Social media cannot be underrated for instantly reaching out to the broadest spectrum of people with minimal personal and financial cost. Political leaders have become conscious of its potency. They can win or loose elections, depending on their capacity to run a good social media campaign. Foreign Ministries all over the world are learning that despite the tight rope-walk, its use in diplomacy can be hugely rewarding. It amounts to “minimum government, maximum governance”.
President Barak Obama was the first world leader who effectively used social media to win the Presidential candidature of the Democratic Party. The way he used services like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram as a candidate and later as the US President, Obama was justly called the “first social-media president.” President Trump followed Obama to reach out to his supporters, instead of relying only on TV advertisements. He described social media as “a great form of communication”. Why spend millions of dollars on TV advertisements and other costly conventional methods, when you can directly communicate with millions of people online for nothing, he once said.
The benefits include enhanced possibility of leveraging opportunities offered by social media to secure maximum political advantage. No doubt, obsession with immediacy and reaching out to the public warrants use of social media serious. But its impact and other effects, as public policy tools, need to be re-thought in the light of our socio-cultural milieu and political maturity (immaturity?). Our limited experience of using social media has established that while it offers benefits, its excessive use can be perilous and risky too. As recently Pakistan’s political scene was shaken with just one tweet.
In case of President Trump, personal use of Twitter too has continued to create problems and confusion rather than clarity. If Trump’s presidency continues with the current practice, the method will be new, but public policy responses, as they have emerged so far, will be mostly shallow because of the factor of immediacy. Here, another risk is narrowing the mainstream political process, by spurning the filter of the traditional media. As a result, the government’s efforts to moderate policies based on particular feedback that identify with the government ideologically or helpful to it politically raises political polarization. The government opts to communicate mostly with its party Facebook and Tweet fan clubs. Serious policy makers find the “hashtag activism” impacting on due process of policy formulation.
In Pakistan, we have recently seen serious political fiasco when one wing of the government depended excessively on social media to settle scores with the other. The consequences brought home the truth that using this powerful technology without training and full grasp of public policy requirements can be disastrous for a country where national unity is fragile and where the government enjoys very low credibility for its lack of respect for rule of law, transparency and good governance.
Leaders in Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam pay social media little or no heed. But in our neighborhood, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among the most followed politicians in the world on both Facebook and Twitter. His External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is also known as an avid practitioner of Facebook and Twitter. Since taking office in 2014, Swaraj’s Twitter diplomacy has transformed into a virtual clearinghouse for countless requests that she receives mostly from Indian citizens at home and abroad, “dramatically facilitating communication between high-level officials and common people—communication channels that are much more difficult to establish offline,”(Michael Kugelman, Woodrow Wilson Center).
Our Foreign Ministry some years ago had tried to encourage its officials to use social media for swift response to media and also project Pakistan’s point of view on international issues. But then not all those who took the initiative kept up the habit. The foreign office also had a second thought due to some inadequate tweets by those who were not authorized to comment. It was then realized that issues should be considered more patiently before issuing messages on social media, especially if related to diplomacy. The way tweets of President Trump have unsettled the Chinese Foreign Policy establishment justifies the caution exercised by our Foreign Ministry.
However, gradually the Foreign Ministry is coming around to depend on social media to rebut negative perceptions. It has started responding to criticism on social media. The recent example is its own version or explanation of what happened at the Riyadh Arab-US summit. The welcoming step would be when the Ministry takes the step to arm the office of the Advisor to the PM on Foreign Affairs with a social media expert who could use the new technology as an effective form of diplomatic channel. This need not be taken as an effort to belittle the traditional spokesperson who is required to carefully craft official pronouncements on foreign policy issues. Social media diplomacy is a dangerous tightrope walk. Figuring out its correct use would not be a small challenge, though hugely rewarding.
William Dutton, professor of media and information policy at Michigan State University points out the direct link social media establishes with people. “Such transparency carries with it the additional burden of responsibility, which (normally) diplomats are unable to recognize. Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor (the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group, the University of Oxford) observe that emotions can be selectively activated to help messages go viral, and they can also become the focus of “alternative realities” that are pushed by other social media phenomena, including fake news and post-truth narratives. “Unleashing emotions online is, though, a high-risk endeavour with huge potential for backlash. This is why MFAs (ministries of foreign affairs) would be better off cultivating facts and reason in their digital messages.”
(The writer is a former Ambassador who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).