Derision is a complicated thing. At its most sophomoric, derision is little more than blowing raspberries on the playground – good for a laugh at someone’s expense but without much of a point. When given proper thought and execution, though, derision can deliver persuasive satire or charming self-deprecation, both of which bond audience and humorist closer together.
While diplomats use humor regularly to engage foreign audiences, often with successful results, there is little study of its use as a public diplomacy tool. Unfortunately, there is no formal understanding of the strategic use of humor when engaging foreign audiences. As a result, we see some nightmares when humor is poorly applied. When a diplomat’s joke bombs, the risk of real bombs is greater than when a new stand-up chokes at Comedy Works. It’s like Bono pleading with the UN to send a CVE-comedy task-force to Syria – we seem to know that there’s something there, but we just can’t quite grasp how to harness it.
Let’s talk about the failures of derision in public diplomacy. The most glaring example is “Think Again, Turn Away,” a counter-terrorism effort so poorly conceived that even our own comedians mocked it. In 2013, the Global Engagement Center from the U.S. Department of State launched the video “Think Again, Turn Away” on YouTube, intending to reach the same young audience that ISIS targeted online for recruitment. It wasn’t long before people realized that the snark-filled, sardonic PSA was utterly tone-deaf.
The team that produced “Think Again, Turn Away” undoubtedly understands the situation in ISIS-occupied territories better than most. They just don’t know comedy.
For every joke, there is an in-group and an out-group. These groups may be defined as those who get the joke and those who don’t, or along the classic laughing with/laughing at split. Derision especially lends itself to this split, more so than other comedic styles. Creating distinct in-groups and out-groups can reinforce or undermine existing narratives, depending on how those groups are framed.
Think of it this way: Everyone has a story in their head that tells them who they are. That’s our identity narrative. We have stories about our place in that world. We call those system narratives. In every narrative, there is a protagonist (the in-group) and an antagonist (the out-group). Generally, people like to be the protagonists of their own stories. We make this happen by aligning our identity narratives and system narratives in such a way that we belong to the in-group throughout. So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.
Here is a narrative map for a typical ISIS recruit, based on research on ISIS target messaging:
|Identity Narrative||System Narrative|
|ISIS Recruit||Young, over-educated & underemployed, an outsider (perceived or actual) of mainstream society, destined to and/or worthy of greatness||Living in a society that is hostile towards identity, unjust, limited opportunities to advance; the West is keeping true believers down, only the caliphate is righteous|
“Think Again, Turn Away” tries to undermine the “righteous caliphate” narrative by using sarcasm to cast ISIS in the out-group. However, the video fails to draw the potential recruits into its in-group. Therefore, it’s mockery only reinforces the theme of separation between recruits and the West present in both narrative levels.
So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.
Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups isn’t just good comedy – it’s good communication. Philip Seib says that successful communication is always audience based and ties into the narratives of that audience’s socio-political context. Obviously, “Think Again, Turn Away” is not audience based. Rather than embrace its target audience, clearly marking themselves as being “on the same team,” or both part of the in-group, the narrator mocks the ideological society that said audience expressed interest in joining. That is why the video targets its specified audience, after all. By mocking the group with which the audience has already identified, even superficially, it casts both in the out-group, cementing the audience’s allegiance to the butt of the joke.
One might have done less damage trying to sincerely persuade potential recruits to join ISIS. John Oliver points out that the State Department is “banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that [“Think Again, Turn Away”] is sarcasm,” the implication being that the intended audience won’t get the joke. Alternatively, the audience might understand the joke, but doesn’t find it the least bit funny. Either way, the video reinforces extremist messaging by squarely casting the audience in the out-group.
Whether or not potential recruits have the capacity or inclination to “appreciate” the video’s try at sarcasm, humans respond to humor cognitively and emotionally. No one likes being mocked; it makes us feel bad. You learned this blowing raspberries on the playground. When the audience you are trying to reach is also the butt of your joke, you have missed the point.
The views expressed here are the author’s only and do no necessarily represent those of George Washington University.
Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) is an innovative program that removes a hierarchical government approach to digital youth outreach. It does so by providing the resources for university students to creatively implement localized solutions that reach the target demographic: their own age group using their own preferred online platforms. On the International Day of Peace, September 21, regional winners from the U.S., Finland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Netherlands, presented their creative digital outreach campaigns in New York City to encourage moderation and integration in communities plagued by online extremism, prejudice, and hate.
Keynote speakers from co-hosts Facebook, U.S. Department of State, and EdVenture Partners highlighted the rapid growth of the international P2P competition and ingenuity of the students. The program’s 250 universities across 60 countries have students work with $400 in Facebook Ad Credits and $2,000 budget for academic credit to research a target audience and then create a digital media initiative, tool, or product to counter online extremism. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, described the program as the “model for public-private partnerships at State. We love this program because we get out of the way.” Head of Product Policy at Facebook, Monika Bickert, said the local and global campaigns are so inspiring because the students are responding to their environment, and they can thus develop effective solutions. Under Secretary Stengel reinforced this critical need to act upon understanding by elaborating on his media experience, “as a journalist, when I asked the wrong question, I got the wrong answer.” The following are brief summaries of how each winning team answered the “right” answer with their innovative solutions, with further details on their campaign sites.
