Public Diplomacy

Fergus Hanson

Part 3 of “Baked in and Wired: eDiplomacy @ State”

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eDiplomacy at State
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“Our basic assumption is that we’ve all lost control of the information environment—the only option is to embrace the change and work to shape it.”

—Ben Scott, Innovation Adviser to Hillary Clinton

What’s the Issue?
One of Australia’s foremost foreign policy thinkers, Allan Gyngell , (Director-General of the Office of National Assessments), recently set out why public diplomacy increasingly matters. He argued, “We are now entering a period in which diplomacy will matter again more than it has since the mid-20th century and the beginning of the Cold War. And…it will be a more complex and challenging form of diplomacy, with more than the usual scope for success and failure.” Gyngell goes on to list four reasons why, the fourth of which he describes as follows:

The final reason diplomacy will matter more is that its objects—the entities it is trying to influence—are increasing in number as the deeper effects of the information revolution, especially new forms of social media, spread through societies.

Just as the circumscribed court politics of the eighteenth century gave rise to the more complex diplomacy of the nation state in the nineteenth century, and the new dimensions of multilateral diplomacy were added in the twentieth century, in the twenty first century an additional dimension of public diplomacy is needed to address the publics which increasingly shape state behavior.

As Joseph Nye says, “in the information age, it’s not just whose army wins but whose story wins”. And diplomats are storytellers. The first of them in the Greek city states were actors. They’ve never looked back.

The technology-driven changes affecting public diplomacy have produced both risks and opportunities for foreign ministries. These include:

  • The opportunity to influence and speak directly and more frequently to large audiences, which will in turn feed into political influence. In the case of State, this involves its emergence as a de facto media empire.
  • The opportunity to segment audiences and target messages to key groups.
  • Broadening awareness among diplomats of political and social movements that are driven from the bottom up by providing an early warning capability.
  • The chance to listen to voices and receive information previously unavailable to diplomats. With the new opportunity to access the views of so many people on so many topics all the time it should help good listeners to better understand the complexity of politics, society, and culture beyond the elite views represented in traditional diplomatic sources.
  • The risk of economically costly damage to a country’s reputation or key exports in incredibly short time-frames.
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  • The challenge of competing for a voice when everyone can communicate and, in some cases, with individuals or organizations that are more successful at controlling a foreign policy message than governments.

At the core of this change has been the democratization of access to communications tools as well as the nature of that communication. Most people on earth now have access to a cell phone. The International Telecommunications Union estimates there are six billion of them, with a global penetration rate of 87 percent, including 79 percent in the developing world.  Even in countries like Haiti—one of the world’s poorest with per capita GDP of just $1,300 in 2011—there are 41 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people.

Giving nearly the entire human populace access to voice and SMS communication is a radical development—the first time everyone on earth has at least theoretically been one phone call away from someone else. This is, of course, hypothetical; it is reasonably hard to obtain another person’s cell phone number unless they give it to you. But increasingly, phones are not limited to voice and SMS capability (as powerful as these can be). Estimates are that there are now around one billion smart phones that have the capacity to access the internet to some extent, with the take-up of these phones spreading rapidly as costs plummet. That is facilitating access to an even greater reservoir of information. It is also providing access to networked social media platforms that, for some individuals, can dramatically multiply their reach. The largest of these networks is Facebook, which had 955 million monthly active users at the end of June 2012, and which, in 2012, became the largest tech IPO in history with a valuation in excess of $100 billion.

For foreign ministries, connection technologies have ushered in three big changes: changing hierarchies and new actors; real time diplomacy; and rapid brand damage.

Hierarchies and New Actors
This new, networked communication facilitated by the cell phone is changing the way people communicate and old power hierarchies in the process. Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alec Ross characterized this shift in the following way:

So I think that part of what connection technologies do, is they take power away from the nation state and large institutions and give it to individuals and small institutions. And so very big companies and very big governments are often times those which are most roiled, which are most disrupted, by connection technologies. Because what it does is it puts power in the hands of individuals that was previously unimaginable. And this can be for both good or ill. Technology itself is value neutral. It takes on the values and intentions of the users.

These remarks came just a few months into the Arab Spring. But other events have also led governments and business to reassess the potential of connection technologies.

Another illustration of the power of these tools to disrupt the foreign policy establishment came with the launch of the Kony2012 video by Invisible Children. This previously obscure NGO reported its support and revenue as less than $14 million in financial year 2010-11. Despite this relatively modest footprint, its half-hour video on Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, was launched in March 2012 and quickly amassed over 100 million views.

