreign policy, particularly public diplomacy wrote about it. I trust MountainRunner to report and comment reflectively so I read with interest what he had to report.

The very fact that the undersecretary thought it valuable to include that community in his message demonstrates a willingness to try new things and engage in new media. The more ways State can find to engage with trusted new media sources the more successful they will be.

It is fine to have your own YouTube channel but better if you can create programming that gets carried on a popular channel that people already know and trust, it makes your message more credible.

I am not saying it will be easy and I applaud these first steps, I just hope that the first steps won’t be the last.

See also:

4 thoughts on “Social Media and Foreign Policy

  1. First, thanks for pointing out the State Department’s blog. I didn’t know they had one.I should probably leave this comment on their blog, maybe I’ll do that later.
    Although it isn’t clear to me that the internet is, essentially, a force for democratization, it certainly is another route for messages, and one that is not constrained by the costs associated with print, radio or television. “Publishing for the Masses” doesn’t mean democratization, it might mean a constant focus on stories of popular appeal, and getting far away from any long-term thinking. The gives everyone a soap box.
    This clearly shows that a State Dept. blog is of little value. The State Department does not lack access to any media outlet in the English speaking world. The press comes to it, each day, to attend press conferences. It might be cute to see that Sec. Rice was in Perth, Australia, and that there were a dozen or so protesters[1] but as for utility… it is hard to imagine.
    [1] Yes, they seemed to include the people I met while I spent three weeks in that nice little city.

  2. Josh, thanks for reading and commenting here.Let me clarify my use of “democractization”. I don’t mean it will create an electoral college.
    The impact of the reduced cost (to virtually zero in some cases) of sharing and consuming information is that the hierarchies are bypassed making the unequal equal. This is the value and consequence of the soap box which allows the speaker to rise above the crowd on a temporary dais to be heard.
    As you point out however, it does help shape the financial incentives of the media, both traditional and new (see this comment). Just as so-called traditional media like radio, television, and “big web” distributes news, and often spin news, in a way that drives more traffic, so to will the new media.

  3. Technology has empowered the consumer as an increasingly equal partner in information’s production. The media landscape is quietly undergoing a revolution. It affects our future foreign policy. The world increasingly operates on perceptions created by the “Now Media” environment. Television, as new media tool, is one form of device in which information may transfer into other lands. And it is believe that the simple and essential fact is that everything we say and do both at home and abroad, as well as everything we fail to say and do, has an impact in other lands. On the other hand media helps a lot in communication transfer, entertainment and educational information. We definitely watch a lot of TV. Are we watching too much TV? Well, the trend is to become a couch potato, as the number of hours watched moves upward everywhere. The world on average is watching more, as the 2008 viewing time increased by one minute from 2007. (One Minute? Such decadence!) The North American total had the largest increase, of four minutes. Europe actually dropped, despite 2008 being a World Cup year. (Soccer – the next World Cup for the Game Played in Heaven, Rugby, will be in 2011.) Most parents would undoubtedly give an instant payday loan to anyone who can figure out how to get the kids to watch less TV.

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