Hillary Clinton’s willingness to embrace the use of technology and bring Alec Ross on as an advisor for innovation is a welcome and critical step for a 21st century State Department operation. Employing social networking tools to share information with foreign publics, collaborating to produce new software to improve services around the world, and working together across borders to improve all facets of State’s work. From a diplomatic perspective, however, installing the critical infrastructure for sharing information is only a first step. There are three crucial next steps that will likely be the difference between a disappointing legacy of good ideas and a lasting legacy of good diplomacy. They are:
- Closing the global digital divide with open internet access,
- Engaging, not lecturing, and
- Expanding and restructuring the Foreign Service’s digital presence at home and abroad.
First and foremost, the effort to use social media to reach large populations at a lower cost and risk to practitioners of public diplomacy is useless without audiences and populations having the means to access the information. According to comScore, over a billion people have internet access, while Internet World Stats indicate that as much as a quarter of the world’s population has regular access to the internet. While the expansion of global internet access is notable, the 75% of the world on the wrong side of the growing digital divide is more concerning.
Closing the global digital divide with open internet access
In the predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East, only the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have populations where more than 35% of the people have regular internet access, and nearly 80% of the region (not including Israel), is shut off from the incredible global resources provided by the internet. The United States cannot afford to be excluded from the discussions that shape the minds of young people and their attitudes toward the United States and its allies in tumultuous and depressed regions like the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Because no Foreign Service could ever hope to personally have those discussions with these millions of people, the massive resources of the internet can fill that void.
Instead of trusting the power of globalization and allowing the internet’s remarkable expansion to organically continue, the United States must make its own substantial investment in closing the global digital divide. We need not look further than China for insight as to why. China, perhaps unsurprisingly given its size, has the largest population in the world of citizens able to use the internet, but they only access that which the government deems appropriate and acceptable. To properly advance its public diplomacy agenda and give the United States the best chance to compete and succeed in a global marketplace of values, ideas, and culture, a free and open exchange of information is required. By investing heavily in an IT infrastructure around the world, the U.S. can demand a free, unrestricted information stream that gives the United States its best chance.
There is also a pressing need for open internet access from a national security perspective. In his critical and somewhat jarring Brave New War, John Robb notes somewhat disturbingly that it requires few resources to coordinate and plan attacks on U.S. interests and soil. A secure web server and well-disguised messages can be the foundation for severe damage to a country’s population, resources, and economy. A more open digital world provides alternatives to anti-American, anti-Democratic, and anti-capitalist messages that could encourage a small group of terrorists to devastate American interests. The United States needs to be able to present an alternative view to as many people as possible.
Engaging, Not Lecturing
The internet is more than just a different means to sharing the same messages as print, radio, or television. A 2006 blog posting by Jay Rosen successfully explains the difference between what has existed in mainstream media for centuries, and what exists today. Where engagement and interaction between the audience and the source of information was once limited to the newspaper’s op-ed page, the radio show’s call-in program, and the audience question on the daytime talk show, the internet now provides an overwhelming array of outlets for comment, critique and support. If someone cannot comment directly on your information on your site, it is more than likely that they will do so elsewhere. Many will take their increasingly valuable attention elsewhere, and seek out a place where they feel they have a relevant voice. This often means influential blogs, social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook, or simply to other major outlets that understand that individual people have greater control over content than ever.
Globally, the United States must acknowledge that it is much like the struggling American mainstream media: trying to adapt to a world where the Professor is no longer lecturing, creating the syllabus and deciding what is relevant, but instead leading a Socratic seminar, suggesting topics and guiding debate, but never fully in control of what comes out of it. What does that mean? Most importantly, it means that there needs to be a way to process and respond to feedback. International broadcasting is still a crucially important component of public diplomacy, and is worthy of the time and attention it needs to improve its flaws, but it cannot be the crux of public diplomacy moving forward.
Instead, the United States must become far more active in joining others’ conversations. Important lessons can be learned from the research of Josh Fouts and Rita J. King, where there are opportunities to simulate locations both at home and abroad, or to explore those already created by other citizens to discuss life, answer questions or to simply develop relationships between interested citizens. The models of certain organizations and businesses can also be examined to find where the conversations are already happening. Craig Newmark of Craigslist and Frank Eliason at Comcast have effectively utilized Twitter to seek out mentions of their company and have personally reached out to them to offer more information and correct inaccuracies.
These are often not simply one-time messages, they become full discussions that develop in the public sphere, offering observers the same information and shaping the image of the organization as concerned about customers and open to criticism. This direct, person-to-person conversation embodies the values of a democracy that responds and reflects the values and needs of its citizens, and should be mimicked by the State Department. In this way, public diplomacy and public affairs can be one and the same. The United States can practice what it preaches while also shaping the dialogue and public opinion.
Expanding and Reshaping the Foreign Service’s Digital Efforts
The greatest challenge and road block to this effort is not an unimaginative State Department; it is a disturbing lack of resources. Then-Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman displayed an impressive understanding of the power of the internet with his own interview in the digital world of Second Life, but the need for these initiatives are so acute that they can not be limited to the occasional high-profile appearance on the web or the television. Without the personnel to have these conversations and engage globally and every day, the new media effort will be dominated by the old style: text message alerts with no opportunities for reply, Facebook pages with no discussion with those who post on the government’s wall, one-way blog postings and Twitter updates that fail to harness the transformative power of social media and the internet.
The State Department must make it abundantly clear to Congress that a 21st Century effort to repair the American image abroad, delegitimize terrorists, and to improve national security through soft power requires a massive expansion of the number of people devoted to the digital effort who can quickly respond in whatever language necessary to the conversation anywhere in the world. A larger legion of officers abroad can all
ow the conversation to spill over from the digital to the oft-forgotten, but still crucial, real world sphere, where people identified as opinion leaders can partake in face-to-face conversations to make sure that the true story is always told.
Without taking these three major steps towards a better digital public diplomacy presence, Hillary Clinton, Alec Ross, and Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale will have a different domestic discussion with the same unfortunate global results.
David Earl is a freelance professional in public relations, journalism and multimedia production. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Communication from The George Washington University, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree from GW in Global Communication. His blog "Softer Power" is at http://dtearl.wordpress.com.
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