Unsurprisingly, the group’s success irked just about everyone. The Ugandan government was aghast that a global LRA narrative was being shaped by an upstart NGO. Others were quick to point out factual errors in the film or the way Invisible Children spent its funds.

5 kony book
Used under a creative commons license, 


From the perspective of global perceptions about Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, these criticisms were beside the point. Invisible Children’s narrative had spread so pervasively, no level of retrospective scrutiny was going to change the now preponderant narrative it had shaped.

In the Kony 2012 video, Invisible Children claim credit for getting around 100 U.S. military advisers deployed to Africa to help in the hunt for Kony but expressed concern that without political pressure they risked being withdrawn. It was a reasonable worry given Obama administration officials had told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October that the deployment would be “short-term.” After Invisible Children’s viral campaign, it didn’t take long for President Obama to address the group’s concern directly. Just days after its “Cover the Night” action, President Obama announced during a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum  that “our advisers will continue their efforts to bring this madman [Joseph Kony] to justice and to save lives.”

This is not to suggest that every individual and NGO around the world is suddenly going to be sending governments off on a string of populist sprees addressing their pet priorities. Invisible Children had a strong global network established well in advance of the release of the Kony2012 video, which no doubt helped its roll-out. It will also likely be harder for would-be imitators to replicate its success easily. But connection technologies have discernibly empowered some individuals and groups, and they are now going to be playing themselves into foreign policy decisions whether foreign ministries like it or not.

Real Time Diplomacy
“I kid my good friend, Henry Kissinger. Can you imagine in a world of Twitter, being able to sneak out of Pakistan and fly to China and do secret negotiations? It’s just an entirely different 24/7 public environment that you are living in.”

—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, March 2012

The diffusion of cell phones across the globe and the shift towards networking these has produced another radical challenge for diplomacy. It has been dubbed by Professor of Journalism and Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, Philip Seib, “real-time diplomacy.”

Every communications revolution has challenged governments and foreign ministries by constricting their decision making time-frames. Seib tracks a few examples that put the current reality into perspective.

On the morning of April 19, 1775, there was a faceoff between American militiamen and the British army at Lexington and Concord that marked the beginning of the American Revolution. However, it wasn’t until April 23 that news reached New York and April 28 that it reached Virginia (Seib, p. 73). Today, these events could be live tweeted globally.

Or more recently, when CBS filmed the East German closure of the border between East and West Berlin on Sunday August 13, 1961, it wasn’t until Tuesday evening in the United States that the story was finally broadcast on television (Seib, p. 68).

Every advance that has reduced the time required for information to travel between two points has put pressure on decision time-frames for diplomats, whether the advance be the steam ship, train, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, or the internet.

6 reallyvirtual tweetThe point has now been reached where information not only travels instantly from almost anywhere on earth, it is also democratized. Information is unfiltered by traditional gatekeepers like newspaper, radio or television editors. Gone are the gentleman’s agreements between editors and officials to hold back or restrain sensitive reporting. These sorts of traditional approaches are now largely redundant when it’s possible for people like IT consultant Sohaib Athar to live tweet the raid that killed Osama bin Laden (see tweet). Even when major news organizations abide by these old standards of professionalism, they can be instantly rendered moot.

When it decided to report on the State Department’s WikiLeaks cables, the New York Times issued a note to readers that said in part:

After its own redactions, The Times sent Obama administration officials the cables it planned to post and invited them to challenge publication of any information that, in the official view, would harm the national interest. After reviewing the cables, the officials—while making clear they condemn the publication of secret material—suggested additional redactions. The Times agreed to some, but not all. …In all, The Times plans to post on its Web site the text of about 100 cables—some edited, some in full—that illuminate aspects of American foreign policy.

However, less than a year later the entire un-redacted stock of a quarter of a million cables was released online when Guardian journalist David Leigh published the passphrase to the master file in a book, while various websites further enhanced the cables’ accessibility by making them easily searchable.

Notwithstanding these technological developments, some of this change seems much more dramatic than it really is. The fact it used to take days or months for information to reach policymakers did not mean policymakers had all this time available to formulate policy and make decisions. Unless policy-makers were actually conveying the information themselves to headquarters, this travel time was dead time, and upon receiving the information, policymakers would still be under pressure to respond in a timely way. Improvements in internal communications also allowed policymakers to effectively buy time by making processing and transmission more efficient (for example, by replacing written with typed letters and typed letters with emails).