All teams presented their strategic off and online, peer-driven campaigns that detailed design, implementation, and results. New York University’s conflict studies Masters students focused on diversity and integration processes based on teammates’ experiences feeling vulnerable as outsiders. They described how their campaigns evolved from the #7TrainStop on immigrants in Queens, into the Voices of New York Resolve on countering hate in Brooklyn, which will now focus on radicalization in Bronx prisons. The team has collaborated with local and international organizations to mutually support countering extremism goals, such as garnering 43, 831 Facebook views and 384,340 Youtube views on BuzzFeed-released, “When Hate Speech Comes to Campus.” [#7TrainStop]
The Turku School of Economics [Finland] and Utrecht University [Netherlands] concentrated on refugee integration. The Finnish team created a mobile application that addressed the ~1,000% increase in asylum-seekers entering Finland from 2014 to 2015. They identified four major problems refugees face: Lack of information on the city and country; Lack of contact with locals; Lack of activities in the reception center; and negative attitudes among the local population. Interestingly, these challenges are similar to those new students may encounter when moving to Turku. The team designed multimedia events to increase locals’ awareness, interest, and opinion of newcomers. “United by Food” was a day-long pop-up for refugees to sell food from their home country. “About Turku” made city information accessible by transforming pre-existing records into a free mobile download in Arabic and English. The Dutch team tackled the heated European political climate in “#DareToBeGrey: An Alternative to the Black & White Fallacy.” They created a humorous online series to raise awareness that it is possible to have a moderate stance on refugee intake. The online efforts combined with their recent five-city Dutch tour have reached over eight million people. Both campaigns give agency to Europeans and refugees through multimedia. [Choose Your Future] [#DareToBeGrey]
The Pakistani and Afghan teams focused on dispelling misuses of politicized Islam. The Afghan team from Laal-u-Anar Foundation identified TV and Facebook as the most wide-reaching outlets to defend their religion in #IslamSaysNoToExtremism while sharing Quranic verses that reinforced peacemaking messages. The Lahore University of Management Sciences project, “Fate: From Apathy to Empathy,” highlighted comprehensive programs to re-incentivize Pakistanis who felt they were “just a number” in the destruction and deaths from violent extremism. They countered the apathy by organizing concerts, tours, video games, activism workshops, and education programs to empower and humanize citizens. Both teams cite youth activation through media campaigns to promote moderate Islam to various demographics, as well as calling attention to a narrowing window of opportunity for effective counter-extremism. [International Strategic Studies] [Fate]
Event host, Dean Obeidallah, concluded by reinforcing the magnitude of violent extremism in Asia, explaining that “over 90% of victims of ISIL and al-Qaeda are Muslims, but the U.S. media doesn’t cover it so Americans don’t know.” Mr. Obeidallah paraphrased Robert F. Kennedy to encourage youth to recognize their potential and collaborate because “few of us alone can change and bend history, but together, collectively, we can write a narrative of our generation.” Indeed, a compelling, accessible narrative needs to be solidified to effectively counter various forms of extremism around the world, and the P2P program is leading the way.
Digital diplomacy is a complement to traditional diplomacy because it can reach specific audiences in a more timely, relevant, and flexible way. Jed Shein, co-founder of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition, said that digital diplomacy is “about recognizing where people are spending time today, where they are the most active, and how they receive that information.”
In fact, the fundamentals of public diplomacy can be found at the basis of digital diplomacy. It’s equally important for the State Department to recognize a target audience, identify the appropriate medium of information and choose the correct information platform when presenting a public diplomacy initiative online as it is in person.
The true essence of digital diplomacy is flexibility. Digital diplomacy efforts can be enacted across different online platforms including official blogs, social media pages, and websites, with relative ease. However, the savants are those who show a demonstrated ability to differentiate between content type and online platform type. Many have not strengthened their online presence as much as they would like because they follow the common misconception that all digital platforms are created equal. While there is a place for official policy documents on official websites, social media pages are not the right place. Foreign ministries should post content that engages the local audiences and creates dialogue through videos, images, and text on social media networks.
It is encouraging to see the international diplomatic community embracing digital diplomacy. On January 30, the United Nations organized the inaugural Social Media Day at its headquarters in New York City. The event was a collaborative effort between the United Nations, Digital Diplomacy Coalition and a number of international countries. This one-day event involved panel discussions, briefings from social media experts, as well a hashtag campaign using #socialUN.
The event also allowed anyone online to livestream the event on YouTube. This effort on the UN’s part showed the flexibility and relevance of digital diplomacy. For instance, the #socialUN campaign connected diplomats at the same event while the online video stream attracted foreign publics that were unable to attend the event in person. Furthermore, UN Social Media Day showed that digital diplomacy can strengthen multilateral efforts between nations and collaborate alongside new civil society partners.
