Sean Aday

Sean Aday is an associate professor of media and international affairs at George Washington University. He is also the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and director of the Global Communication M.A. Program. His research interests include: media and foreign policy/war, new media and politics, public diplomacy, media effects, and public opinion.
Sean Aday has written 13 posts for Take Five

Catalan Independence and Sub-State Public Diplomacy

Catalonia Independence

Although it hasn’t garnered much attention in the U.S., tensions are high and escalating between the Catalan region of Spain and the national government in Madrid. The latest incident came Sunday when Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes said that the military was “prepared” in the face of “absurd provocations,” presumably referring to recent calls for Catalonia’s secession from Spain.

The friction provides a window into the intriguing but under-studied topic of what is sometimes called sub-state public diplomacy. Like many sub-states – e.g., Quebec and Scotland – the Catalan government has recently embraced public diplomacy as a means toward promoting their region and pursuing their own economic and foreign affairs goals.

Yet if those goals shift to include independence, this could have profound and challenging implications for how Catalonia conducts its public diplomacy.

First, some quick background for those not familiar with the Spanish case. Following the death of the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain was divided into 17 autonomous regions, with each controlling education, health, and cultural policies within their borders, while other policy areas remained under the purview of the government in Madrid.

Yet Catalonia has a strong independent streak rooted in the fact that it had been autonomous for centuries before being conquered by Spain in 1714. Catalans are a notoriously proud people, with their own language and a strong cultural history that includes Miro, Picasso, and Gaudi, to name just a few luminaries.

Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, also represent a driving force in the Spanish economy. This means that Spain needs Catalonia at least as much as the other way around. This is as true during the terrible economic crisis both are currently enduring as it is in good times.

A campaign poster for a hard-line pro-independence party, Solidaritat, still hangs in Barcelona after elections last November. The poster depicts Spanish Prime Minister Mariona Rajoy -- who opposes Catalan independence and is unpopular in Catalonia -- saying, ‘Don’t Vote for Solidaritat, because they will declare independence!’

A campaign poster for a hard-line pro-independence party, Solidaritat, still hangs in Barcelona after elections last November. The poster depicts Spanish Prime Minister Mariona Rajoy — who opposes Catalan independence and is unpopular in Catalonia — saying, ‘Don’t Vote for Solidaritat, because they will declare independence!’

In fact, it is the economic crisis that some say has fueled the rising secessionist talk from Catalans in the past year. A lack of jobs and revenue has rekindled questions amongst Catalans about why their tax dollars should go to aid poorer regions of Spain, while simultaneously making the rest of the country all the more dependent on the region’s contributions.

In November, Catalonia held elections that were seen in part as a de facto referendum on secession, especially after a huge pro-independence rally in September. The outcome of the vote led to the forming of a coalition between Catalan President Artur Mas’s center-right CiU party and the more leftist and pro-independence ERC party.

Tensions escalated in mid-December when Spanish Education Minister Jose Ignacio Wert put forth an education reform plan that would restore Castilian Spanish to primacy in all classrooms. Catalans saw this as a naked attempt to eliminate the Catalan language, which is currently taught throughout the region alongside Spanish and is seen as integral to Catalan cultural identity. Franco, for instance, had banned the speaking or teaching of Catalan during his nearly 40-year reign, just as Spain’s Philip V had after the 1714 conquest.

It would be hard to exaggerate the anger that Minister Wert’s proposal engendered amongst Catalans. I happened to be traveling in Barcelona that week, interviewing government officials and others, and the outrage was passionate and palpable. Pro-independence flags flew everywhere and huge rallies were held in protest.

“Even with civil guards in the classroom, school children will not stop studying Catalan,” roared the Congressional spokesman for the ERC. “You are going to come up against a nation ready to defend its children. Don’t you dare touch our children. We’ve had enough; we won’t obey.”

Not to be outdone, the CiU congressional spokesman evoked Spain’s history of trying to silence Catalans: “Phillip V tried to put an end to Catalan and later Franco, but they didn’t succeed.”

Within days, CiU and ERC reached an agreement to hold a referendum within two years on independence. On New Year’s Eve, Mas gave a pro-independence speech in which he said that Catalans “want to build a new country.”

Catalan flags are common in the region, but as momentum for secession has increased in the last few months, so has the presence of Catalan independence flags.

Catalan flags are common in the region, but as momentum for secession has increased in the last few months, so has the presence of
Catalan independence flags.

Although Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tried to calm things by saying he’s open for dialogue, he made clear that this would be through the prism of the Spanish Constitution, which does not have a provision for secession.

This, though, is where Catalonia’s public diplomacy efforts become an interesting part of the story.

In 2008, the Catalan government began embracing the idea of public diplomacy as part of a larger foreign affairs strategy, and PD represented a core part of the region’s five year (2010-2015) strategic plan.

The PD efforts take several forms, including exchange programs and cultural events such as last year’s Miro exhibit at the National Gallery. But a major component involved creating Catalan delegations in six cities around the world: London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, New York, and Buenos Aires (which recently closed). Madrid was never thrilled about these delegations – after all, Spain has their own embassies in all of these countries, so why spend the money to have a notoriously troublesome region doing its own PR? But the national government went along on the condition that the delegations simply engage in pro-Catalan work, not engage in any anti-Spanish rhetoric, and not discuss the tensions between Barcelona and Madrid, much less independence.

The recent outbreak of separatist sentiment, however, may change the nature of the delegations’ work, and Catalan public diplomacy generally. Rather than avoiding the topic, or promoting an image of harmony with Madrid, the Catalan government may see a need to start using the delegations to more proactively adopt an independence frame in their rhetoric and outreach.

This makes sense if you start from a premise of future independence. If that is what lies ahead, then Catalan public diplomacy needs to start laying the groundwork for having the rest of the world think of Catalonia as independent and unique. This would go hand in hand with a larger policy of gaining EU and other international support for not only secession, but future membership in the EU. It is worth noting that according to one government official I spoke to, President Mas has made more trips in the last year to Brussels, the EU headquarters, than he has to Madrid.

At the same time, this is a risky strategy, because ultimately Madrid exercises some control over Catalan purse strings (there is currently a dispute over payment transfers, for example). It could move to punish the region – and perhaps apply pressure to close the delegations – should they be seen as promoting independence. And if the Catalans aren’t able to secure independence, then they will have done much to poison relations with Madrid.

Pro-independence graffiti in Barcelona's famous Gaudi-designed Parc Guell

Pro-independence graffiti in Barcelona’s famous Gaudi-designed Parc Guell

In the meantime, the Catalans are also embracing strategies aimed at gaining more favorable coverage in the international media. Like all sub-states, a major problem Catalonia faces is that virtually all of the international reporters covering Spain are based in the capital of Madrid, and hence are inundated with the national government’s frame of Catalonia. To remedy this, the Catalan government has been creating more opportunities for those journalists to visit the region (conferences, for example). Some officials told me that they have noticed more balanced coverage (from their viewpoint) as a result.

