Social Media and Public Diplomacy

If Facebook were a country, its membership would make it the third most populous in the world. As its “population” continues to grow, the social network finds itself adapting to, and navigating within, a global sphere in which the importance of public diplomacy has also grown. Facebook launched its own foreign service last month to help navigate the culture- and country-specific rules and regulations on privacy, freedom of speech, and Internet technologies as it continues its expansion. With increasing activism taking place through social media, the significance of Facebook diplomacy has become paramount.

The company’s new role in world affairs comes with a steep learning curve.  Facebook found itself in a sticky situation in the anti-Israel uprisings, for example, and increasingly, online activism is translating into on-the-ground action with tremendous effects; Egypt was a prime example. While protests there catalyzed a domino-effect throughout the Middle East, Palestinians were noticeably left out—and the failure to mobilize social media may have been why. Lesson learned: in an age when the Taliban tweet, online engagement has become requisite. 

While some governments have long-embraced social media as a tool for tourism, the lines between Track I and Track II diplomacy are now becoming blurred, and the nature of foreign relations is perhaps changing. The Swedish Foreign Minister reached out to his Bahraini counterpart via Twitter at the end of May, moving a traditionally closed-door conversation into open cyberspace. Taking note of this trend, journalists are no longer waiting for a press conference, only to probe a spokesman—they’re engaging directly with the head of state, albeit in 140 characters or less. What these trends indicate is that social media amplifies the voices of citizens, activists, and journalists that traditionally would have been inaudible or excluded from the conversation. If good public diplomacy begins with listening, then practitioners must turn an ear to these online spaces.

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