The Digital Diplomacy Coalition is a new partner from civil society that is taking entirely new approaches to building connections within the diplomatic community using technology. While they don’t conduct diplomacy on behalf of a particular nation, the Digital Diplomacy Coalition is an “international, independent, volunteer-based organization,” that fosters a collaborative environment for members of the diplomatic, international and technology communities “to leverage digital technologies for diplomacy.”
Originally founded by Scott Nolan Smith, Roos Kouwenhoven, Jed Shein and Floris Winters in 2012, the organization has collaborated alongside the likes of tech titans such as Google, Fosterly, Tumblr, universities such as Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University and Georgetown University as well as the foreign ministries of Canada, Jordan, Peru, Kosovo, and Italy among many other nations. By bringing influential people from tech, government and international spheres, The Digital Diplomacy coalition is creating an environment that is realizing the potential of digital diplomacy challenges and best practices.
The U.S. government is also looking for innovative ways to drive digital diplomacy efforts. In 2013, the State Department announced the launch of the Collaboratory, an effort to use technology to drive public diplomacy efforts. Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, explained that the program would serve as a “platform to collaborate, incubate and pilot new ideas that amplify people to people exchanges and connect people using technologies.” The Collaboratory will provide additional opportunities for public-private partnership as well as new programming ideas that are both timely and relevant for local audiences.
However, innovation in the digital diplomacy space cannot simply result in the recycling of old content. Innovation must be driven by entirely new forms of content that engage local populations in a personal manner. The efforts of New York artist Amir Bakshi is the type of innovation needed in digital diplomacy. In late 2014, Bakshi launched “Portals”, a contemporary art project that brings people together from opposite corners of the world through videoconference and a recycled shipping container. The first Portal connected New Yorkers with Iranian citizens who could see the life-size projection of their counterpart as they discussed issues related to daily life.
Bakshi’s New York exhibit also captured the attention of journalist, Fareed Zakaria and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock who signed up to participate in the cultural exchange. The Collaboratory could use a similar citizen-driven approach to create a digital diplomacy initiative that provides Americans and foreign citizens with the opportunities to become 21st century pen-pals. This type of initiative could also be more sustainable because local and foreign citizens have a hand in the diplomacy making process by driving the content themselves.
As the international arena moves further into the 21st century, which countries will adopt digital diplomacy as part of the status quo? What challenges will they face? Comment below.
With only a day until the 2014 FIFA World Cup, international press appear to have a singular focus on all that is going wrong in Brazil and its state of preparation (or lack there of). They are not entirely without merit – eight people have died in the construction and restoration of stadiums, of which delays have been widely reported; protests around the country are unrelenting and increasingly violent, to say nothing of the security in the favelas surrounding São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that police forces still struggle to control.
Given this, what has Brazil done from a public diplomacy standpoint to counter the perception that it is not quite ready to host the Cup? Not much, it seems. To the extent that virtually every major global news outlet – CNN, the BBC, even their own O Globo newspaper – focuses on the singular narrative of unpreparedness, Brazilians appear to be in accord with that narrative: not only are they unprepared, but they firmly believe that hosting the cup will actually hurt Brazil’s image abroad, according to a recent Pew survey. On Twitter, users are using the hashtag ‘#imaginanacopa’, or ‘imagine the cup’, in tweets to allude the pending “doom” Brazilians predict World Cup will have on their country.
Even President Dilma Rousseff, who is largely defensive to this reaction, is inadvertently focused on the looming chaos as evidenced by her call for increasing funds to security and police forces and admitting to foreign journalists just days before the opening ceremony that things are indeed being done at the last minute:
“Everywhere in the world these big engineering projects always go down to the wire,” she said from a dinner with foreign journalists – her first before the World Cup – at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. “Those who want to protest will be allowed to do so 100%,” adding that the vast majority of Brazilians will be supporting the Cup and protesters “will not be allowed to interfere or disrupt the tournament.” – BBC.com, June 4
She has also taken the step of not speaking at the opening ceremony on Thursday, but largely at the behest of FIFA, which has also received a fair amount of backlash from the Brazilian public. Though the move is probably wise, it is not likely to be enough for Brazil’s public diplomacy to advance as it faces mounting doubt and weariness from both within and outside the country. Perhaps this reflects Rousseff’s somewhat laissez-faire attitude that once the games begin, all will be forgotten. She may have a point: in the 2010 World Cup, reports leading up to the event shed a similar light on the state of security in South Africa. The only legacy it has now is the buzzing sound of vuvuzelas.
