03/14/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Development, Diplomacy, & Defense: Solutions via Social Media

"Development", "Diplomacy", and "Defense" make up the foreign policy triangle, but have different approaches to engaging and sharing information. Although Social Media Week organizes some great workshops of how to promote a message, I would rather focus on how social media tools may get us closer towards solutions rather than large informational data dumps. Of the three areas, the most open with information is the international development community -- as donors, like Oxfam, or recipients. They are familiar with holding each other accountable for financial spending to get results. For example, the development community has its four big treaties, like the Paris Declaration, which describes how aid should flow with some checks and balances. "Diplomacy" is actively incorporating lessons learned from its social media experience. Meanwhile, "Defense" is still dealing with its transparency identity.

On Monday, March 11, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute recognized how international development's foreign policy cousins, "diplomacy" and "defense/security", are trying to catch up to this culture of mutual accountability and transparency in the "Age of Information." Therefore the goal is to achieve "cognitive dominance" -- which is fancy military speak for making sure that the people with the most knowledge are at the center of social media" as one of the report's co-authors, James Herlong, argued. The report recognizes the power of civil society to channel positive and negative vibes. Arab media specialist, Courtney C. Radsch makes a strong case for tracking which groups are voicing online or not and what this means for activism and policy. Why? Because in the end, for all the influence and perceived "chaos" that a group like Wikileaks introduces into the public space, they are not held accountable to anyone other than themselves. But governments are, and social media provides another outlet to hold organizations accountable -- to not just the people they are supposed to serve, but to those that also get pulled into the snowball of communication.

Last year in May, another social media worry came to surface as Ambassador Arturo Sarukhán Casamitjana of Mexico expressed the initial concern for the diplomacy community using social media: feudalizing overseas posts from home governments. Or more simply: allowing embassies to exercise more flexibility in order to respond more expediently to their local environment. Consequently, if embassies do what they want, then they will become more independent.  

Nonetheless, Senior Advisor for Technology at Department of State, Shahed Amanullah explains, "I follow the Twitter feeds of every embassy that I have visited. I see what is happening in the U.S. embassy in Ireland. It's about being on the same page. Either pick up the phone or follow their Twitter feed."   

What is more feudal? Having embassy officials conduct closed door meeting or tweet? The alternative to social media is waiting for access to the cable. Or, diplomats may receive communication from colleagues a few days later -- whereas they could easily follow the 'locked' Twitterfeed, which is instantaneously available to them -- like a mission cable, but at zero cost.  The ideal is that every embassy tweets what they are doing, and each one following the others' streams.  That is connectivity.

Digital Diplomacy: Reviewing What Can Work

Like development practitioners, diplomacy practitioners are absorbing the lessons learned. "Digital Diplomacy" still affirms that face to face, behind closed doors meetings serve as the primary driving force of international relations and government to government engagement. Launching a network in a high-risk country, like in Pakistan, a face to face complements the digital diplomacy effort. Quite possibly, embassies will represent plural interests rather than just government, national interests.   
Are poor countries condemned to be excluded from the global dialogue if not adopting digital diplomacy practices? Apparently not as the line is being eradicated.  As Amanullah points out, "We in the West make the mistake that other lesser developed countries lack the sophistication to engage on social media." In the U.S., pundits may tweet about Syria. But average citizens in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are risking their lives because of what they tweet. Yet, they still choose to engage. Clearly there is a deeper level of engagement as risk factors increase exponentially. Social media gets countries' challenges off the map and into the trending topics.

Development, Diplomacy, and Defense: Combining the Social Media Capability To Promote a Solution

In an October "Twiplomacy" forum, David Ignatius related how social media may introduce more distractions with information overload and introduces a more progressive challenge: using the tool of social media to offer solutions rather than loads of non-contextualized images and facts. As Ignatius recommended, a mechanism is "needed to curate" the tweets, which include useful information buried in the banal points and rants. Syria's revolution provides an example how thousands of images and statistical overload almost dehumanize injured and dead civilians as their images float on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.

Given Ignatius' recommendation to curate the information overload presented by social media, perhaps an institution -- even a government (U.S.: hint, hint) -- could undertake an initiative to collect and organize the thousands of images depicting civilian suffering, which will ultimately amount to historicizing the human rights abuses carried out by the regime and other groups. Syria presents a case of anticipating a problem that will need to be addressed once the Assad regime falls. However, fact-finding missions will happen only after the damage and casualties are buried--which may be years from now. By that point, the dead and injured will be hidden. Social media provides real-time tools for government officials to curate a body of evidence that will prepare a more holistic picture of what occurred, when, and how once the opportunity to review the human rights abuses in the International Criminal Court emerges.

March 15 marks the two-year anniversary of the Daraa uprising in Syria. Hundreds of YouTube clips and pics will be shared. Creative activists will splice images to be reshared. Again. DC Social Media Week pushes government agencies to see how non-profits use social media to produce more impact with less cost. The U.S. government is in a unique position to catalog what is happening, regardless if it engages more deeply in the security realm. Syria will serve as an example of how the development, diplomacy, and defense sectors can pool their resources to share information that documents what has happened in a more meaningful way.