public diplomacy

Prerequisites for Using Social Media to Oppose the State

Reading Zaharna’s articles on the IV Quadrant of Public Diplomacy and Going for the Jugular (with Nur Uysal), I couldn’t help but wonder why the IV Quadrant is so often associated with opposition to the government.   It is clear that if the public initiates a project, it is setting the agenda, a form of framing which puts the state in a reactive and somewhat defensive mode. Capture

(Zaharna’s Quadrant Model: Quadrant of Public Diplomacy )

Many of of the most successful Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) are advocacy institutions focusing on a few issues.   The Sierra Club, for example, focusing on protecting the environment or the International Rescue Committee, which assists refugees, have name brand recognition associated with particular themes. Human rights NGOs would not focus on environmental issues unless there was a human rights angle nor would an environmental organization focus on human rights.    Such organizations exist for a cause, which in the case of the Clinton Health Access Initiative may be to partner with governments to overcome barriers to sustainable development or in cases such as MoveOn.Org to encourage governments and politicians to adopt liberal policies and change current practices.   The fundraising of these organizations depends on identifying a slice of the population focusing on their issue of concern facing a problem which needs to be overcome.  This focus gives NGOs enormous power as they can throw more resources at a particular problem than much wealthier organizations or even nations, which have hundreds of issues to address.   There is often an inherent bias of NGOs to oppose governments or vested interests in order to enact change.  If an NGO has too many items on its agenda, it loses focus and identity.  Its fundraising, followers, and future depend on having an important issue to deal with facing formidable opposition.   It is better to have one powerful opponent to mobilize followers. Often consisting of volunteers who join because they are personally affected by the cause, NGO members have the advantage of passion for the issue as well as in depth knowledge of local issues which drove volunteers to join the movement in the first place.   This ground truth stands in opposition to the impersonal and distant bureaucracy of the government.

In Germany for example, the NGO Campact has a team of 22 social media activists focusing on anti-globalization issues which mobilizes its 1.7 million supporters.  Given its exclusive focus and large staff, this institution can outgun the U.S. Embassy in Germany on this issue.   Campaigning against the Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership (T-TIP), Campact organizes on-line petitions, anti-T-TIP demonstrations, flash mobs, lobbying campaigns, and marches throughout Germany.

Let us look  at Quadrant IV (see previous post for discussion of quadrants) with some examples of NGOs and independent journalists who challenge the Russian narrative from neighboring Ukraine.  Perhaps the most effective debunker of the Russian narrative in the Ukraine is the NGO (, based in Kiev which was established in 2014, originally by graduates, alumni, and students associated with the Mohyla School of Journalism, to “check facts, verify information, and refute verifiable disinformation about events in Ukraine covered in the media.”  To inoculate itself against attacks, provides transparency about its sources of funding and contributors. The site regularly refutes Russian disinformation, includes videos, articles on topics such as the weaponization of information, and has an especially useful section on tools to identify fake stories.   This section provides citizen journalists techniques for finding the source of the photo, including 13 online tools to identify a photo’s authenticity, techniques for finding the information about and the owner of website or the use of geolocation tools for verification.  In short this growing website provides media literacy tools any Internet user can use to ferret out fakes.   Other websites such as have similar agendas.

The example illustrates how an organization from another country, in this case Ukraine,  can oppose a repressive regime with actions which probably would not be allowed  in Russia itself.  The Campact example shows that in an environment supporting press freedom, an NGO can effectively mobilize the populace against government policy.  When conditions are ripe including freedom of speech and assembly and the associated ability to criticize the government, social media can be an effective mobilizing tool.  When these conditions are absent, repressive regimes can use social media tools to help suppress opposition.  Depending on circumstances,  social media can be a tool to liberate or repress.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.



About Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller is the Public Diplomacy Fellow at George Washington University on loan from the Department of State.


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