Overall, however, Brazil has done a poor job of using a valuable soft power tool like the World Cup to promote its public diplomacy. There are a few opportunities for redemption: 1. The month-long event passes without any major disasters or deaths resulting from the dubious transportation systems, or 2. If Brazil wins the Cup, which, despite being the heavy favorite, some analysts warn that it is not as much as it should be for a home team. Otherwise, Rousseff may have to spend the rest of the year answering the question “Was it worth it?” rather than focusing on economic and foreign policies during her re-election in October. One can only hope that if she does win, public diplomacy lessons learned from managing the World Cup can be applied to the execution of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Malaysian Flight 370—specifically how the Malaysian government has handled the crisis to date—shows the negative side of public diplomacy, and reminds us why crisis communications matters.
From the moment the airplane disappeared from radar in the early morning hours of March 8, , the government in Kuala Lumpur faced a challenging task of communicating with its own citizens and citizens overseas. With passengers from a dozen countries on board—most of them Chinese—the public diplomacy assignment required careful, consistent, and credible information sharing.
That never happened. The result was conflicting stories, shifting narratives, and an overall picture of confusion. Now it will be difficult for the Malaysians to re-establish credibility.
The first rule of public diplomacy is to establish trust with your audience. Leaving aside the rules and procedures around an airline disaster, where victims need special handling, the basic goal of public information campaign is for government officials to disseminate information even when there is little to come by. The Malaysians needed to take hold of the situation and manage the flow of news in a 24/7 world where a cable operation like CNN might, as turned out to be the case, broadcast around the clock news about the event—dispatching reporters and cameras around the globe.
The second rule of public diplomacy is, if you don’t have an answer to a question, be candid and say, “We don’t know.” No information is better than bad information.
Lastly, be mindful of the power of the Bully Pulpit—a phrase coined by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to reflect the influence of the White House messaging platform. Deploying the Prime Minister of Malaysia needed to be strategic. There was no reason to put Prime Minister Najib Razak in the position of informing families that their loved ones were gone forever absent any wreckage of the plane to prove it.
To compound the error, the Malaysian government used social media incorrectly. It sent a text message to the families that read: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minster we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.” Without a debris field, the message seemed hollow.
Now, with the help of Australia, there is a chance to get Malaysia’s public diplomacy back on course. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott just met with the Malaysian Prime Minister and one hopes they will improve the information flow about the ongoing search and investigation.
In the end, the answer is training. We need to train government officials on how to communicate before, during and after a crisis, and how to use public diplomacy effectively. In a world of citizen journalism, news, and global information, the alternative is chaos.
Congratulations to Richard Stengel, the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. All of us – especially those of us who have done the job – wish you well. We know how vital the work of PD is at this time in our nation’s history.
The Under Secretary’s introductory message to the public diplomacy community is a welcome sign of outreach and engagement. It lays out some clear foreign policy objectives and goals including the need to forge new and deeper connections with young leaders. It is especially gratifying to see that the youth focus will “put special attention on girls and under-served youth.”
The other priorities mentioned in the note include focus on entrepreneurism, educational diplomacy, environmental diplomacy, countering violent extremism, and the need for enhanced public diplomacy training and resources.
The network of public diplomacy practitioners will be ready to assist.
The first post in this series explained how many embassies based in Washington DC are using social media and which platforms embassies most frequently use.
After looking at embassy presence across all platforms, Facebook and Twitter proved to be the two most popular – over 50 embassies in Washington DC were identified as having Twitter accounts and 60 embassies had Facebook accounts
Of the social media platforms identified in our earlier piece, Twitter makes data most easily available and with least restrictions through their API (Automated Programming Interface). As a result, we have focused on Twitter rather than Facebook for this post, although we acknowledge the total number of DC Embassies using Facebook is slightly greater than those using Twitter.
When social media and twitter specifically are discussed within the context of Public Diplomacy, one of the frequently cited metrics is the number of followers. While this is a frequently stated metric, when stated about a single Twitter account it is at very best a tactical question, rather than an indicator of a successful strategy – unless getting followers is the end goal of using a Twitter account for Public Diplomacy. One way this metric can be a little more useful is to put it in the context of others in the same field, or in this case other Embassies in DC. While this is still relatively limited in its utility, there is at least a comparative element.
The above chart shows the number of followers for all the Twitter accounts that were found during the initial research phase. As noted on the chart, the Twitter account for Nirupama Rao, India’s ambassador to the U.S.- @NMenonRao, has the most followers. At the time of the making of the chart, she had around 75,000 followers. At the time of writing this post, about six weeks later, her followers were close to 92,000. Clearly she is doing something right on Twitter that she was able to gain that many followers in such a short amount of time. A quick glance at her account shows that she tweets consistently, which is crucial to acquiring and maintaining followers, and that she was on Foreign Policy Magazine’s list of 100 Womerati which is a list created after there was a lack of women in Foreign Policy’s list of 100 Twitterati.