Similarly, the Catalan delegations around the world will need to develop a proactive media strategy – including social media – if they want to more effectively alter perceptions of the region in the international community. A challenge will be how they deal with increasing questions about Catalan aspirations for independence.

This highlights an interesting and unique aspect to sub-state public diplomacy and soft power, which is the attempt to achieve foreign policy goals through what Joseph Nye calls “attraction and persuasion.” Unlike traditional state PD, which is by definition focused on citizens in other sovereign nations, sub-states often have a need to also “attract and persuade” fellow countrymen outside their regional borders. This is especially true for autonomous regions, and of course even more so if they have designs on independence.

The Fossar de las Moreres, a memorial plaza in Barcelona, commemorates those who died defending the city from Spanish conquest in 1714, and has been the site of major pro-independence protests in recent months.

The Fossar de las Moreres, a memorial plaza in Barcelona, commemorates those who died defending the city from Spanish conquest in 1714, and has been the site of major pro-independence protests in recent months.

Yet many of the people I spoke to in Barcelona felt that outreach to the rest of Spain was, as one said to me,  “a lost battle.”

This may be short-sighted, though. Tensions are high, but perhaps artificially so because of the economic crisis. Whatever solution Madrid and Barcelona come up with in the next few years will, presumably, require broad Spanish support. Catalonia, it is important to note, is according to some surveys the least popular region in Spain amongst other Spaniards. That will need to change in order to gain independence, or in the absence of secession, to create a climate favorable to their domestic and foreign affairs goals.

So while it is true that like other sub-states Catalan PD needs to focus on the broader international community, it is also undoubtedly the case that its fortunes lie to some degree in their ability to improve their image within Spain.

The coming months will be interesting. With the independence referendum still potentially two years away, there is perhaps time to negotiate a settlement short of secession, especially if the economy improves. At the same time, the rhetoric from both Barcelona and Madrid – in government and in the streets – could end up pushing both sides further apart. Of course one could argue, as many throughout Catalonia are these days, that the time for compromise has past.

Regardless of what happens, Catalan public diplomacy will play an important and intriguing role that will be fascinating for public diplomacy scholars to watch.


Take Five remembers Dave Brubeck’s Legacy


The contributors to the Take Five blog were all saddened to learn about the passing of legendary jazz pianist – and public diplomat – Dave Brubeck on Wednesday. Brubeck’s status as a giant and a pioneer in jazz is well known, and a large part of why he received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2009. (He also received an Honorary Degree from George Washington University – the home of this blog and the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication – in 2010.) His seminal album “Time Out,” which includes the classic hit for which this blog is named, broke new ground in jazz composition while achieving the kind of popular success rarely seen by even the genre’s giants. It’s a beautiful, timeless album.

Less well known, however, is his major contributions to American public diplomacy. In the late 1950s the State Department sent his quartet on a world tour as part of their efforts to reach foreign publics through the power of jazz, which many consider to be not only the greatest American music genre, but perhaps the country’s only truly indigenous one. He continued to lead tours of “jazz ambassadors” throughout his life, and was awarded the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy in 2008 for his efforts.

Those tours played an important role in Brubeck’s life, and his contributions went beyond his music. The music he heard in the countries he visited inspired many of his greatest hits, including those on “Time Out” such as “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Take Five.” At the same time, Brubeck’s strong civil rights stance empowered him to refuse to play in South Africa due to its brutal system of racial Apartheid when the contract required him to play with an all-white band.

Both, it seems to me, are examples of the nature and power of public diplomacy, which is predicated on two-way, interactive communication and exchange of ideas. The State Department sent Brubeck around the world to spread the gospel of Jazz, and with it a more subtle message of America’s cultural greatness and freedom during the Cold War. But Brubeck didn’t just play for his audiences, he listened to them, too. The world benefited from these exchanges in the form of even greater music from those he inspired, but also from him.

At the same time, the racial diversity of Brubeck’s traveling combos – and of other “Jazz Ambassadors” sent by the State Department during this period – made a statement in and of itself, even if at the time the United States wasn’t even coming close to living up to that standard. But Brubeck’s unwavering commitment to racial equality, and his willingness to stand up to the Apartheid regime, also showed the power of public diplomacy to convey our cultural values.

Brubeck’s loss is a giant one to jazz, and to diplomacy. We at Take Five are proud to honor his legacy with this blog.

Hard Power, Soft Power, and Paul Wellstone’s Legacy


Thursday marked the 10 year anniversary of the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), along with his wife Sheila, daughter, and several staff members and aircraft crew in a tragic airplane accident in the final week of a tough re-election campaign in 2002.

Wellstone, and his wife, are particularly important figures in my family. My wife, a policy director and lobbyist for the anti-domestic violence organization Futures Without Violence, and a former Chief of Staff for Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), worked closely with both Wellstones – and, since their deaths, their sons – on DV-related issues, especially the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). A couple of weeks before he died, he held my infant son at a fundraiser at a private home in  Washington and recalled the speech my wife had given in his honor a few days earlier about how he was a role model for us as parents. Our daughter, Paulina, born three years later, is named for he and his wife.


So the main point of this blog post is simply to remember a great man, a great Senator, a great American, a great father, and a great example of the importance of fighting for the less fortunate and for what’s right.

As my friend and former student Adam Conner (@adamconner) tweeted Thursday, “We miss you.”

But Paul Wellstone’s final months are not only a true profile in courage – he voted against giving President George W. Bush a blank check to wage war in Iraq despite the knowledge that doing so might cause him to lose to an already forgotten mediocrity like Norm Coleman – they are a reminder of the critical and all-too often ignored relationship between hard and soft power, a subject near and dear to this blog.

It’s such an obvious point at this stage that it would verge on pedantic to elaborate at length, but the Iraq War was not only a disaster from a hard power perspective (anyone who thinks the successful execution of hard power is defined solely as regime change needs to visit a library), it was at least of much of a debacle from a soft-power view.

Wellstone understood this, and made the point while presaging America’s ongoing difficulties resulting from the Iraq invasion in his blistering speech against war authorization on the floor of the Senate in 2002:

“Acting now, going alone, might be a sign of our power. Acting sensibly, and in a measured way, in consort with our allies, with bi-partisan congressional support, would be a sign of our strength. (The invasion could be) a costly mistake for our country.”

One of the standard catchphrases in the literature and histories of public diplomacy is the admonition from the former Director of the U.S. Information Agency, Edward R. Murrow, that PD must be present at the takeoffs, not just the landings. This was one of the more obvious failings of the war in Iraq: it is widely understood now that no serious planning went into what came after the inevitable removal of Saddam Hussein from power. As public opinion polls across the world, but especially in the Arab and Muslim world, show to this day, this mistake continues to haunt the United States.

The legacy of this mistake was evident in the third debate between President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney Monday night. For one thing, one notes that when Republicans talk, George W. Bush is the President-that-dare-not-mention-his-name. Even when discussing Iraq. It’s like Democrats, Jimmy Carter, and the economy.

