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Digital Diplomacy’s Reach and Risk


The recent Twitter row between the United States and Egypt triggered a number of issues – freedom of expression; the role of media in modern societies; the balance between diplomacy and public diplomacy; between interests and values, both ours and theirs; and the ability to communicate not just governments but populations using traditional channels and social media. It represents a great teachable moment, for students (and professors) of public diplomacy and practitioners as well.

To briefly recap, the Morsi government (along with conservative elements within Egyptian society) has been cracking down on more and more political speech. The U.S. expressed concern privately, and then publicly following the detention of political satirist Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart. Everything got amped up when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, perhaps the most aggressive user of social media within the Department of State, tweeted a link to a segment about Youssef’s arrest by the real Jon Stewart.

The Egyptian government blasted back, on Twitter no less, criticizing the Embassy for its “negative political propaganda.” Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party piled on, calling the offending tweet “undiplomatic & unwise.”

The Embassy’s Twitter account was taken down, the link to the Jon Stewart removed and then brought back on line. The Egyptian government claims American Ambassador Anne Patterson apologized for the incident. The State Department has tried to say as little as possible about the whole flap, but apparently sees the posting of the Stewart clip as a mistake.

What should we make of all of this?

In Egypt’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, it is hardly surprising that political Islam and civil society are struggling to comfortably co-exist. The Morsi government claims it was not responsible for Youssef’s detention, although someone in authority was. Beyond government, under Egyptian law, anyone can sue over perceived offensive speech. Just this week, an Egyptian court dismissed a lawsuit by an Islamist lawyer that would have forced Youssef’s show off air. After his release, Youssef resumed his broadcast, seemingly unbowed.

Clearly, a necessary debate within Egypt and across the Arab world about democracy, the evolution of political Islam and the development of inclusive and tolerant civil societies is underway.

Bassem Youssef

The United States has been drawn into this debate, significantly through Twitter and Facebook. For example, Embassy Cairo has engaged Egyptians of all stripes on these issues. They are all unhappy with the United States, but for different reasons, believing Washington has been too lenient on Morsi, too critical, or should have no opinion at all.

Spend some time on the Embassy Twitter feed, @USEmbassyCairo, and you see what digital public diplomacy can do. Its tweets are engaging, candid and direct. Some samples:

  • “It is part of normal ‪#diplomacy to voice our view and encourage actions.”
  • “Just talking straight with you.”
  • “We believe that when diplomats use Twitter, they should be frank, casual, and dare we say even witty on occasion.”

In the past, such conversations would occur in quiet settings involving mostly government officials and policy elites. Now exchanges are out in the open, with newly empowered citizens offering their views and hoping for a genuine dialogue.

If this is the future of public diplomacy, Embassy Cairo is a trendsetter. Its recent experience demonstrates both the potential and the risk regarding how it is employed. Social media have greatly expanded public diplomacy’s reach, where actions and reactions can quickly take on broader political and social significance.

Embassy Cairo knows this better than anyone. Last September, an attempt to mitigate Egyptian outcry (and aggressive demonstrations) over an obscure American video perceived as being disrespectful of Islam became an issue in the American presidential campaign.

What are the public diplomacy lessons in this latest case?

There was a “practice what we preach” aspect to The Daily Show link. Stewart pokes fun at both Democratic and Republican political figures. Stewart highlights Egyptian contributions to modern society. He commends Morsi for assurances that political speech will be protected. He reminds that critics love their country every bit as much as leaders.

That said, it was probably inappropriate for the Embassy to link to the segment on its Twitter feed. Stewart calls Morsi a “crazy guy.” It’s inevitable that many would view it as official agreement.

While edgy works, this went too far, an “in your face” action at a sensitive time when the new Egyptian government was likely to overreact to any perceived slight.

But once the tweet was out there, connecting to publicly available content, the Embassy compounded its first mistake by removing the link. The Ambassador’s private apology with a pledge to avoid a repeat in the future was all that was needed. The removal sent precisely the wrong message that objectionable speech can and should be curtailed, a point Egypt made repeatedly during last September’s film controversy.

The retreat also sends the wrong message to the State Department’s global communicators. Ambassadors and public diplomats should be fully engaged in the vigorous debate about the critical issues of the day, not on the sidelines where it’s safe. They should be pushing the envelope, even if it means going over the line once in a while.

While integrating transformational technology into U.S. public diplomacy programs, mistakes inevitably will be made. How organizations react says a lot about what lessons will be learned.