The 100 Womerati list is a group of women that are deemed by Foreign Policy as “100 female tweeters around the world that everyone should follow.” This could explain the extraordinarily high number of followers that she has, but is probably not the entire reason. The next highest number of followers is the Indian Diplomacy Twitter account (@IndianDiplomacy) which is the dedicated Twitter account of the Public Diplomacy sector of India’s Foreign Ministry. The fact that they have a dedicated account for public diplomacy demonstrates just how devoted they are to using social media to engage international audiences. This account is not directed solely at the United States which may account for its high number of followers in relation to the other accounts on this chart. On the other side of the chart, we see several embassy Twitter accounts that have few to no followers. This is caused mainly by two problems: no one knows the account exists (i.e. it’s not linked to the embassy’s web site) or the account is not maintained (i.e. no one is sending tweets).
Moving away from a direct comparison of follower numbers, another indicator to consider is whether others in the same field think an account is worth following. This might give a comparative sense of authority around a particular issue or area of activity. In this case, while Embassies may at some level compete to represent their respective national interests, it is rarely a zero-sum proposition. As a result, there are many opportunities to collaborate and where a positive outcome for one Embassy is equally positive for another.
From this perspective, a very low level collaborative approach to public diplomacy could be to follow other Embassies on Twitter. The following graph represents the e-diplomacy network which exists between Embassies which are active on social media in Washington DC. Lines between nodes represent the follower / following relationships between Embassies in DC. Those represented by larger nodes and with larger labels are followed by the greatest number of other embassies in DC, and the smallest nodes are followed by the fewest embassies.
The data represented in this graph shows which embassies are considered important to follow by other Embassies. In simple terms, being followed by the greatest number of other Embassies could be a measure of importance. An alternative, Eigenvector centrality, provides a slightly more complex method of calculating importance within a network. This method gives greater value to connections from other important nodes than an equal number of connections from less important nodes. Using this method, the top ten influential embassies, amongst other DC based embassies, are shown below.
For those seeking to collaborate with other embassies, or develop strategies to engage the diplomatic community in DC this may be a useful starting point.
In addition to the relationships with other embassies, the Twitter data allows us to analyze all the users who choose to follow the Embassies in DC that have Twitter accounts.
The above picture shows the network created by individuals following different embassy accounts. The larger the circle, the more followers the account has. The lines connecting the nodes show the number of people that follow both the accounts on each side of the line. As seen in the graphic, the Embassy of Israel, the British Embassy, the Saudi Embassy, the UAE Embassy and the German Embassy are the top five embassies followed in this network. This graphic gives us a tangible idea of just how everyone is connected in the social media world which often seems abstract and difficult to comprehend.
Within this network of followers, there are approximately 280 Twitter accounts that follow more than 10 embassies. Looking at this group, we can make some observations about who follows embassies. Of these 280, 22 are embassy-affiliated accounts, 13 are diplomacy non-profits and media outlets such as Meridian International and the Diplomatic Courier, and 65 of the accounts are for hotels, passport services, and strategic communications firms that would be of service to diplomats and embassies. There are also 10 accounts from users who work in the diplomatic community and 8 accounts of students studying international affairs and related fields. Glancing at the profile data of this group, we can see that the majority of these accounts are based in Washington, DC and are interested in international affairs and diplomacy. A Wordle (right) shows the most popular words in the profile data. Put in the context of a two word semantic concept wordle, some familiar phrases appear – some coffee drinkers and grad students appear alongside the diplomatic community, international affairs cultural diplomacy and foreign policy.
The stated location of users who follow more than ten embassies provides another perspective. Washington DC is the most common location, but as the image below shows, users following more than 10 embassies claim to be located across the world. This speaks to one of the key challenges for any embassy engaged in e-diplomacy – How to optimize their engagement when their remit is frequently focused within geographic boundaries but the uses with which they engage are spread beyond those boarders.
In the first post we saw which embassies were using social media. In this post we have identified those with which embassies engage, providing information which could be useful in development of e-diplomacy strategy and, if gathered over time, evaluation.
First, we asked how many users embassies engage and looked at which the most followers. Knowing the number of followers of an account, by itself, is relatively low value tactical data. However, the comparison with other accounts in a similar position or fulfilling a similar role can at least give some context to the number.
Second, we have looked at those accounts run by embassies which are followed by the accounts of other embassies. When an embassy creates its list of priorities, the individual responsible for managing the Twitter account at another embassy may not initially be considered a key individual with which to engage. However, these embassy accounts can act as reach multipliers, facilitating the flow of information to users with an interest in international affairs (and related fields). As a result, building relationships with the other embassies via social media can allow both embassies to benefit from collaboration rather than adopting a competitive stance toward other.
Third, we looked at the extent to which followers of one Embassy account also followed other the accounts run by other embassies. Most individuals followed only one embassy, emphasizing the importance of the collaborative strategy above as a way of multiplying reaching. Their state location, along with one and two word, word clouds highlights the profile of those following ten or more embassies. Embassies may consider some of these groups or individuals as users to engage more frequently online or offline, where there is, for example, a common area of interest. This is not to say all these individuals that have shown some form of affiliation or affinity with the diplomatic community would be appropriate for all Embassies nor that embassies should charge ahead without further consideration of who they are engaging. It merely highlights that these individuals have expressed a specific interest and an embassy may benefit from further engagement activity or collaboration (online or offline) with some of these social media users.