Gov. Romney seemed to want to endorse, or at least not challenge, President Obama’s ending of the Iraq War, disagreeing instead with what to the American public must seem like arcane topics like the Status of Forces Agreement. Compare this to 2008, when then GOP-standard bearer Sen. John McCain wouldn’t mention Bush, but not only opposed ending the war in Iraq as Obama promised (and did), but strongly implied he wanted to double down on a war with Iran.

Is this progress? I suppose so, but only a little. One thing that was clear Monday night, and frankly for the last four years (five, if we count the 2008 campaign), is that Obama – and much of his administration, especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – have a much better sense of the power of soft power. One saw this in the early months of the administration when they tried to create a “whole of government” approach that put PD in the Oval Office, sent Obama out to give public addresses to the Iranians during their New Year and to all Muslims during his stunning Cairo speech, and other under- and above-the-radar initiatives.

At the same time the administration’s understanding of the limits of hard power is mixed. On the one hand, Obama ended the war in Iraq, and for that deserves endless praise. Put simply, John McCain would not have done this, and Obama had to do it over the endless objections of virtually all Republicans (and some Democrats). Similarly, the killing of Osama Bin Laden strikes me as not only just, but a sophisticated realization that by 2011 OBL was a marginal figure and Pakistani and al Qaeda outrage would be muted, short-lived, and not even come close to outweighing the benefits of the strike on myriad levels.

But at the same time two policy decisions complicate his record: the Afghanistan surge and Obama’s embrace of drones to combat terrorism. Full disclosure: I supported the former, and mostly support the latter as it’s been implemented thus far. At the same time, the Afghan surge has been, to me, not even the qualified and exaggerated success of its Iraq model (and I think it has been much exaggerated). I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that it was a noble failure, though I’m willing to be convinced otherwise and invite commenters and guest-bloggers to make the case.

The drone program is more complicated, and I will address it more fully in a later blog post. But for the purposes of this essay, I think it is important to think about what Paul Wellstone would say about it were he still with us. I admit to having few issues with the vast majority of drone attacks that I’m aware of, which have decimated al Qaeda. I am aware of the fact, however, that my opinion is almost certainly colored by my partisanship – I am a strong Obama supporter and thus trust his judgment more than I would most Republicans’ – and my belief is strengthened by the President’s decision to not use a drone to take out bin Laden. To me this suggested an awareness of the limits of hard power because it would have almost certainly resulted in civilian casualties in a mission already fraught with problematic diplomatic implications.

I also have to grant that it’s easier for me to support the drone program as an American, and one who lived through 9/11 in a targeted city, than it would be if I lived in, say, Western Pakistan.

At the same time I can’t ignore the fact that the administration has never really given a particularly good explanation of how their approach isn’t laying the precedent for less responsible successors to use that power in ways that violate moral, legal, and Constitutional guidelines.

More to the point of this post, whether Obama’s use of drones is defensible, legal, or moral, there is little question that it is a public diplomacy nightmare for the United States. That, by the way, doesn’t mean America should abandon the program. Some short-term PD hits are sometimes necessary to ensure national security. But that rational is also too often a crutch, as the entire Iraq War fiasco shows, and as Paul Wellstone predicted.

More disturbing is the easy embrace Mitt Romney gave to the President’s drone program. There is simply no evidence that a Romney administration – or any viable Republican administration for that matter – would care about the soft power, or even hard power (much less legal or moral) – implications of the drone program as is, or in expanded form. One reason I say that is that there isn’t any viable Democratic administration that would be to the left of Obama in this area. Paul Wellstone, after all, could never have been president of the United States.

Indeed, we only need look back on the 2001-2008 period in American history to understand the damage to hard and soft power interests of the United States when U.S. political leaders panic in the face of a crisis and adopt a shoot (and torture) first/ask questions later approach to foreign policy.

Did President Obama or Mitt Romney learn these lessons about the limits of, and connection between, hard and soft power from the last 12 years? Sadly, Bob Schieffer did not ask any questions that would force the candidates to tell us at Monday’s debate. Thursday’s Washington Post, for instance, told us that the Obama Administration claims to care about the precedent they are setting in terms of drone attacks on alleged terrorists, including American citizens abroad. But I would have liked Schieffer to ask the President how he can assure us that those precedents wouldn’t open the door for a future George W. Bush to commit the same, or worse, blunders as before, but this time with legal protection. I would have also liked for him to ask Mitt Romney whether he thinks the Bush Administration’s policy of torture, war, wiretapping, and deportation strengthened or weakened the United States, and what he would do differently as president.

Instead, both candidates were allowed to express unqualified and unchallenged assertions of American hard power without any understanding of its connection to soft power or even America’s short and, especially, long term interests across many domains.

Would this have happened ten years ago? Given the persistent superficiality of journalistic questioning during presidential campaigns and debates (though Raddatz and Crowley were strong exceptions), and the press’s well-documented lap-dog approach to reporting in the two years following 9/11, probably.

But one thing is for sure: Paul Wellstone would have been there on the Senate floor, lacerating his colleagues, the media, and the White House for their short-sightedness and cowardice. Because one thing Wellstone understood better than perhaps any elected official of his generation is that strength doesn’t always come from the exercise of power; more often it comes from the restraint of power. And power itself isn’t demonstrated by sacrificing one’s principles in favor of short term security, it comes from defending those principals even at the risk of security, be that personal, national, or, in his case, electoral.

“We miss you,” indeed.

Social Media, Diplomacy, and the Responsibility to Protect

This post also appears on as a part of CIC’s ongoing series on Twitter and Diplomacy.

Earlier this week, Jackson Diehl’s column in the Washington Post argued that the Obama Administration’s early diplomatic approach to Syria, coupled with its failure to intervene militarily during the ongoing civil war, represented a “catastrophic mishandling” of the crisis. Diehl, like others who have blamed the Administration for not intervening, lay the blood of the more than 30,000 civilians killed in the conflict on the hands of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Leaving aside the merits of the arguments for intervention (which, like Diehl’s, seem to take the ahistorical view that the U.S. can simply break up fights like Mike Tyson at a kindergarten recess), they point to the complexities of understanding the intersection of social media, diplomacy, and militarism in an era of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Ever since social media became a major part of the story of the Green Movement protests in Iran in 2009, many have argued that new media technologies not only have the power to help bring down dictators, as in Egypt last year, but also to pressure the international community to intervene and stop a regime’s violent oppression of its people. The dissemination of online videos depicting these abuses, spread via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms, are supposed to not only rally citizens in those countries, but make it impossible for major powers in the West, especially, to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians.

As former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during those 2009 Iranian protests, “You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.”

Brown was widely ridiculed for his hyperbole. The Register’s Chris Williams wrote, “We’d like to see him try Twittering that to people in Sudan, or Northern Sri Lanka, or Somalia.” Today, one could add Bahrain and Syria to the list.

Yet Brown’s Rwanda allusion raises the issue of R2P and its relationship to social media-driven protests. At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, world leaders agreed in principle that the international community needs to be prepared to take military action to prevent a State from committing genocide or other crimes against humanity perpetrated against its people.

