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Mobilizing the People: Transcending Borders through Social Media

Much has been said about social media’s role in empowering marginalized populations, revolutionizing the ability to share and utilize information worldwide.  In authoritarian governments, where non-regime approved opinions are often silenced, social media allows individuals to advocate and collaborate with their similarly minded peers within their own countries and around the world.  It is this collaboration through social media that Alec Ross, former Department of State Senior Advisor for Innovation, has called the prime medium for the establishment of social change movements.

New forums for social interaction have provided worldwide access to an endless supply of information and news.  As a result, power has shifted from large traditional information providers, such as governments and the mainstream media, to the citizens themselves.  Oscar Morales’s One Million Voices Against FARC is one of social media’s first success stories, as Morales was able to mobilize millions of Colombians against terrorism using Facebook. The movement started by providing the public with the face of a victim, in this case the child of a FARC rape victim, whose story was circulating around the news at the same time.  This timing caused the movement to go viral gaining thousands of supporters on Facebook within hours of its inception.  Rather than let one image define his movement, Morales continued to provide information to his network. Through social media, he was able to organize the movement to reveal more victims to the public, to provide videos, photos, and information against the FARC.  This movement spread across the globe, leading to demonstrations around the world with millions of people in attendance.

In addition to giving social media users the power of information, the new leaderless format of movements has helped to create anonymity for the founders of movements and protect their members. For example, We are All Khaled Said, an influential movement against the Egyptian Government in the weeks leading up to the Egyptian Revolt, was able to use anonymous social media accounts to provide a level of secrecy necessary to evade the dangers of government persecution and punishment.  Additionally, Facebook and other media outlets allowed the movement to connect with other networks and movements, providing wide-ranging support, as well as legitimacy, to the group.

Though social media has ushered in a new era of global community, citizen journalism and information sharing, many academics would advise against buying into the belief that social media, and social media alone, has led to some of the most dramatic social upheavals of recent history. Rather, Jon B. Alterman argues in “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” that it was social media’s ability to empower individuals and convey information to the traditional media that made it a tool of revolutionaries, not a revolutionary force in and of itself.

Nonetheless, social media has facilitated the opening of closed societies and in this new era of global interconnectivity, it will continue to mobilize and connect individuals around the world, shifting traditional means of geopolitics to a more population-centric approach.


Targeting America and Beyond: China’s Soft Power Initiatives

One of the biggest spenders in the worldwide information space has made the U.S. population a prime target in its attempts to secure a more flattering image of itself on the international stage: China.   The country’s efforts to reach Americans and overcome its general lack of credibility come with a significant price tag.  The Communist Party of China has spent around $6 billion  in the past few years on media campaigns in the U.S.

China’s efforts put an interesting twist on the U.S.’s own public diplomacy attempts to reach international audiences in an attempt to bolster U.S. objectives abroad, whether through Twitter diplomacy, education exchanges or other similar efforts.

As China becomes both an economic and political power, the threat it poses to U.S. supremacy has given China a global image problem. To thwart this perception, China has leveraged showcase events like the 2008 Beijing Winter Olympic Games and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, in addition to more traditional methods of strengthening Chinese soft power.

Chinese diplomatic efforts in the U.S. have focused primarily on advertising campaigns and other soft power initiatives to drive positive public opinion of China. Notably, the government-run Xinhua News (with an office in NYC) has a national broadcasting station in the U.S. as well as online resources.  Other efforts include the Confucius Institutes which aim to promote cross-cultural exchanges, although they are sometimes viewed as “Chinese foreign propagandists.”

The Chinese government’s soft power initiatives also help to satisfy the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for natural resources.  The Chinese government’s work in Africa trade infrastructure development for access to the continent’s natural resources. However, rumors of human rights violations and lack of adherence to democratic principles in general make diplomatic efforts essential for China in this region. The expansion of China’s state news agency Xinhua to Nairobi, Kenya, is meant to thwart biased Western views of China. Particularly in countries where China takes an investment-for-resource approach to foreign policy, effective public diplomacy efforts are vital.

Generating credibility is at the root of public diplomacy efforts and China’s “peaceful rise’ is contingent on its ability to effectively target and influence audiences in the U.S. and abroad. With billions invested so far, will China improve its image among Americans and even best American influence in diplomacy efforts in Africa and worldwide?


Twitter Feuds: Digital Diplomacy on the Fritz

Thanks to digital diplomacy, it’s possible to reach and engage domestic and foreign constituencies using the Internet. This form of virtual communication presents an opportunity for the U.S. to reveal and defend its foreign policy (as has been the case with the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

However, diplomats have often found themselves in hot water after the real-time nature of social media allows their misstatements or gaffes to be quickly leveraged against the U.S. As diplomats begin to engage more and more with local populations, they face the difficult task of  figuring out the terrain and making sure they use it to improve the image of the U.S. Otherwise, direct engagement with international audiences via Twitter and similar services can set American diplomats up for disaster.

In our third installment on U.S. digital diplomacy efforts, Strategic Social examines the Twitter feud between U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and the Russian government. McFaul is among a number of U.S. diplomats who have taken to Twitter as the State Department attempts to harness social media to deliver the U.S. government’s message. But the plain-spoken envoy’s tweets have sparked controversy that could be detrimental to the already troubled “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

Since assuming his post in Moscow in January, McFaul has made an overt effort to open a Twitter dialogue with the Russian people. However, Russians have taken issue with his chosen diction and syntax on several occasions. In March, McFaul used his Twitter account to voice his concerns that diplomatic protocols had been breached when it appeared his schedule had been leaked to journalists at NTV, one of three major government-controlled television networks. When NTV aired his interaction with their journalists, the state-run broadcaster emphasized McFaul’s use of the word “wild” when describing Russia. McFaul tried to soften his remarks, writing on Twitter “I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV’s actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.”

Also in March, McFaul expressed concern on Twitter regarding the detention of protesters who challenged Putin’s election victory. In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted that the U.S. had been less humane in dispersing Occupy Wall Street protesters. After McFaul suggested the Russians tried to bribe the Kyrgyz government to evict U.S. forces from an airbase in May, the foreign ministry slammed McFaul for being unprofessional and for criticizing Russian media.

McFaul reacted in several tweets, trying to point out to the foreign ministry Twitter account that he in fact was giving a talk based on improved U.S.-Russian relations in recent years. To dial back some of his remarks he also tweeted: “Still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically” after one tweeter noted that his HSE talk was a “manifestation of incompetence.”

Ambassador McFaul has had a tumultuous first six months in office and his online presence, though positively enhanced by Russian-language tweets espousing U.S.-Russian unity, has reflected the real-life defense he’s had to play in response to his unorthodoxly frank diplomacy. Though McFaul may not be able to engage as directly with Russians as he may like, Twitter provides one more outlet for the ambassador to get his message across, even if that message is sometimes an apology.


Digital Diplomacy and the Asia Pivot

After more than a decade of war, the U.S. is shifting the strategic balance of its military forces from the Middle East and Central Asia and toward the Asia-Pacific region. The goal of the new defense strategy is to promote U.S. interests by helping to shape the norms and rules of the Asia-Pacific, particularly as China emerges as an ever-more influential regional power. In addition to a “pivot” of its defense resources, Washington is strengthening U.S. alliances and building deeper relationships with emerging partners through digital diplomacy.

Perhaps the strongest military aspect of the Asia-Pacific “strategic pivot” involves Australia and  U.S. digital diplomacy efforts have followed. Twitter use by the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and other U.S. consulates in Australia demonstrates an effort to reinforce diplomatic and military ties with Australia and, moreover its key Asian partners. The embassy regularly tweets about U.S.-Australia maritime cooperation and often retweets posts related to maritime security from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and others.


Australia is not the only partner to which the U.S. has been reaching out; India has been tapped as a potential counter to China’s economic and military rise in the region. Prior to hosting the third U.S.-India strategic dialogue, the embassy reposted this statement from the U.S. Pacific Command:

Tweets also focused on relations with adversaries. In light of North Korea’s missile launch plans in early April, the embassy retweeted the following message from the State Department:

The U.S. Embassy in Manila employs Twitter to create a better sense of legitimacy for U.S. military objectives but to a lesser extent than the U.S. embassy in Canberra. Most content on its Twitter page focuses on cultural and business activities in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as environmental initiatives in the host country. The embassy also spends time interacting with its impressive 24,789 followers and responding to visa inquiries. But at the same time, it makes sure to use Twitter as a platform to strengthen its security and strategic partnership with the Philippines. It frequently tweets and retweets messages related to deepening military ties between the two nations, especially after the U.S. announced its “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific.









Despite these positive interactions, U.S. Twitter diplomacy efforts in the region have not always been well received. Perhaps irked by the U.S.’s Pacific “pivot,” the Chinese government recently told the U.S. to stop tweeting about poor air quality in the country. China has long taken issue with the popular U.S. Embassy Twitter feed that tracks pollution in Beijing, but its past objections were raised quietly until the U.S. announced it intends to maintain and strengthen its military presence in region. In April 2012, a rotation of 200 U.S. Marines arrived in Darwin. The size of the rotation will gradually be expanded into a force of around 2,500 Marine Corps personnel. There also are plans for greater access by U.S. military aircraft to Royal Australian Air Force facilities and for the U.S. Navy to have greater access to Australia’s Indian Ocean navy base HMAS Sterling. Additionally, the Philippines and the U.S. are discussing new military cooperation options, including rotating U.S. troops more frequently into the country and staging more joint exercises.

Chinese censure of the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed does not come as a surprise, but it signals a growing diplomatic row that could be damaging to an already precarious U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. move toward the Asia-Pacific could reinforce China’s fear of encirclement and prompt further militarization of the region. Fears and misperceptions linger on both sides of the Pacific, but Twitter use can provide some transparency in diplomatic relations. If U.S. embassies across the Asia-Pacific can harness Twitter to build mutual trust and to promote active efforts in global problem-solving, it would encourage constructive Chinese behavior and provide confidence to regional leaders who wish to resist potential Chinese regional hegemony: a win-win solution.


Soccer: Battleground for Identity

The high-profile cases of regional soccer celebrities rising up to lead social change movements in the Arab Spring have thrust to the fore the importance of a highly-regarded sport in a highly contentious region (see Strategic Social’s earlier post about soccer as a battleground against authoritarianism).

In the second part of James Dorsey’s lecture “Soccer as an Engine of Change and Assertion of Identity,” he also described the paradoxical ability of soccer to create national unity and promote women’s rights, on the one hand, and to emphasize sectarian tension on the other. The stadium, he argued, is a battleground for identity.  For example, Israeli Arabs and Jews have rallied around the Israeli national team but, at the same time, fans of the club Beitar Jerusalem have been known to violently attack Arabs. In this sense, soccer can be a powerful unifier but clearly its societal effects are difficult to predict or control.

Dorsey presents these two options, unity and sectarianism, as fairly evenly matched. Strategic Social looked at examples from Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Yemen to see in which cases soccer is unifying and in which cases it is divisive.  In Jordan, soccer is violently sectarian. For example, a soccer game in December 2012 between the Palestinian-backed al-Wahdat team and the Jordanian-backed al-Faisaly ended in a riot injuring hundreds after the Palestinian team won. An interesting and perhaps explanatory dynamic in Jordan is its lack of a common identity despite Palestinians accounting for at least half of the population.  As one result, soccer team loyalty appears to be a vehicle for expressing and preserving these competing identities.

Soccer in Lebanon also can be divisive as lines are drawn along sectarian lines (as are most aspects of politics and society there).  However the sport does not always turn to violence.  The relative peacefulness of Lebanese soccer may be due to the state’s banning of spectators over concerns about sectarian rioting after the 2007 war with Israel. The ban was extended when the country was unable to select a president later that year. The government feared the violent ultras could have forced the hands of their co-religionists if rioting got out of hand. Like Tunisia, which banned soccer spectators for a year after the Arab Spring of 2011, Lebanon’s fragile peace in the aftermath of upheaval required a ban on soccer. Just as in Jordan and Israel, soccer matches seemingly cannot be held in Lebanon without stirring up violent sectarianism.

Somewhat ironically, Yemen may be the only example of soccer bringing unity as its hosting of the Gulf Cup in 2010 produced a large turnout of female fans. It would appear soccer fans in Yemen used the sport to  trump sexism. For an already conservative country battling al-Qaeda, the soccer stadium provides a battleground that gives women a fighting chance.