Those familiar with Twitter know that the amount of messages or links tweeted can be overwhelming depending on how many people a user follows and how often those accounts tweet. As a result, data on followers is very interesting data that shows us how people are connected on Twitter, but still leaves some questions to be answered.
A lot of the messaging is probably missed and the probability of interaction between embassies and their followers is slim as people generally do not tweet directly at the embassy, and even if they do, the chance that the embassy tweets back and starts a conversation is slim based on a quick glance of the most recent tweets from each of the embassy accounts.
This type of disruptive metric is becoming an increasingly important part of diplomacy, through both strategy and evaluation. There is still a lot of research to be done regarding impact and strategy, but the above observations provide a basic landscape through which to understand how the platform is being used by those working in Washington DC. Further research will delve into the activities of a few specific countries across multiple platforms.
by Max Entman
In the last decade, the definition of cultural diplomacy has been expanding. This expansion has been especially noticeable in the realm of the culinary arts. The recent launch of the “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership” by the U.S. Department of State is one of many examples of this phenomenon. Though food has featured to some degree in traditional diplomacy for centuries, these new initiatives go beyond state dinners to harness the power of food as an instrument of cultural engagement. Beyond creating sustained cultural engagement around food, these new efforts can also play an important role in raising the profile of policy challenges that align with the interests of a new generation of culinary diplomats.
Why this focus on food now? One key reason is the explosion of the celebrity chef phenomenon during the past decade. Around the world, chefs have stepped out from the behind the stove to become media moguls and full-fledged entertainment personalities. This raises the question of how particular chefs may fit into existing thinking about the impact of so-called celebrity diplomats. Professor Andrew Cooper has done the definitive work in this field. In a recent article on the topic, Cooper suggests that “the feature that does more to define celebrity diplomats than anything else is their focus on access to state leaders and key ministerial and bureaucratic policymakers.” As a result, Cooper argues that only three celebrities – Bono, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie – have achieved true celebrity diplomat status, whereas other politically active celebrities are merely activists. However, the emergence of a variety of renowned chefs as government-affiliated advocates may challenge this assertion.
The person that best personifies this new chef-as-diplomat archetype is José Andrés. Based in DC by way of Asturias, Spain, Andrés is widely credited with popularizing Spanish cuisine in the U.S. In addition to a growing restaurant empire and successful TV shows in the states and in Spain, Andrés is a leading member of the State Department’s American Chef Corps and the founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that seeks to combat hunger. Andrés was also recognized recently as an “embajador de la marca de España” (honorary ambassador of the Spanish brand) by the Leading Brands of Spain Forum, a government-affiliated organization.
In both his adopted home and in his country of origin, government officials have taken note of Andrés’ leadership in both the culinary and development fields. For the United States, Andrés is a valuable partner because his gastronomic renown and his personal commitment to addressing development challenges make him a strong non-traditional advocate on development policy issues including the alleviation of hunger. In essence, his fame for haute cuisine can be leveraged to raise the profile of development issues (e.g. clean cookstoves) among audiences that may not be moved to action otherwise. For Spain, as his brand ambassador award suggests, Chef Andrés serves a simpler nation-branding
function by elevating the worldwide prestige of Spanish cuisine. These examples suggest that Andrés
has the very type of access which Professor Cooper says is the defining feature of celebrity diplomats, if perhaps at a lower level than Bono. Though Andrés is the most prominent example, numerous other chefs have developed similar relationships with government leaders that open the potential of their serving as diplomatic actors.
In the piece referenced above, Andrew Cooper concludes by saying “[t]he major questions will be whether the small cluster of top-tier celebrity diplomats will expand, and whether they will supplement their fresh sense of energy with a repertoire of enhanced substantive content.” Although he is best known for his avant-garde interpretations of Spanish cuisine, Andrés’ substantive efforts to combat global hunger and environmental degradation suggest that the expansion of celebrity diplomacy surrounding development policy issues may be starting with chefs.
by Kate Shriver
First, there was Gangam Style, the epic YouTube video by South Korean pop sensation Psy that swept the world in 2012 and currently has over one billion views, making it the most viewed YouTube video of all time. Anyone who was anyone made a spinoff or parody of their own.
Now, there is the Harlem Shake. Here’s the premise: in an approximately 30 second long video a single person dances for roughly 10-20 seconds on their own (usually in a mask or helmet of some sort) while everyone else around them carries on with their own business, essentially ignoring the lone dancer. When the music “drops,” the video cuts to everyone in the room dancing basically just any way they want, though it typically involves a lot of gyrating, hip thrusting and a variety of masks, costumes and other props. The accompanying music is by US artist Baauer—and depending on whom you ask—the initial video was posted in early February by a group of young men in Australia, or it was posted by these guys somewhere else.