The Rwandan genocide weighed heavily on the Summit’s adoption of R2P as a guiding principle of international statecraft. The 1994 bloodletting, as well as the similar dawdling during the Balkan wars of the same decade, were seen as examples of diplomatic and military failures that led to the deaths of more than a million innocent people.

One of the reasons those genocides were allowed to happen, some felt, was because of the difficulty of documenting the atrocities in real time. There were, for example, very few journalists in Rwanda during the massacres, and according to former reporter and current scholar Allan Thompson, only one clandestine video of anyone actually being hacked to death was ever recorded. This is why Rwanda has been called a “Genocide without witnesses.” The assumption since then has been that had people seen the brutality in real time, world leaders in Paris, Washington, and elsewhere would have been pressured to intervene. As PM Brown’s comments 15 years later indicated, social media would provide those witnesses.

If this were true, it would dramatically reshape diplomacy. Some saw evidence of this in Egypt last year, when the Obama Administration initially responded to the protests in Tahrir Square tepidly – some said, too diplomatically – because Mubarak had been such a strong ally of the U.S. over the years. But those diplomatic ties snapped under pressure from Twitter and Facebook, according to this telling of events.

Shortly thereafter, the Administration invoked the spirit of R2P to join an international coalition to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from carrying through with his promise to massacre the residents of Benghazi through the implementation of a no-fly zone and other military actions.

In an era of social media, the story went, we would never again have a genocide without witnesses. Foreign governments in the West and elsewhere would not be able to withstand the public outcry that would come from seeing and reading first hand accounts of regime brutality. Diplomacy would be forever altered.

And yet… not so much.

Widespread documentation of violence has not prompted U.S. intervention in Bahrain or Syria.

Just taking the United States as an example (though we could easily choose others),  well-documented and horrific regime violence has not prompted the Obama Administration to intervene in Bahrain or Syria, to name two examples.

Diehl and others see this as a “catastrophic” failure. Yet the reality is far more complicated, on many levels

Start with the fact that social media’s role in shaping international policy responses to Egypt and Libya are still poorly understood. My colleagues Henry Farrell, Deen Freelon, Marc Lynch and I recently released a report funded by the U.S. Institute of Peace that found social media’s role in the Arab Spring protests of 2011 were probably greatly exaggerated. At least when it came to Twitter and other mechanisms for sharing links to reports of violence and protests, social media didn’t appear to have as much of an impact within those countries or in the region as some expected. They did, however, generate a lot of discussion around the world. Hence, we argued, these social media appeared to behave as less of a rallying cry than a megaphone.

This raises the possibility, however, that all of that retweeting of horrific videos of regime violence could lead to pressure on governments to intervene. Deen, Marc, and I are currently investigating whether that has been the case in Syria. Our interviews with policymakers and others will hopefully shed light on how much impact new media played in shaping diplomatic and military responses to those earlier Arab Spring crises, as well.

But there are reasons to be skeptical that social media can lead governments to intervene when they wouldn’t have in the absence of these technologies. To begin with, there is the simple fact that the U.S. hasn’t intervened in Syria militarily, much to the dismay of Diehl and others. Coupled with its relative silence during the Bahrain protests, this suggests an explanation familiar to international relations scholars and observers: States make foreign policy decisions based on their perceived interests, and these are much less susceptible to public pressure than domestic policy decisions. In the U.S. this is especially the case, in part because Americans don’t know (or care) much about foreign affairs, and press coverage of the topic is correspondingly, and vanishingly, scant, superficial, and episodic. (In general; clearly there are great foreign correspondents doing work that deserves greater exposure than their parent organizations will provide them.)

Ideally, States also make decisions based not on mismatched historical analogies (“Look! Hitler!” or “It’s just like Libya! Intervene!” or “No, wait, it’s just like Iraq! Run for your life!”), but rather based on the specifics of the case at hand. (In fact, however, research shows that policymakers frequently employ convenient historical examples to justify policy decisions they’ve already come to.) One question to ask would be, will intervention actually accomplish the goal at hand? Another might be, at what cost? And a third would be, how do we do know?

So where does that leave us in terms of understanding the intersection of social media, diplomacy, and intervention?

First, social media can create global witnesses to regime violence and genocide. If world leaders are going to take R2P seriously, then this could be an important tool in making that doctrine more than empty words. If nothing else, this witnessing can be crucial to accountability and justice in, say, war crimes trials, but also in not letting leaders off the hook for craven failures to act.

Second, diplomacy and policymaking can be greatly enhanced by social media. For instance, the growing sophistication of crowdsourcing verification of online videos and other means of what Patrick Meier calls “information forensics” can help separate truth from propaganda. It can also be used as a tool for diplomats to pressure regimes, by brandishing documentary evidence of their abuses, or to pressure others in the international community to join coalitions to stop those abuses.

At IPDGC’s “The Last Three Feet,” Rachel Graaf Leslie, recently a Public Affairs Officer in Bahrain, spoke on the U.S. Embassy’s experience interacting with Bahrainis on Facebook. 

Third, social media can aid diplomats in their effort to connect with citizens in other countries. We saw this in the creative and aggressive way that Amb. Robert Ford and the U.S. Embassy staff in Syria used social media to document abuses by the Assad regime before Ford was forced to leave the country. We also saw it in the way that the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain used their Facebook wall to host and engage in spirited conversations with people from different sides of that conflict. This is an important way in which social media are helping to more fully integrate public diplomacy into traditional diplomacy.

Finally, however, we are left with the limits of social media’s impact on diplomacy and policymaking. In the Syrian crisis, for instance, we still have problems with verification and propaganda in the online public sphere. And traditional questions about national interests and, especially, feasibility undercut interventionist sloganeering.

What that means is that social media have probably not fundamentally altered the foreign policy decision making process of world leaders to force intervention, but rather merely contributed to the range of data diplomats have at their disposal. This, however, is not always a bad thing, since intervention is one of those things that’s easier said than done. In fact, it could simply mean that effective diplomacy is all the more important.

New Media, Old Media, and the Syrian Crisis

Last week IPDGC and the U.S. Institute of Peace co-hosted a great conference, “Groundtruth: New Media, Technology, and the Syria Crisis,” that focused on the use of online videos by activists, new and traditional media, and policymakers. The event was the latest in the “Blogs and Bullets” series of research papers and conferences that have produced two major reports, and kicked off a new research project conducted by my GW colleague Marc Lynch, American University’s Deen Freelon, and myself.

There was much to chew on in the comments and observations of the various panelists, but I want to flag a few interesting nuggets concerning the role of social media in Syria – which Marc referred to as perhaps “the most social mediated protest in history” – and the complex intersection between new and old media.

First, a recurring theme from both activists and journalists involved the evolution of both social media and the public sphere in Syria as the regime’s hegemony wanes in the face of an ongoing civil war. NPR’s Deb Amos, who has been reporting on the Middle East for decades and the current Syrian crisis since it’s beginning, talked about how she has seen social media develop rapidly over the last year from something a few activists used to meet and share information, to something that is a more sophisticated tool for organizing, waging an information war with the regime, fundraising, and engaging with regional and world media.

Sometimes the online discussions via Facebook or YouTube comment threads and the like can turn viciously sectarian. After all, the pubic sphere, especially online, is not always known for its decorum. But even this can be seen as part of the maturation process as Syria moves from dictatorship to, perhaps, a more open society. For example, Rafif Jouejati of the Free Syria Foundation, pointed out that her organization has decided against censoring sectarian comments in favor of responding to them and thus creating a dialogue “so we educate against hate speech.”

Social media may be creating or strengthening the public sphere on multiple levels: within Syria and across the region. ABC’s Lara Setrakian called the “Arab digital vanguard” the “connective tissue throughout Arab Society.”

“Pan Arabism died a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s been resurrected online.”

Activists in Syria use social media to rapidly propagate images.

There is, of course, a vast literature on the representative public sphere across several scholarly domains, highlighted by the work of Jurgen Habermas. Many have pointed out the complex role media play in fostering a functional and empowering socio-political conversation among the various layers in a society. On the one hand, media can create information baselines and be a conduit between elected officials and the public, among other functions. On the other, they can also misinform and misrepresent, be it because of their own latent biases (structural and ideological) and/or manipulation from sources, especially elites.

New media present these same challenges, as well as others. Fadl al Tarzi, from the Dubai News Group, whose organization has been monitoring social media across the Arab world, pointed out something that others have found in studying new media and politics in the U.S. and elsewhere: social media, more than traditional media, tends to include like-minded users. This is not often conducive to the (somewhat mythical) Enlightenment notion of an 18th Century Café/Salon style public sphere where ideas are contested on an equal plane with the best rising to prominence.

In Syria, one of the more interesting ways that new media are playing a role in shaping the information environment is in their use by traditional media, both within the region and across the globe. Several of the panelists, from activists to journalists, talked about how this has created an incentive for activists to create more credible media, rather than overt propaganda.

Rami Nakhla, of The Day After Project, discussed the way his organization has had to learn to adopt traditional Western news norms like balance to be taken seriously by mainstream media outlets interested in using their videos of regime violence, protests, etc.

The relationship between activists and traditional media can be a tricky one, though. The fact remains that it is still difficult to assess the credibility of many videos, many of which are of sketchy provenance and may not be depicting what they claim. Marc Lynch talked about the importance of being skeptical when a video claims thousands were at a protest, when in fact the tight focus of the camera may be obscuring that in fact only dozens were there. This is a phenomenon familiar to those who recall the exaggerated claims of thousands filling Baghdad’s Firdos Square when the Saddam statue fell on April 9, 2003, when in fact a couple of hundred were there.

Deb Amos raised another interesting challenge with traditional media coverage as the civil war continues and various rebel factions gain control of a growing segment of the country. In the early days of the conflict, outside media didn’t have much if any access to the fighting on the ground, making them more dependent on videos and other third-party sources of information. This is obviously not optimal for reporting and verification.

Without verification, social media can publish a distorted message. Only a few hundred people were present at the fall of Sadam Hussein’s statue, rather than the thousands initially believed.

Now, however, as reporters are able to access places like Aleppo, a new challenge has emerged: Journalists may be over-reporting what they can see with their own eyes at the expense of important developments in less accessible parts of the country.  “We have the same level of violence in Homs, but no coverage anymore because now journalists are able to get into Aleppo for a day” before going back across the border to safety.

This is a story familiar to any media scholar. Contrary to the claims of most prominent press critics (especially in U.S. politics), most press biases are not partisan but structural, the result of the routines of reporting and patterned and often latent norms that lead to certain stories, sources, and even places being covered at the exclusion of others.

What we’re seeing in Syria, according to Amos and others, is perhaps more credible, in the sense that it’s verifiable by journalist eye-witness accounts, yet at the same time less comprehensive, because it’s increasingly governed by a myopia of access. Journalists always have to contend with these problems, and Syria is no exception. This makes it increasingly important for audiences to critically assess a variety of news and information sources.

Finally, there is another type of structural bias we might be seeing in Syria coverage due to the prevalence of online videos in the news. Many panelists echoed the observations of others over the months in pointing out that the videos we see from Syria (and, before that, from other hot spots during the Arab Spring) often substitute for other types of reporting as stories within themselves. Schadi Semnani, of the Syria Conflict Monitor, for instance, commented that “lots of mainstream media use videos as their primary source rather than interviews with people behind them.”

There are many challenges associated with this, some of which I’ve discussed already. But another is this: videos tell one type of narrative, one that is highly episodic and typically vivid, rather than thematic or complex. They aren’t necessarily less informative, but they contain a different type of information, and therefore might be expected to influence audiences differently than, say, print reporting (online or off).

Research shows, for instance, that episodic narratives can have the effect of leading audiences to assume problems are caused by individuals rather than to look for more societal or structural causes, and, similarly, to look for solutions that are more punitive and focus on individuals. Put another way, an implication of this research is that episodic stories discourage support for diplomacy in favor of more bellicose responses.

There is also the question of what we learn from the videos and whether that helps us better understand the crisis they are depicting. Journalism’s principal job is, after all, to inform us in a way that helps us comprehend the world around us so that we can make sound judgments and assess our leaders’ policies. Videos tell us one kind of story. How journalists contextualize those videos will be a key variable in how people understand it.

If journalists rely overly on the videos to tell the story, one implication is that people might be more likely to simply understand the Syrian crisis through the prism of their own biases and predispositions. Research consistently shows that this is how most people process news they don’t know much about, and foreign affairs certainly fits that description for the vast majority of audiences around the world. But it also means that, within the region, sectarian predispositions might be a greater influence than the events and messages implicit and explicit in the videos and other social media coming out of Syria. This leads back to Fadl’s point about a collection of like-minded communities in the virtual public sphere self-selecting the media, and the messages, with which they already agree.

But it also places a greater value on traditional journalism, and the role of intrepid journalists to sift through an even greater array of information in making sense of complex crises like the one currently so tragically dividing Syria.


Nation-building, COIN, and Communication

Yale’s Keith Darden and The George Washington University’s Harris Mylonas have an interesting piece in the current issue of Ethnopolitics (currently ungated) proposing a new way of thinking about nation- and state-building, and, by extension, counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. They argue that third-party powers (think: the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan) face a “Promethean Dilemma”: “How can they transfer coercive and organizational capacity to the local population without such capabilities being used to undermine the occupiers’ efforts to establish stable governance of the territory?”

Darden and Mylonas argue that current thinking emphasizes quickly building out the indigenous security forces (e.g., army and police). “When it comes to putting guns in the hands of the indigenous population, sooner is better,” from the mindset of those tasked with restructuring the country.

Darden and Mylonas recommend doing just the opposite, in two respects. First, the focus should be on building loyalty through cultural institutions, especially schools and religious organizations. “Coercive” institutions such as the police should come last. Second, external powers need to be willing to commit to a long-term, generational effort rather than looking for ways to extricate themselves as quickly as possible. Hence, they argue, nation-building comes before state-building, not vice versa.

I think the culture-specific focus of Darden and Mylonas’ argument has merit, though as made clear by the two most recent examples they raise, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s impossible to imagine a reconstruction effort that doesn’t simultaneously build up the security apparatus while developing cultural institutions.

The point, however, seems to be more that external actors such as the United States can’t neglect – and indeed, must prioritize – education and other institutional modes of “indoctrination,” and also need to embrace long-term efforts rather than quick fixes (which never seem to be quick, at any rate).

It is always interesting to me, however, that discussions of state- and/or nation-building, and indeed COIN, tend to treat as an afterthought a society’s communication system, particularly its progress toward a liberal press-state system. Granted, millions of dollars are spent on development projects and other efforts related to communication, especially journalism training, but the theorizing of state-building and COIN typically give it merely a passing mention.

I would argue that the development of a responsible, independent, and professional media alongside an effective and equally responsible and professional government communication apparatus should be seen as key pillars in a post-conflict reconstruction effort. Indeed, doing so can be integral to improving security and defeating insurgents and terrorists.

Afghanistan offers a good example. Simplifying somewhat, a key component of the insurgents’ argument to the Afghan people is essentially this: “The government is corrupt and can’t provide security and services to you, but we can.” Now, this is admittedly a perverse argument given that another way of putting it would be “The government can’t protect you from us,” but that’s beside the point. The important thing is that if the people believe it to be true, and then believe its corollary argument that the insurgents can provide security and services, then the bad guys may eventually win over the people.

Furthermore, in this scenario a security-first approach is doomed because the enemy will be gradually gaining recruits and a corresponding ability to outgun the host government and its allies.

Given this, the insurgent propaganda needs to be met head on and effectively. This is, principally, the government’s job rather than the media’s. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the insurgents are wrong and in fact the government is doing a good job, or at least an increasingly effective job, of improving services, security, and infrastructure. How will the people know? One important way would be through government spokespeople and other officials communicating this progress to the local population. But this is impossible if government spokespeople aren’t trained to be effective communicators, if the communication bureaucracy is not well-established, or if there are not proper channels of communication.

A major problem for government communicators in these situations, however, is credibility. Whether it is because of sectarianism, other cultural or linguistic divides, or association with past (or present) government corruption, fledgling democracies are often fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously by their constituents. Of course, to some extent simply becoming more responsive and effective at providing for the people can alleviate this problem. If the government isn’t actually credible, then neither will be its communication.

But another important determinant of government credibility can be a professional and independent media. I say “professional” because people in any society can spot amateurish journalism. Sensationalist and partisan or sectarian media are the prime offenders here, and they alienate audiences. (These concerns have always been the primary ones raised by government officials and journalists alike during the trainings I’ve led in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last few years.)

On the other hand, a professional media that are seen as independent from the government are more likely to be seen as credible. And if the messenger is credible, so to is the message.

So in our hypothetical, the best antidote to the insurgent argument that the government is corrupt and incompetent can be a free press reporting on a government’s successes.

Of course, an independent media is also going to be reporting on the government’s failures. But doing so is precisely what proves its independence and, if it’s done responsibly, its professionalism. By extension, it’s what will make the stories of progress more credible.

This is important for third-party and host governments, as well as occupying military forces, to understand. Too often, however, these folks fall into the trap of expecting nothing but good news from the local media, and assuming negative stories are a sign of bias or worse.  This is counterproductive. Effective communication from government and military spokespeople does not begin by treating the media as your enemy.

Similarly, contemporary COIN strategy (if one can say there is such a thing), with its emphasis on a population-centric approach, could use a deeper understanding of the role of communication in building security. I was surprised, for instance, when I attended a multi-day COIN training hosted by ISAF for, primarily, NATO officers at a base outside Kabul in 2010, that literally nothing was mentioned about this. The only way in which communication was discussed was in terms of information operations (IO), which is decidedly not what I’m talking about.

I was, however, encouraged that several officers (mostly Australians) raised this problem in our feedback session on the final day. They had seen first-hand the importance of strengthening the institutions of communication, as well as learning themselves how to work with those institutions, during their time in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other COIN environments.

To return to Darden and Mylonas, who emphasize schools as a cog in nation-building, a key long-term approach to strengthening local communication systems is getting beyond Beltway Bandit approaches that simply pay NGOs (and professors) lots of money (well, not to the professors…) to do short-term trainings. Instead, those resources should be put into helping universities (and secondary schools when appropriate) develop journalism and public affairs curricula and programs. Too often, even when these projects are funded it is only on the journalism side. But many of the same skills that make one a good journalist make one an effective spokesperson: Both are, at the end of the day, about communicating effectively to the people.

These programs would include basic writing, reporting, and public speaking skills, as well as using inexpensive modern video and radio reporting. They would also include the development of internship programs that placed students in local and international media, and government agencies, thus giving students professional experience while simultaneously staffing the incipient communications infrastructure.

These programs have another benefit: They create a self-sustaining solution to the communication aspect of a successful nation-building (or state-building, depending on one’s emphasis) effort.

The State Department has begun such efforts at several Afghan universities over the last couple of years in an effort to seed future generations of communicators in that fledgling democracy. (Though these initiatives focus mostly on journalism education.) It will be interesting to see what blooms from these programs, assuming they are given a chance to succeed.

More on Twitter Diplomacy

Source: Foreign Policy

Tim Lowden questions the wisdom of Larry Schwartz, the Senior PAO in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, employing snark in a twitter exchange with the Muslim Brotherhood following last week’s attack on the Embassy. In an interesting case of digital diplomacy, the MB had used its English-language Twitter feed to express sympathy to Embassy officials following the protests. Implicitly referring to the MB’s apparent tendency to adopt a more inflammatory tone in its Arabic tweets, Schwartz responded, “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”

Tim found this response to be cheeky, undiplomatic, and counter-productive to dampening down tensions, especially as a response to a seemingly well-intentioned missive from the MB. Personally, I rather liked it. But I think the incident illustrates the difficulties the State Department and other governmental organizations face when using social media to interact with foreign publics and, in this case, governments.

There are several aspects of social media that make them particularly tricky for diplomats. First, they move in rapid, real time speed, with shelf lives and attention spans that are often even shorter than that of traditional media. This is at odds with a bureaucracy’s desire to vet all communications before making them public. By the time a 140 character tweet has made it up the administrative food chain, the subject has changed and State has lost the opportunity to engage in the conversation. Recognizing this, State has slowly allowed for a more spontaneous approach to social media at its embassies, especially when it comes to posting on Facebook walls and tweeting. As former Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy James Glassman writes in a smart post at Foreign Policy, Ambassadors are ultimately responsible for tweets from the Embassy, but staff is trusted to proceed with the understanding that no communication can question or contradict U.S. policy. Generally, this is never a problem. That doesn’t mean, however, that tweets and wall postings can’t cause embarrassment.

Of course, this is potentially true of any communication; after all, it was a standard press statement that got Schwartz and the embassy in trouble in the first place. Another problem for Diplomats engaging in the public sphere via new media is precisely what bothered Tim: Tone. Social media — especially Twitter — speaks in the language of snark. To be credible, diplomats don’t necessarily need to descend to the lowest form of discourse, but they do need to communicate colloquially and authentically to be seen as legitimate members of the online community. This is why I am not bothered by Schwartz’s tweet: I found it to be a nice way to make an important point that worked in the context of social media.The question of whether it “works” or not is another matter, though.

And therein lies another challenge social media pose for diplomats. Twitter, Facebook, and the like are simply tools in the strategic communication utility belt diplomats can use to engage with foreign publics. But like all forms of communication, they are ultimately meant to serve the strategic ends of, in this case, the U.S. government. The real value of social media, for instance, is a combination of mass information delivery system, and a way to humanize the U.S. government for potentially skeptical audiences who see America as aloof, or worse. Measuring effectiveness of these communications is difficult, to say the least.

Take Schwartz’s tweet. Did it serve the U.S. government’s interests? Well, if it annoyed the Egyptian authorities and people when the government was making a genuine effort to extend an olive branch, then maybe not. But if it simultaneously stood up for the principal that the U.S. won’t stand for alleged allies engaging in rhetoric that endangers U.S. personnel, while also putting a human voice — piqued though it may have been — to otherwise staid government communications, then perhaps the answer is yes. The problem is two-fold.

First, who is the audience? The answer is a combination of one’s intended audience, and everyone else that will see your message retweeted, liked, emailed, etc. In traditional strategic communication, one identifies a target audience and crafts a message likely to be persuasive to that group of people. In social media, even more than before, the audience quickly grows beyond your target, especially when communications go viral — a diplomat’s worst nightmare. This leads to the other challenge: Context. When a politician airs a political ad on TV, they have a pretty good idea of the context in which the audience is receiving that message. But embassy officials have little to no control over how their unintended audience — or even their intended audience — will be seeing their tweets. For instance, research across decades shows that one of the most important ways in which people understand news and information is through the prism of peers or elites they trust and agree with.

So if I see Schwartz’s tweet because I follow him, then I am likely to process it differently than if I have it retweeted by someone I trust but who I know is hostile to the United States. More to the point, perhaps I see the tweet in a blog post from a trusted source that goes into a lengthy rebuttal to Schwartz’s message. The point is that in a new media environment, the messenger has much less control over the reception of that message than they did in a traditional media world. This is even true for their “old” media communications, because they, too, are often sent on a roller coaster ride through the “interwebs.”

This is reminiscent of the “Twitter Wars” between ISAF PAOs in Afghanistan and, purportedly, Taliban officials in the last couple of years. The exchanges were marked by extreme sarcasm on both sides, as in this repartee:

There are a couple of potential pitfalls exhibited in these exchanges. First, unlike Schwartz’s tweet, ISAF is in full-on Snark mode, to a point that I’m not sure works for them. When you are seen as an occupying force representing a host of imperial countries, it doesn’t really help win hearts and minds to in fact sound imperious. Put another way, this doesn’t seem to be furthering the strategic communication goals of ISAF. Second, it’s not clearthat the person tweeting here is really part of the Taliban, much less representing them. A coalition or government doesn’t look very credible if it’s arguing with an impersonator. A final problem posed by the Schwartz and ISAF cases is that these online squabbles are manna from heaven for the press, which loves conflict stories, especially if they allow reporters to write “gee whiz” stories about digital diplomacy gone awry. This can often fuel the story’s jet-packed ride to viral stardom.

Then again, the press itself can not only engage in what we might call undiplomatic behavior, but discover the hard way the same perils of social media diplomats have faced. In a matter of hours on Monday, Newsweek published a grotesque cover wallowing in the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world with the headline “Muslim Rage,” then invited comments about the cover on Twitter: “Want to discuss our latest cover? Let’s hear it with the hashtag #MuslimRage.” Well, they heard it alright.

Fortunately for Newsweek, a few hours and several thousand tweets later, Mitt Romney’s latest faux pas went viral and their own mishap began to travel down the memory hole, right on the heels of Larry Schwartz’s tweet. But in many ways, the damage had already been done.

New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring

Egypt Social Forum

That is the title of the latest IPDGC-USIP report in the “Blogs and Bullets” series, written by myself and my GW colleagues Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, and John Sides, as well as American University’s Deen Freelon. Since 2009, we have been looking at the role of new media in political protest, activism, and movements for peace around the world. Although this has been an important topic for a while, it gained particular salience in 2011 when mass protests exploded throughout the Middle East, toppling two governments and pushing several others toward the brink.

Our first report, “Blogs and Bullets: New Media and Contentious Politics,” co-authored with Morningside Analytics’ John Kelly and Ethan Zuckerman from the Berkman Institute, we took a critical look at the state of research at that time in this area and called for a more complex, empirically-grounded approach. We proposed five “lenses” through which scholars and others could examine these internet-fueled movements: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.

In this latest report, we go a step further by zeroing in on the role of new and especially social media in the Arab Spring protests that began in late 2010 and led to the toppling of some despotic regimes — but, importantly, not all — in 2011. We did this by utilizing a unique dataset from, the URL shortener commonly associated with Twitter but used in several platforms, including Facebook. With these data, we were able to get a sense of how important a role these media played in what some hailed at the time as “Facebook Revolutions.”

Our findings suggest a more nuanced role for new media, or at least, for the new media we were able to analyze. First, it’s important to understand what we were able to do with our data. In a nutshell, we were able to see how different links spread throughout a country, throughout the region, and throughout the world, and when they did so. Put simply, we were able to look at spikes in linking (mostly via Twitter), which coincided with major events and their corresponding hashtags (e.g., #jan25 for Egypt), and see if most of that traffic was within the given country, within the broader MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, or external to the region.

In sum, we found that in nearly all cases we examined, the vast majority of link traffic was external to the MENA region and the country in question. So, for example, many of the links being virtually passed around about the Tarhir Square protests in Egypt were amongst people in places like Europe and North America, rather than from Egyptian to Egyptian, or even from Cairo to Manama.

There are many reasons not to be surprised by these findings. For one, most of the affected countries have very low internet penetration. For another, phrases such as “Twitter Revolution” or “Facebook Revolution” conjure up the kind of very powerful media effect not seen in most of the academic literature across a variety of contexts. It’s not that media can’t be powerful, but rather that their power is generally limited to very specific instances and dependent on many factors. (And that’s assuming we can agree on what “powerful” means.)

Yet precisely because of the occasionally breathless commentary about the alleged power of new media to bring down governments, these findings are important. For one thing, by showing that at least some social media (e.g., Twitter) didn’t appear to have a mobilizing effect internally, it helps refocus our attention on what variables do explain social movement organization and effectiveness.

Similarly, I would argue these findings are important for the way in which they tell us something about what social media did do during these protests. In a sense, what we found is a “megaphone” role for social media, whereby the rest of the world was able to learn about and have conversations about these protests and the violent crackdowns that they inspired. This could have important ramifications if, as some hope, this kind of external attention can generate international pressure on regimes to avoid or suspend violent reactions to protest, much less reform or resign. This is particularly important in an era where some governments, including the Obama administration, attempt to embrace a foreign policy based on the principle of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) citizens threatened by extreme regime violence.

With Lynch and Freelon, our next wave of USIP-funded Blogs and Bullets research will explore how activists in the Syrian uprising are using new media — especially videos on sites like YouTube — to mobilize and inform others around the world about their fight with the Syrian government. Ultimately we will also be looking at how these social media campaigns might, or might not, influence the international community’s response. We will be discussing the Arab Spring report, and the Syrian uprising, at a conference on October 2 at USIP. Watch the IPDGC website for details.

Corporate Policy, Social Media and Collective Action

Will Youmans, a PhD student at Michigan, and SuperTweeter Jillian York (@jilliancyour), of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have a new piece in Journal of Communication  titled “Social Media and the Activist Toolkit: User Agreements, Corporate Interests, and the Information Infrastructure of Modern Social Movements.” The article looks at four case studies from the Arab world — Facebook’s response to the “We are all Khaled Said” group, YouTube’s handling of gruesome videos from Syria, anti-atheist internet campaigns in Morocco, and the online activities of the pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army — to show the complex relationship between corporations, regimes, and protest movements.

From the abstract:

The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have been credited in part to the creative use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet the information policies of the firms behind social media can inhibit activists and empower authoritarian regimes. Analysis illustrate how prohibitions on anonymity, community policing practices, campaigns from regime loyalists, and counterinsurgency tactics work against democracy advocates. These problems arise from the design and governance challenges facing large-scale, revenue-seeking social media enterprises.

Youmans, who has conducted several studies of Arab media (especially Al Jazeera), and York, one of the most prominent and insightful writers/researchers on issues of online privacy, are particularly well-positioned to write on this topic. The paper makes some interesting insights into how tech corporations’ fundamental desire to increase revenues and users can make for strange bedfellows with authoritarian regimes interested in squashing protest movements that utilize, and sometimes depend on, social media.

One of the important points they make is that “social media provide the tools for organized dissent yet can also constrain collective action.” This happens, they argue, because the code itself “sets the range of usability,” and company policies and user agreements both enable and constrain users. For instance, Facebook eventually took down the Khaled Said page because it violated their ban on pseudonymous users. Yet in authoritarian regimes protesters often risk their lives by going public.

YouTube is an interesting example of how a social media company is trying to confront some of these issues. YouTube bans graphic and “disgusting” videos, which has created problems when citizens have posted gruesome footage of regime violence during the Arab Awakening (and in Iran before that). Yet these videos are also often the only way, or the most effective way, of documenting these abuses for the wider world and fellow citizens in the given countries.

YouTube responded to this conundrum by allowing the videos — usually — under a corporate policy allowing footage that is “educational, documentary, or scientific” in nature. And they have been responsive to community policing of the videos posted to their site. But sometimes videos still get pulled, and even if they are ultimately allowed back online, it may be too late for them to be effective.

At the end of the day, however, social media companies are still businesses, and must make deals with these regimes to gain access to new markets. China is perhaps the best and most discussed example because of its huge population and repressive internet policies. Companies such as Google and Yahoo! have been willing to compromise on their ideals by censoring delicate topics, and sacrifice user privacy and even security, to appease government officials.

Regimes and their supporters take various approaches to social media-driven protest, ranging from shutting down the internet entirely to engaging in internet-based attacks and counter-propaganda campaigns. Recently, for instance, pro-Chinese government hackers have deluged Twitter conversations with the hashtags #Tibet and #Freetibet with spambots.

As the authors conclude:

Although social media firms made some exceptions for reformers during the Arab Spring, their policies and the architecture of their products will increasingly complicate collective action efforts. Nonetheless, pressures by users have and will continue to force adjustments in design and policy.

Hip Hop Diplomacy

Dan Sreebny (@pd_dan) has had a couple of interesting tweets lately about various cultural diplomacy programs by the State Department featuring Hip Hop music and dance. In Egypt, the U.S. Embassy and the Brooklyn Academy of Music teamed up to bring the Rennie Harris Puremovement Dance Company (RHPM) to perform as part of a Middle Eastern tour. In Lebanon, Chen Lo and the Liberation Family performed as part of State’s Rhythm Road program, which sends American bands around the world.You can get a sense of Chen Lo’s group from this concert in Algiers:

These efforts are part of a long tradition of using music as an integral part of U.S. public diplomacy efforts abroad. This blog’s name is an homage to those programs, which in their earliest days featured “Jazz Ambassadors” like Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. A major underlying rational for these programs is that music and other arts are seen as being less overtly political than traditional diplomacy and thus able to bridge gaps created by policy differences between the U.S. and other countries, something USC’s Phil Seib blogged about last week.

Hip Hop is in many ways ideally suited to these programs because of its wide appeal to young people (and some of us older folks) around the world.

That said, as Seib intimates, it’s obviously a bit ridiculous to pretend that art, music very much included, is apolitical. Furthermore, from the earliest days of post-war American public diplomacy the art and artists State has chosen to export through these programs have often been chosen expressly because of their political value. Much has been written, for instance, about the debates in U.S. policy circles about which art to include in the famous American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 (famous for the Kitchen Debate). And even the Jazz Messengers were seen by President Eisenhower and others as helping to counter America’s well-deserved bad reputation regarding race, while at the same time potentially opening up politicized critiques of American hypocrisy.

Hip Hop, of course, is also no stranger to political firestorms, and the best of it — like the best of virtually all artistic genres and mediums — is often overtly political, especially about culture. Whether it’s Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” NWA’s “F*** tha Police,” or Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” (all links very much NSFW) Hip Hop (and Rap) frequently touch on important themes of racism, police brutality, and economic disenfranchisement.

Contrary to the purported apolitical intent of many cultural diplomacy programs involving the arts, I think their value lies precisely in their manifest and latent political content. Sure, State isn’t about to send Nas on a world tour (though that would be awesome on many levels…), but there is still a great value in not being afraid of a musical genre just because it has a negative stereotype among certain circles in the U.S., including many political circles.

Yet these same domestic political issues force the State Department to walk a tightrope with these programs: They can’t promote even remotely controversial artists lest they raise the hackles of members of Congress who control the purse strings for such programs. This is especially difficult for public diplomacy programs because, for many reasons including their long-term effects horizon and measurement issues, it is often difficult to “prove” their worth empirically to legislators looking for reasons to slash budgets. Programs tainted with being “politicized” are especially likely to receive scrutiny.

Yet I’d argue that perhaps the greatest value of the Jazz Messengers was precisely that they sparked conversations about America’s race problem, something many Americans would prefer to ignore, while at the same time celebrating not only American culture generally, but African American culture specifically. In that case, there was also an added benefit of subtly demonstrating American values by opening up such a discussion of race, something that shows, I think, the difference between good public diplomacy and propaganda.

All of this will be front and center, by the way, at next Tuesday’s IPDGC conference “Hip Hop Diplomacy: Connecting Through Culture,” from 2-5 at the State Room at the Elliott School for International Affairs on the GWU campus. RSVP now because seats are limited!

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