It also remains true that for many (probably most) foreign policy issues, policymakers are still under no real public pressure to act expeditiously. The public has an extremely high tolerance for the negotiation of tax treaties, free-trade agreements, reciprocal healthcare arrangements and the like. Policymakers have even been able to drag out global negotiations for years on issues as pressing and potentially catastrophic as climate change.

It is only in a limited number of high-profile issues that decision making timeframes have been dramatically curtailed. When your secret raid inside the territory of a foreign country is being live tweeted, there is not much time for your public position to be explained. But even in the instance of the Osama bin Laden raid, its pre-planned nature meant public lines could have been thought through in advance.

That said, unpredictable developments in high profile areas can force policymaking into uncomfortably tight timeframes. The revolution in Egypt was a case in point.

The uprising began on January 25, 2011, and by February 11, Mubarak had stepped down. U.S. policy needed to scramble in a highly fluid and uncertain environment that was taking place against the backdrop of a successful overthrow of the regime in Tunisia and a torrent of social and other media reporting and commentary on the unfolding events.

Not surprisingly, and reasonably, U.S. policy was initially unable to keep pace with developments. As social media and the traditional media erupted in a frenzy of support for the Egyptian protestors, the President and State Department were unable to instantly jettison a long-term partner and policy approach from day one.

On January 27, Vice President Joe Biden said the following in an interview with Jim Lehrer:

Jim Lehrer: Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?

Joe Biden: No, I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that — to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.

Jim Lehrer: Some people are suggesting that we may be seeing the beginning of a kind of domino effect, similar to what happened after the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Poland came first, then Hungary, East Germany.

We have got Tunisia, as you say, maybe Egypt, who knows. Do you smell the same thing coming?

Joe Biden: No, I don’t.

By January 30, the Obama administration line had evolved and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on the Sunday talk-show circuit, calling for “an orderly transition” and stating that the United States was “ready to help with the kind of transition that will lead to greater political and economic freedom.”

And on February 1, just a week after the protests erupted, President Obama announced that he had phoned President Mubarak and made clear “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.”

In comparison to some previous leadership transitions the United States has had to deal with—such as Reagan with Ferdinand Marcos and Bill Clinton with Suharto—this was policymaking at warp speed.

This might have been an extraordinary policy pivot in an incredibly short time frame that landed the United States on the right side of history, but it was still nowhere near fast enough to appease public expectations of a virtually instantaneous reaction. In the lead-up to this policy evolution, social media was overflowing with demands for the United States to make its policy position clear (and tell Mubarak to go). While it is hard to imagine the United States being able to responsibly shift any faster than it did, given the fluidity of events and the stakes, even this slight delay probably dented the United States’ wider reputation in the region as a champion of democracy.

In this super-saturated information environment, circumstances will emerge where it is simply impossible for foreign ministries to keep pace with events. It would be reckless for states to jettison deliberation and time to see how events unfold in favor of snap decisions that play to the crowd. At the same time, this environment now demands that officials communicate their positions (even holding positions) and technology provides them with the ability to defend their stance and mitigate negative fallout.

Rapid Brand Damage
A related challenge that connection technologies have created for foreign policy practitioners is the potential for nations to experience rapid, brand-damaging incidents. A factor feeding this trend seems to be that journalists in many countries now use social media as a source for breaking news and as a means of gauging public reaction to events.

Events that in the past might have gone unnoticed beyond a small community now have the potential to explode internationally, causing massive economic losses and even death.

In 2009, Australia experienced this new reality. A series of attacks on Indian students studying in Australia created a perception that the attacks were racially motivated. Australian police did not collect data along racial lines, so it was at first difficult to determine if the attacks were racially motivated or just an unfortunate coincidence. The attacks received some attention on social media in India and various Australian-oriented Facebook pages appeared promoting hateful messages about Indians.

Even with this social media element, the mainstream media quickly became the major actors in this crisis, fuelling a string of protests over the attacks in both India and Australia. Various factors inflamed the crisis. The notoriously vociferous Indian media on several occasions omitted critical facts, such as when Jaspreet Singh claimed that he was set on fire by unknown assailants but police alleged he accidentally burned himself while setting his car alight to make an insurance claim. The Victorian government also handled the crisis poorly.