Harlem Shake: Arab Spring Protest Edition

Activists against Egyptian President Mursi perform the "Harlem Shake" in front of the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo

by Kate Shriver

Gangnam StyleFirst, 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.

Harlem ShakeIn 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.

Tunisia screen grabIn 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.

Huffpost screen grab 1In 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.

Satiric Revolutionary Struggle FB page

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.

huffpost screen grab 2Where 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. 

Democracy and 21st Century Statecraft

Tallying election results with the aid of cellphones in Kenya

Tallying election results with the aid of cellphones in Kenya

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.

TechCamp imageThe 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.

TechCamp Mumbai Tries Out the Harlem Shake

TechCamp Mumbai tries out the Harlem Shake

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. 

21st Century Visual Culture, NGOs, and Public Diplomacy


An early Christmas present arrived in the mail today – a new book called Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism (Meg McLagan and Yates McKee, eds., Zone Books, 2012.)

The “visual culture of nongovernmental activism” seems like an important topic for U.S. public diplomacy practitioners to consider.  Even though public diplomacy isn’t exactly nongovernmental, neither does it 100 women initiativerepresent the prevailing governing power of the countries in which public diplomats work.   And in “making the case for America” in those foreign lands, we are very much activist, vying for attention along with non-governmental (and other-governmental) efforts of every stripe.   We may ally ourselves enthusiastically with some causes, for example women’s empowerment.  We may argue against others, for example restrictions on free speech deemed blasphemous.  But we are always one voice among many, without the authority (however defined or felt) that a government body carries in its own country.

And of course, one of public diplomacy’s key resources is visual culture.   From the first great expansion of Amerika the last issueU.S. public diplomacy during the Cold War period, the U.S. looked for ways to make visual our ideas, our values, our culture.  Jazz Ambassadors did not tour just so people could hear their music; these mega-stars were sent abroad so that their photos would be on the front page of every newspaper, perhaps shaking the hand of a prime minister or jamming with local musicians.  Jeeps and trucks carried USIS officers to remote areas with movies and portable generator-run projectors.  Every month USIS distributed glossy color-photo magazines in Russian, Arabic, Spanish, French, and other languages.  U.S. cultural centers were and are full of posters, photographs – even décor – supporting our particular “cause,” i.e., America itself.  With the advent of satellite television in the 1980’s, USIA under Charles Wick eagerly embraced the opportunity to engage via this new medium.   Interestingly, the first and most prominent use of USIA’s “Worldnet” television was to bring together multi-country audiences in mutual discussion and debate.

In the past couple of decades, non-governmental and civil society organizations have proliferated across the globe.  In wealthier countries, philanthropy and sometimes government grants provided support.  In the developing world, international donors channeled development assistance funds to and through such A scene from %22Soul City%22 TVgroups.  Even before the Internet became widely accessible, NGOs expressed their activism visually, via photography, posters, videos, theater.  Some development agencies ventured deep into visual culture territory, funding local NGO partners to produce films and television programs designed to promote positive actions such as conflict resolution or combating HIV/AIDS.  Non-governmental organizations around the world became sophisticated in working with visual culture.  Under-funded public diplomacy organizations have felt the pressure.

Today, we all continue to be amazed at the impact and promise of digital media.  Digital and social media The Uprising of Women in the Arab World logomost certainly multiply our ability to communicate, but they expand the opportunity exponentially to those who may not have much in the way of funds, but who do have the passion, energy, and creativity to produce powerful images that draw us to their message.  In this significantly more crowded visual-culture landscape, the U.S. will likely continue to focus on innovative ways to maintain our profile and to partner with other visual-culture organizations to tell America’s story.  But this new book is a reminder that in the 21st century, communicating “who we are” is losing ground to communicating “what must change” — with real implications for public diplomacy.

In any case, it’s exciting when a book provokes so much thought via the title alone.  And now I see that already on  p. 14 there’s a discussion of Walter Benjamin on the “’aestheticizing of politics’ by fascism” in the 1930’s, which somehow got me thinking about the global reach of U.S. consumer culture and how this also shapes the landscape in which we public diplomacy practitioners work.  Sounds like a topic for a future blog post!

Everybody’s Talking About World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day – celebrated today, May 3, with the centerpiece UNESCO event held in Carthage, Tunisia – is one of those global phenomena, like soccer, that seizes Americans only peripherally.  Yes, the main event last year was held in New York, and yes, U.S. organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists release key reports on the occasion, but by and large the day comes and goes here in the U.S. without much fanfare.  Through the wisdom of our founding fathers and much vigilance and hard work by journalists, editors, and publishers since that time, U.S. press freedom is secure.  But this is by no means the case everywhere, and therefore World Press Freedom Day becomes an important opportunity – and sometimes an all-too-necessary excuse – for renewed discussion of media freedom issues in countries around the world.  The U.S. government, through its Embassies overseas, is an active participant in these discussions.