In reality, the Harlem Shake in its first form was a dance that characterized the New York neighborhood of the same name in the 1980s. This information aside, the modern day Harlem Shake has taken off at lightning speed with hundreds of new versions posted to YouTube every day. The craze is starting to wind down in the US and the West, though the fad has not come without a few brushes with the authorities: in the US, the FAA is investigating an incident which involves posted Harlem Shake video that appeared to show the crazy dancing taking place on a plane that was in flight. There have been reports of students being suspended for filming their own versions in school. In Australia, a group of miners were fired and reportedly banned from all mine sites after authorities discovered their Harlem Shake video, which they apparently shot while on their work site—in a mine! One of the most popular versions, with over 50 million YouTube views, was created by members of the Norwegian Army who are featured dancing around in the snow after breaking formation.
While the meme may be wearing out its popularity in the West, it is just beginning to get going in the Middle East: Cecily Hilleary of Middle East Voices (A VOA powered initiative) has compiled a list of Middle Eastern countries where the dance craze has gone viral, from Algeria to Yemen. But it is in Tunisia and Egypt—the hotbeds of the Arab Spring—where the Harlem Shake meme is taking on new meaning. The dance seems to have morphed into a form of social protest against the respective governments who have, in response, cracked down hard on some of those who created the videos.
In Tunisia, where there has been a split between secularists and ultra conservative Salafis since the fall of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over 2 years ago, a group of students at a high school in Tunis filmed a version of the Harlem Shake in which some students danced in their underwear, dressed up as Salafis with fake beards, or as Gulf emirs (among other costumes). The provocative nature of the dancing caught the attention of the Salafis, who decried the video as indecent. Minister of Education Abdellatid Abid, angrily denounced the video as indecent also, and ordered an investigation of the school’s principal. Skirmishes have erupted elsewhere in Tunisia as conservative Muslims attempt to stop youth from partaking in other Harlem Shake videos—with one student in coastal Mahdia purportedly receiving 12 stitches on his head after being beaten in one such clash.
A video linked to the original Tunis high school Harlem Shake video is titled “The Harlem Shake: Attacked by Salafis Edition” which appears to show a schoolyard where students are about to do the dance, and are then attacked by Salafis. In some of the skirmishes the Salafists have reportedly shouted at the students “Our brothers in Palestine are being killed by Israelis, and you are dancing.”
Only a few days ago a mass protest/Harlem Shake dance was planned in Tunis in front of the Ministry of Education. Thousands said they would participate, but the rainy weather appeared to have dampened the turnout, with only a few dozen students taking part in the protest with shouts of “freedom, freedom.” In a Washington Post report, students stated their own reasons for participating in the dance: one said the dance represented a way to vent and take a break from the stresses of the past year, and another reported that he wanted to take advantage of the newfound freedoms thanks to the revolution after years of harassment and repression. In additional reporting on the mass protest, a student said he was there to make the minister of education understand that he cannot stop the dancing – “This policy of suppressing rebellious spirit is no longer acceptable.” The initial video and the backlash have only served to produce even more Harlem Shake videos, and the meme and its meaning continue to flourish in Tunisia.
In Egypt, where there are strict public indecency laws, four pharmaceutical students were arrested after posting a video of themselves doing the dance semi-naked in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood. Students in Egypt have also posted videos of the Harlem Shake being done in front of the Pyramids (it is unclear whether the Pyramid video is the same one that resulted in the arrests).
Following the arrests of the four students, somewhere between 70 and 400 protesters showed up outside
the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo to stage a Harlem Shake dance/protest. The dance was organized to be a peaceful protest of the ruling party and President Mohammed Morsi, and a lighthearted moment in an Egypt that is still reeling from its transformation. A unique twist in the Egypt story: a member of the Muslim Brotherhood created his own Harlem Shake video in response to the protest, in which he and other people wear masks featuring the faces of opposition party members. The video has apparently since been taken down.
What is particularly interesting about the way the Harlem Shake is being used in Egypt, is that the protest outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters was organized by a newly formed group called “The Satiric Revolutionary Struggle” which has
its own Facebook page with over 1,000 likes. The Verge reports that the group was started by 17 year old Mahmoud Tabei and three of his friends so that they could work on making political statements through humorous demonstrations. Tabei said that he had seven friends who died in the Arab Spring violence in Egypt and that another of the aims of the newly formed group is to raise morale and “refresh minds.” The next event the group is working on is a marathon that will start at the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (the party of deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak), and end at the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters. The Verge writes that “it’s a path meant to symbolize Egypt’s political trajectory from Mubarak to Morsi. Its message, according to Tabei, should be clear: ‘They are the same. Nothing has changed.’”
So what does all of this mean for cultural public diplomacy? It appears that the Harlem Shake meme was an inadvertent export of Western culture (particularly U.S. culture) that hit the Middle East and transformed from something that was initially fun and lighthearted, into something more meaningful and useful to politically active youth, especially in Egypt and Tunisia.
Can the US government or an NGO or another some other PD actor harness the power and popularity of the meme in any way? Perhaps a rapid response digital media team at the State Department could message words of support for the dancers citing freedom of expression? It certainly doesn’t look good for the either the Tunisian government or the Egyptian government to crack down violently on the dancers, so that is something that the State department could monitor and then respond to if necessary.