The overall impact was damaging to Australia’s national brand-damaging. Australia’s third-largest export is education and its second-largest source country of international students at the time was India. Within months, student numbers had fallen dramatically, with government figures released in early 2010 revealing the number of Indians applying for student visas to Australia had fallen nearly 50 percent. Private government-purchased polling seen by the author also revealed Indian public opinion towards Australia had plummeted dramatically in key areas.

The Australian federal government responded in the same way many governments might. In June 2009, it ordered the National Security Adviser to lead a taskforce examining the attacks. But it was not until early 2010 that it had mobilized a comprehensive national response and by then the damage had been done.

This is the sort of crisis that fits Philip Seib’s concept of real-time diplomacy. It was generating outrage in one of Australia’s largest and fastest-growing export markets and causing serious economic and political damage. It required urgent action for which governments and foreign ministries at present are, mostly, wholly unprepared.

When a similar event happened in April 2012, in which a Chinese student was assaulted on a train, Australia responded differently. The student posted a message about the attack on the Chinese social media platform Weibo immediately following the incident, which was quickly reposted more than 10,000 times. This time former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who is fluent in Mandarin) reacted quickly, posting a response on Weibo himself, letting the student know he was going to ‘approach the police and department of education’ on his behalf.

In other instances, the inflammatory use of connection technologies has resulted in deaths. On July 12, 2010, Terry Jones, a radical clergyman form Florida, wrote a series of tweets attacking Islam, one of which read: “9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day.” He followed that up with a Facebook group soliciting people to join his burn a Koran day. By September, Al Jazeera reported: “A Facebook page in support of the burning had more than 16,000 fans by Friday and was on the increase, while fans of opponents’ pages numbered in the hundreds of thousands.”

The Washington Post tracked the spread of the story from Twitter to mainstream media, including State’s monitoring of the issue:

On July 23, Jones was tweeting about having more than 700 Facebook friends for his International Burn a Koran group. Next, he did a short interview on CNN, and after that, on July 30, the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the largest collections of such churches, denounced the event and urged Jones to call it off.

Still, the stunt caused little commotion domestically, even as senior officials within the FBI, the State Department and U.S. military intelligence watched warily for the news to inflame sentiment in the Middle East and Asia.

“This is not the first time something like this has happened,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday. Other pastors had burned Korans before and posted video on YouTube. “But what is different is the potential that the world will be watching and reacting,” because of the contentious debate over the proposed Islamic center at Ground Zero.

Another lens this controversy was being analysed through was the response to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Indeed the story spread and the consequences on the ground were very real. As the New York Times reported the fallout from one of the protests the reverend’s actions sparked:

Stirred up by three angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters on Friday overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

The dead included at least seven United Nations workers—four Nepalese guards and three Europeans from Romania, Sweden and Norway—according to United Nations officials in New York.

In other cases, these events can seem fleeting, doing limited brand damage. However, when there is the perception of a pattern (as with the attacks on Indian students or, say, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan), there is cumulative damage that can have a major impact.

For democracies like the United States, responding to some of these crises can be challenging, especially when they involve fundamental freedoms. When an amateur video attacking Islam was posted online and began to attract attention in September 2012, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued the following statement on its website in an apparent effort to defuse escalating tensions:

The United States Embassy in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.

Parts of the statement were also tweeted. When protestors subsequently breached the Embassy compound in Cairo (later, in Libya, four U.S. officials were killed in clashes, including the Ambassador), the embassy in Egypt modified its message tweeting:

7 us embassy cairo tweet

Reflecting just how difficult it can be to manage communications in such a time-pressed and tense security situation, Politico later reported an administration official disowning the initial Embassy Cairo statement: “The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.”

Because information now has the potential to spread so rapidly, the facts are often ambiguous and can be out of direct government control, the response needed by governments is not fact-finding (although that is important in the medium term) but crisis public relations. And it is government-led public relations campaigns that need to account for the changes in the way people are communicating and the power of networks.

eDiplomacy Applied to Public Diplomacy
At State, ediplomacy’s use in public diplomacy is baked in. At the end of January 2012, State’s social media reach via Facebook and Twitter was over eight million people. That was already a larger direct reach than the daily subscriber base of the ten largest newspapers in the United States combined (although that is not to suggest influence levels or readership equated). By early August, it had nearly doubled, approaching 15 million.

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