President Barack Obama’s statement on World Press Freedom Day 2012 makes U.S. principles and commitment clear, as does the video statement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  But U.S. Embassies overseas also actively seize the opportunity of World Press Freedom Day to reinforce American support for the principle and practice of media freedom.  Many Embassies develop and promote creative opportunities for local journalists and editors to speak out.   More on that below.

When the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, it outlined the following goals:
–     to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom
–     to assess the state of press freedom worldwide
–     to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom
–     to encourage reflection among media professionals about press freedom and professional ethics
–     to mobilize support for media that are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom
–     to remember journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession

UNESCO’s selection of Tunisia as the site of this year’s World Press Freedom Day ceremony reinforces its key theme for 2012: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies, summarized here:  “the recent uprisings in some Arab states have highlighted the power of media and the human quest for media freedom, as well as underlining the fact that social inequalities will indefinitely search for equilibrium, in order to address those inequalities. Could the Arab Spring have taken place without the proliferation of social media or satellite TV? [Text messaging] and social media have enabled the diffusion of vital information to reach the widest number of people in a very short span of time. Social media have enabled protesters to self-organize, and have engaged the global youth in the fight to be able to freely express themselves and the aspirations of their wider communities.”

U.S. Embassies are making the most of this opportunity to reinforce American principles and policies in support of press freedom.   Here is just a small sampling — from Angola to Surinam (both this and this), to Pakistan (via YouTube and Facebook); from the Philippines (through a new partnership with the Philippine Press Institute), to an op-ed by a State Department official that was shared via this all-Africa digital media outlet, picked up in Namibia, and tweeted by All-Africa news website Co-founder and Chairman Amadou Mahtar Ba; from an upcoming Twitter Q&A in Rwanda, to a seminar in Luxembourg, and this U.S. Ambassadorial initiative reported in Kyrgyzstan.

World Press Freedom Day is also an important occasion for the UN, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other global organizations to recognize journalists who are “targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom” — in other words, journalists who have been intimidated, persecuted, jailed, or even killed because pf their work.

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, through its website, also highlights compelling and emblematic cases of journalists who are imprisoned or living under threats, among them Reyot Alemu (left) of Ethiopia, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2011.

As the UN General Assembly of 1993 intended, May 3 has become an occasion in most countries for journalists and editors to sit down, sometimes with government officials, to discuss and debate press freedom issues of local concern.  Not infrequently, governments use the occasion to reinforce their own perspectives on the need for restraints and limits on press freedom – or (per our recent blog post Fear and Loathing in Development Journalism) to define journalists’ role in the country’s development.  This debate around media responsibilities vs. media freedom is discussed explicitly or implicitly in many local news stories on World Press Freedom Day, including in this revealing sample of pieces from Uganda,  Nigeria,  Sri Lanka,  IndiaGuyana. and Ghana.

Press freedom is an issue for every day, not just for May 3.  But World Press Freedom Day is a vitally important opportunity to get people talking about what is happening in their countries and what needs to change.  And public diplomacy to promote press freedom is one of the most important kinds of public diplomacy there is.

Is Subversive Diplomacy the Right Path?

After reading Fergus Hanson’s article in Foreign Policy, I have mixed feelings on the State Department’s campaign to use social networking and the Internet as a possible way of “subtly undermining repressive regimes.”  While it is great that social networking is being embraced, I am not sure if this is exactly the way to do it.  This is especially the case when it is being used in countries that we are supposed to have a partnership with.  It seems to me that undermining the regime may be undermining the partnership as well.  On the other hand, social media is a very powerful tool and a way to avoid using force by giving empowerment to a country’s citizens.  It helps build civil society and give like-minded people the tools they need to work towards government change and promote democracy.  It is a very fine line between using social media as empowerment and over-stepping your ground and risking your diplomatic relationship with the country.

Evgeny Morozov believes that Internet freedom will lead to countries imposing more restrictions.

Internet freedom is something that is lauded in our country, but in the regimes that the U.S. is using these new tactics in, this freedom could have very high costs.  An empowered citizen, aided by U.S. Government tools, could be caught and prosecuted or even killed.  While the United States is using the Internet as democracy promotion, it could turn into what Evgeny Morozov concludes: Internet freedom will lead to countries imposing more and more restrictions and thus making citizens worse off.  This is not the goal of the State Department’s efforts and it would be highly unfortunate to see something that is intended to be positive go in the opposite direction.

Projects like the Open Technology Initiative and InTheClear are two very positive initiatives that have some great future possibilities. OTI, by the New America Foundation, allows people to maintain communication when the Internet is under government shut down, and InTheClear allows people to erase data from their phones if necessary.  These projects can help those against a repressive regime in times of crisis and seem to be less tied to country partnerships and possibly makes citizens less vulnerable to attack.

In the end, the direction of the initiative is positive because it takes into account the realities that activists are moving online and that the Internet is a cost-effective mechanism for giving access to those who lack it, but it still raises questions about the legality of it all, the potential for diplomatic consequences, and the true impact it is going to have on citizens and their repressive regimes.

Learning Public Diplomacy in Europe — China: Still Center of Controversy


In Paris, whenever I’m asked where I am from, I have difficulty in giving a short answer. I am a Chinese national, which is apparent from my Asian face, but I’m also on exchange to a French university from an American graduate school.  For many, however,  the fact that I’m studying public diplomacy (PD) in France, a fancy new subject that is coined by an American is more confusing than my trajectory of school life.

Here I am in Paris, attending a class called “Public diplomacy and international communication”. Unlike in the Elliott School where my classmates were mostly either from Asia or the US, here in my public diplomacy class in Sciences Po (Paris), the classroom is composed of students from all over the world including India, Canada, Columbia, Nigeria, France, Britain, the US, China, etc.

The benefit of a diverse class background is that I can always hear an insider explaining the public diplomacy of his or her country, as well as their views on China. These opinions, which arise in almost every class and form a fierce debate afterwards, however, have shocked me from time to time.

Controversy #1: “PD in a non-democracy never works.”

My first day of the class started with the comment “PD in a non-democracy never works” from an American classmate. I was sitting in the front row, blushed and shocked. I didn’t take it personally, but I was quite disappointed that in later classes, this sentiment was expressed repeatedly among my classmates.

When we covered the practice of nation branding in PD, the Olympics in Beijing was cited as an example. A Canadian classmate then negated China’s Olympics showbiz with reference to China dubbing the voice of the girl who sang a nationally reputed song. I was surprised to realize that for an emerging power like China, whenever it tries hard to prove itself, people in the west will still link its action with the governing ideology. Under such circumstances, they will be most easily impressed with the scandal the smears China’s entire image. Hence, China’s display of its ancient culture is swamped under such mindset.

Controversy #2: China + Syria = China’s failure in PD

Right after China vetoed the UN resolution to request the Syrian president to resign, every time I walked in the 13th quartier in Paris which is full of Arabs, I was afraid I would be kidnapped. This fear converts to the anxiety of being attacked verbally in my PD class. Neither of these happened, but China and Syria was constantly brought up in the class as well as the French media.

Once we had Bernard Kouchner as a guest speaker, who was the former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, who is certainty furious at how “our friend China” has obstructed the French active negotiation to pass the resolution on Syria, and under this comparison, China is easily depicted as the irresponsible, self-interested power. I’m not defending China’s stance here, but I have to point out that the fact that the world lacks knowledge about why China is against international action against Syria IS an example of China’s failure in public diplomacy.

Comics on China and Russia vetoing UN resolution on Syria France 24, the French international news channel. Retrieved on 03/03/2012. 

Though this is quite sad, I have found that people regardless of their nationality have formed their opinions on current affairs based on media coverage. Criticism against China is prevailing in the western media, while China’s voice of defense is usually ignored or given limited coverage. In fact, every non-Chinese I have talked to has a duplicated mindset of what’s on the media, that is, China is letting civilians dying in Syria while holding its vested geopolitical interests. In the United Nations, every country has been acting on behalf of itself, while concerned with the safety of others in the world. Do the western powers like France, which has been trying to reestablish itself internationally and the US have no individual agenda in mind?

I try to explain things in China to my classmates when they express hostile opinions. Their overwhelmingly negative evaluation of China is due to China’s Communist root (usually perceived as contrary to democracy), one-party system, and the lack of a strong, credible international media. As an exchange student studying abroad, I myself is part of the practice of public diplomacy. And at present, I’m enjoying my role that transcends Chinese media such as CCTV (China Central Television) English and the 24-hour English Channel CNC (China Xinhua News Network Corporation) who are perceived to be propagandists among those who have heard of them.

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