It could also be true that this type of super fast social media movement is impossible to control or use in any way for cultural diplomacy. It seems that in the ever important short/mid/long term goals of public diplomacy, and particularly cultural diplomacy, that this sort of meme presents an “instant” goal of some sort—something that can be recognized and addressed.
Where a real opportunity lies is with the newly formed Satiric Revolutionary Struggle group founded by an Egyptian teenager and his friends. This is a group with robust backing on Facebook, and something that could be assisted with support from the USG directly, perhaps through a program that brings comedy troupes or political satirists from the US to Cairo to teach the group some of the “tricks of the trade.” Or an NGO or other organization could reach out to the group and show them similar skills they could use, as well as other popular media they could use in order to satirize the government. It is obviously still quite risky to criticize the government in Egypt, so the newly formed group should also receive training on how to avoid conflict, etc.
Perhaps the most important point to consider in this case is the US and its foreign policy remain largely unpopular in much of the Middle East—so any overt help given by the USG could be outright rejected, or worse: it could be seen as foreign meddling likely to result in a total shut down of whatever initiative it was trying to assist with in the first place. Thus the name of the game is “indirectness” – assistance in the form of things the group may actually want or need (e.g. a good piece of technological equipment to assist with video production or editing).
Sure, the Harlem Shake is probably not a highlight of US culture that the government would choose to export: it is not a gem like jazz or classical dance or paintings. But it is something that has a wide appeal to a huge youth population in the still evolving Middle East, and it is something the USG could potentially use to provide “helping” public diplomacy.
Kate Shriver is a graduate student in the International Affairs program at the George Washington University with a focus on the Middle East.
The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication. The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions.
By Rebecca Woodward
The recent presidential elections in Kenya served as a platform to showcase mobile technology as a medium for transparent and fair processes in a country troubled by election violence and fraud in the recent past. There are roughly six billion mobile phones in the world, in Kenya over 75% of the population uses cell-phones, so drawing upon technology already in use as a tool for institutional accountability is a logical choice. Much has been said and written about the Obama administration’s approach to digital government, and it has mostly revolved around former Secretary of State Clinton’s plan for 21st century statecraft. This novel approach of Government using technology as the building blocks and foundation to reach out and connect with friends and (not-so-friendly) partners, has meant rethinking many of the tenets of diplomacy up until now.
The U.S. State Department has developed several programs, which have revolutionized traditional diplomacy; among them is TechCamp, which is a program within the Civil Society 2.0 initiative. Since 2010, there have been over 15 TechCamps held all over the world, from Santiago (Chile) to Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), aimed at educating civil societies around the world providing them with stronger technology skills, which in turn will lead to more transparent governments and empowered citizens, ultimately strengthening democratic institutions.
Other countries have similar initiatives using technology as a key component of their diplomacy toolkit, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), for example, has a wide array of programs across the world which use basic SMS to request service from government agencies, report service interruptions or lack of service in order to keep governments accountable. In the U.S., organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), among others have been active in democracy promotion for many years, and as technology has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, it has also become part of their programs. More recently, organizations such as Code for America have begun expanding internationally to partner with local governments worldwide to provide them with the tools and insights needed to bring technology to their citizens.
The TechCamp initiative differentiates itself from other organizations in that it brings together people from varying socio-economic backgrounds around technology, whereas NDI or SIDA bring technology to specific groups with common interests (teachers, economists). TechCamp reflects the values of 21st Century Statecraft touted by the Obama administration: openness, transparency, and engagement. TechCamp reflects these values in its entire organization; the website provides “TechCamp in a box,” which includes all the tools needed to start a TechCamp, the planning process, as well as solutions which are documented (both in English and other languages) through TechCamp Wiki.
Through TechCamp, the U.S. is not only sharing cultural norms and values (including the Harlem Shake), but is also establishing valuable ties and on-going relationships with the future decision makers around the world. Finally, the recent TechCamp in Philadelphia is an interesting addition to the TechCamp curriculum. Having the domestic component could be interpreted as a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is not just exporting the program without applying it at home, but also to showcase work being done overseas by the State Department to U.S. taxpayers.
Countries using culture and diplomacy to advance democracy abroad, such as the U.S., need to take advantage of their privileged positions with regards to access to technology, communication channels and international presence. The U.S. could focus on strengthening the programs it has started to develop over the last four years and incorporate them into its diplomatic toolkit for future democracy promotion around the world. Programs such as TechCamp need to multiply at every level, promoting a grassroots approach to technology. As NGO’s move forward with successful results using technology platforms to promote transparency and civil society engagement; at the state level, cases such as Kenya illustrate the many uses technology can have in promoting democracy worldwide.
Rebecca Woodward is a graduate student in the Global Communication program at the George Washington University with a focus on Communication and Information Technology.
The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication. The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions.