Lack of access and transparency may no longer define diplomacy. Old barriers are no longer effective or perhaps desirable from perspective of global leaders and they embrace social media out of necessity or perhaps as opportunity. From the Syria conflict to climate change to economic inequality, the debate has moved rapidly online -- but does it really affect outcome or is it merely an outlet for frustration? Along with advocacy groups and global citizens, diplomacy, its institutions, and functionaries are also increasingly at least present online. Is it more veneer than substance, or are they listening at multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Criminal Court or the International Labor Organization?
Shaping the Debate and Defining Influence:
Multilateral institutions as the above but also Foreign Ministries, embassies/missions and diplomats have gone beyond static websites to interactive social media accounts. Of course Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ barely existed when most college students graduating this spring embarked upon their freshman year several years earlier. The revolution is no longer merely about greater capacity to gather information but it is ever more about access and capacity to influence. Imagine being re-tweeted by the UN Secretary General, or at least his Twitter account. At least generating the impression of a response is now part of the culture online as well as initiating the debate.
Being re-tweeted by Justin Bieber was the objective of most social media aspirants seeking to raise their online influence or Klout and Kred. It also defined the demographics and nature of social media interaction. However, increasingly the profile of influencers is that of human rights advocates such as Bianca Jagger or very new organizations promoting the rule of law, (like the "Informal Ministerial Network on the ICC" -- See @MinistersforICC). There is even now a social media directory of the world's political/diplomatic influencers (check it out here). It is more likely that your social media message will be read by the real Foreign Minister of Bulgaria as compared to Lady Gaga. The objective now is increasingly to affect the shape of debate where celebrity and diplomatic status are undoubtedly relevant but global citizens can also initiate and engage.
Digital Diplomacy & New Media:
Social media has facilitated across-the-border development of advocacy groups that enhance the reach and message of like-minded individuals, and which largely exist in the virtual world -- no buildings or security guards necessary. These online groups frequently can be fluid, as membership and leaders. The evolutionary process is just now taking hold. We are closer to the beginning rather than end of this universe's Big Bang. Coalitions and symbiotic relationships are developing across designated interests. Human rights are linked with climate change, and sense of responsibility to fellow global citizen may also be reflected in empathy for animals (i.e., GWO/Greenworldone's Facebook page.) Further, in interacting with the formal global/multilateral institutions, cooperation and coordination is as or more likely than confrontation.
Despite or perhaps because of the lack of more established guidelines and education of "digital-diplomacy," the evolution proceeds at its own rapid and perhaps at times erratic pace. Of course hate speech and bigotry may also follow shrouded in the vast surge forward. Nonetheless, it is a more progressive rather than regressive evolution in the sense of a shared future and universal values. Has the impact of digital diplomacy and new media been truly decisive in any debate? That may be difficult to actually score. No surprise though that the greatest impact has been in countering efforts to "regulate the Internet," as well as "revolutions" led by the young as the "Arab Spring."
What appears as chaos to outsiders may in fact be the new order to those most nimble and perhaps forward-looking. Because it cannot be regulated and controlled, it does not mean that it should be feared, especially if it is about access to information. Nonetheless, there is a notion of both responsibility and efficacy that is evolving, more via self-enforcement rather than some form of official policing. For those who want to influence the debate, respect for alternative views as well as technical skills are necessary. It helps to also know whom to reach and how to engage. For this reason we have initiated a new course at Montclair State University: "Digital Diplomacy and the New Media." It is about journalism and advocacy, and everything in between. There is little precedent, especially within a formal education curriculum. Nonetheless, under the banner of "Montclair Diplomats" we have embarked upon this brave, new world -- to employ a very old cliche -- and our first focus of reporting and advocacy naturally is education, in its broadest context! A WordPress blog site and shared joint social media accounts is what we start with -- see http://montclairdiplomats.wordpress.com/.
Image courtesy of UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe (Secretary General in Live Chat with Young People on Google+)