Social Media

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5 things to remember when doing digital diplomacy


Global communication concept

On October 3, the State Department held a conference on Diplomacy and digital/mobile media. On the last panel of the day, I spoke on how Public Diplomacy professionals use digital media in the developing world.

The Department has many different bureaus, offices and people involved in the use of digital media. We have websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, SMS, Youtube videos, and a multitude of other tools and platforms. We deploy these tools abroad via Public Diplomacy/Public Affairs offices at our embassies to listen, inform, engage and dialogue with foreign publics in support of a wide array of foreign policy goals and strategies.

Our communication is intended to inform and open discussion with these publics regarding our policies – possibly to be favorably disposed on an issue, to work with us in partnership, or to be influenced in some way that is favorable to our strategic interests or American values. Digital media has allowed us to bypass traditional media and carry our message directly to millions – even billions – of people around the world.

Field practitioners of public diplomacy, like myself, often debate how much and when to use digital media – and with what audiences. Whether providing information or content leads to influencing, empowering or transforming our audiences; whether the medium fits the message or the audience. Whether we are credible on Twitter or regarded as propagandists. Whether we will ever be seen as honest listeners if our policies or statements do not adapt and change to the expectations of those providing content and feedback.

We angst over how we can fit the digital tools into a whole strategy of communication that includes traditional press activities, academic exchanges, speaker programs or one-on-one meetings. We also wonder how we can keep the spontaneity of digital/social media in an institution where communications are not spontaneous – where they must be carefully crafted, debated, scrutinized, cleared – and sometimes miss the rapidly moving window of opportunity that digital media dictates.

Digital media allows us to reach larger audiences and broader spectrums of societies. It facilitates online discussion and debate. It allows for crisis messaging. However, we should be realistic of the challenges we face in many countries in using digital media to reach audiences.

First, digital/mobile media is infrastructure dependent. Countries around the world vary widely in the penetration, use and control of digital media. The Pew Research Center did a global study in 2013 and in general, the statistics showed that Internet use correlated with income levels. Most users were under 35 years of age. Some countries and regions had low penetration: Iraq 8%, Afghanistan 6%, Liberia 4.3%.

Smart phone ownership in many countries was very low: Pakistan 3%, Uganda 4%, Egypt 23%. Of course Europe, the Gulf, the U.S. were high. And – in my experience, literacy rates also influence digital media use. The issue that we face in communicating with publics in critically strategic countries is monumental.

Second, interactive media is intended to be interactive. When we send but do not engage, third party actors or mediators then influence or skew the interaction. Twitter is a good example of how credible “names” become the brokers of truth. Or, if we never respond, the user thinks we do not care to listen to them.

Third, digital media is anonymous and therefore entities can lie about who they really are, mimic and pretend to be someone else, or actively seek to cause mischief. We then spend a lot of time explaining that “we did not say that” when that is not our Twitter feed or website!

Fourth, in societies where personal, social interaction leads to trust, anonymous communicators (even if representing a government) are often distrusted. And in countries where media and governments regularly withhold information, or where rumors and conspiracies are credible… communications from the U.S. embassy often hold little credibility. Pew also published a project on “social media and the spiral of silence” that noted that people were less willing to discuss controversial topics on social media than in person.

Fifth, digital media is labor intensive. It requires 24/7 monitoring and maintenance in a world that never sleeps.

So digital media is a tool. The question is, do we want to use it to listen/analyze, inform, engage, or carry on a dialogue? And which one of these purposes will actually influence public opinion or lead to action. How can we choose the most effective tool for the audience of the purpose? How can we remain one step ahead of the technology curve in a given region of the world.

Lots of questions and food for debate.


Social Media in Public Diplomacy: Twitter and DC Embassies Part 2


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.


Twitter followers embassies

Most and Least Followers- Twitter Accounts and Just Embassies

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). 

Which embassies follow each other?

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.

  1. British Embassy
  2. Embassy of Poland US
  3. Netherlands Embassy
  4. Finland Embassy DC
  5. Embassy of Israel
  6. French Embassy U.S.
  7. German Embassy
  8. Embassy of Greece
  9. Embassy of Venezuela
  10. Norway in the U.S.

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.

Twitter Follower Network

Twitter Follower Networks

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.

Group of followers that follow more than 10 embassies


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.


So What Does This All Mean?

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.

For example,

  • Do the people that follow each other actually interact or is it simply a matter of following?
  • Are followers impacted by the messages from the people they follow?
  • Are followers actually even reading anything that is tweeted from these accounts?
  • Would it have greater meaning to consider only information that is re-tweeted or contains an @mention, as these at least indicate a level of interaction (however small)?
  • How can the activity of an embassy be analyzed across multiple platforms?

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.

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. 

The Discussion of Internet Freedom Takes Center Stage in 2013


By Amelie Barratt

John Kerry’s first official tweet as the new Secretary of State will be interesting to keep in mind as we watch him navigate the Internet in his new role. Although Hillary Clinton did not tweet while holding the position, she is recognized for drastically enhancing the State Department’s commitment to outreach and public diplomacy in particular.

Kerry Tweet

The ability to reach millions through social media makes Internet freedom a top priority for the United States, seen not only as a desirable policy, but as an extension of basic human rights. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor within the U.S. Department of State defines it specifically as “an aspect of the universal rights of freedom of expression and the free flow of information.”

Today and tomorrow, the State Department is hosting Tech@State, a convention with its theme this year focusing on the use of technology to enhance and expand Internet freedom. The event, held at the George Washington University in Washington DC, will consist of panel discussions among key thinkers in the realm of Internet and how its freedom can enhance diplomacy worldwide.

Also of note is the upcoming Fifth World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum organized by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The three-day event from May 14 to 16, which will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, will create an environment where experts and policy makers can “exchange views on the key policy issues arising from today’s fast changing information and communication technology (ICT) environment.” Some hesitation among Internet freedom activists surrounds the event as many countries requested international regulation on Internet use at the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), held in Dubai, UAE, leaving activists worried that regulatory measures could lead to government overreach.

With all these events lined up in the near future one can’t help but ask who exactly the audience is. Are policymakers truly the top tier and the only ones in need of inclusion? How could public, and more specifically, cultural diplomacy enhance these events? Cultural programs and student exchanges in the past have proven to be very effective in bridging gaps where nations are at odds, bringing publics together to work towards a common goal, in this case, Internet freedom. Perhaps this issue could use some help from public and cultural diplomacy practitioners to win the hearts and minds of those in need of convincing of the possibly great outcomes of Internet freedom.

The recently proposed Global Internet Freedom Act by Rep. Zoe Lofgren is interesting to take into account which would operate as a task force, monitoring “both the U.S. and other countries that deny market access to Internet goods and services or threaten the technical operation, security and free flow of communications on the Internet.” And although not specifically mentioned, conferences such as the WCIT would be among the types of events monitored by this proposed legislation.

Internet freedom is clearly a discussion that is recognized among many states but still remains a topic in need of much advancement. The overarching question of whether or not government should be involved in regulating the use of Internet seems to cause a visible divide between nations who perceive this freedom as a threat and those who associate it with positive growth. 2013 will be the year to watch as the discussion on Internet use continues on all levels.

Amelie Barratt is a graduate student at the George Washington University where she is working towards her degree in Global Communication with a focus on Public Diplomacy. She currently works at the U.S Department of State in the Office of Children’s Issues.

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. 

How Does Cultural Diplomacy Communicate? Let Me Count the Ways

U.S. senior diplomat Robert Jackson and Casablanca high school research team at Rabat Environment Eair, 2010

Opportunities to Engage: U.S. senior diplomat Robert Jackson with Casablanca high school research team members (Morocco’s Earth Day Network Fair, 2010)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who delivered the annual Walter Roberts Lecture at George Washington University last Thursday, comes from a serious press and media background.  She is the recipient of 10 News Emmy Awards and other awards in journalism for broadcast programs on domestic and international issues.  She has also worked as strategic communications adviser to Internews and the International Women’s Media Foundation, among a number of other international organizations.

TS pink suitSo it was all the more striking how prominently cultural diplomacy featured in her comments last Thursday, just as it does in many of her other communications — including the U.S. public diplomacy highlights she publishes every few weeks.

This is a reminder that the Under Secretary recognizes and embraces the fact that cultural programming IS communication.  It is an essential diplomatic tool that enables the U.S. to persuade influential people to listen to us with an open mind; allows us to share knowledge and skills with potential international partners and allies; and helps us attract positive attention via mass media and digital media.

As Harvard scholar Joeph Nye has noted, the scarcest information resource in the 21st Century is likely to be the audience’s attention span.  Here in the U.S., despite the plethora of contemporary media distractions, most citizens still pay some attention to what our own government says, because we know it might affect us directly, and also because we conceive of every citizen having a watchdog role.   Certainly U.S. journalists see scrutiny of government as an obligation.

cross cultural iceberg

THE ICEBERG MODEL This graphic shows why direct messaging – via print or audio-visual media – can so easily fail to reach its target.

But it would be a mistake to think that official U.S. statements and policy explanations get even the modest automatic hearing abroad that they do at home.   People are certainly interested in what the U.S. is up to, but they have a host of non-U.S. sources for that information that are more familiar to them, more trusted, and frequently more accommodating to their preconceptions.

Overseas, it takes creativity and insight to increase the chances that people will listen to U.S. officials with an open mind, and be prepared to respond accordingly.

This is why public diplomacy practitioners know that cultural programming is increasingly vital to the achievement of foreign policy goals.  Some cultural programs serve as the proverbial “picture worth a thousand words,” projecting the essence of American policies, principles, and values via local mass media and fast-growing new digital media.  Some cultural programming works as a powerful teaching tool to help influential people abroad understand (if not necessarily accept) both U.S. foreign affairs priorities and fundamental American principles.

More fundamentally, cultural programming fosters relationships and understanding between foreign officials and U.S. diplomats who will be called on, sooner or later, to work on contentious issues across the table from one other.  It helps sustain generalized affinities even as individuals come and go in the diplomatic service.  And it helps connect the real global communicators of the 21st century:  journalists, activists, scholars, researchers, teachers, writers, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, as well as young people just joining the conversation.

The following recent U.S. public diplomacy highlights show the variety of ways in which cultural programming communicates.  These highlights, published in January by the Office of the Under Secretary, are here sorted into three categories:  Talking, Teaching, and Spreading the Word.

1)  Talking — recognizing the people who are (or are likely to become) influential, and bringing them together across borders for focused and purposeful exchange of ideas.

  • Alumnus Hassen Ould Ahmed was recently appointed Deputy Director of Mauritania’s Cabinet.  Ahmed was a 2008-2009 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at Penn State University.  Meanwhile, Armenian political magazine De Facto named Edmon Marukyan, an alumnus of the Hubert H. Humphrey Program 2010 and previously the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), “Member of Parliament of the Year.” Marukyan was elected to parliament in spring 2012.  
  • Public Affairs Section Jerusalem hosted Oberlin College Professor of History Dr. Gary Kornblith, who spoke on American democracy at An-Najah University, Birzeit University, and Al Quds Open University.  Dr. Kornblith also discussed the possibility of establishing an American Studies Program at the universities, meeting with university staff and academics at an Embassy reception designed to nurture cultural dialogue and advance the pursuit of American Studies.
  • At Rich Mix, East London (U.K.), playwright Wajahat Ali participated in an evening monologue and discussion with members of the Muslim arts community. The event attracted artists, writers, students and community leaders, including many women.  An accomplished Muslim-American writer and an engaging speaker, Mr. Ali is comfortable with both his American and his Muslim identities, and there was much discussion about the contrast between American and British Muslims on that topic.
  • xborders gamesOn January 5-6, while India and Pakistan faced each other on the cricket pitch, teams of exchange program alumni from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh engaged in the xBorder Games.  Using social media tools like Google+, Storify, and Twitter, two teams comprised of alumni from each country competed in a digital scavenger hunt.  The xBorder Games connected 45 alumni separated by geographic, cultural, and linguistic lines, created new friendships, and increased cross-cultural understanding.  U.S. Embassies Islamabad, New Delhi and Dhaka organized the event.
  • Paralympian and Fulbright Scholar Yevgeniy Tetyukhin spoke about disability policy to an audience of special education teachers and administrators at the University of Guam.  A professor, two-time Paralympian, and lifelong disability advocate, Tetyukhin is spending a year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center on Disability Studies, researching disability policy in the context of globalization and multicultural diversity.
  • Unconventional artists and activists narrate their own stories on a new VOA program that seeks to connect underground communities in Iran and the rest of the world.  The twice-monthly TV and web program called ZirZameen is produced by Voice of America’s Persian Service and is available in both English and Farsi editions.  The show, hosted by Mehrnoush Karimian, premiered in December and is available on social media sites, the VOA Persian satellite stream and on Livestation, a 24/7 Internet streaming platform.
  • The U.S. Ambassador to Korea hosted a New Year’s party for the Embassy’s online friends.  Out of 35,000 people who follow the post’s various social media accounts, a diverse group of 20 were invited based on their online activity. The Ambassador blogged about the party, and the Embassy will post an “Ask the Ambassador” YouTube video highlighting the event.  The Ambassador will continue this type of online-offline engagement with innovative netizens in the future.

2)  Teaching — transferring knowledge and skills that are essential in civic life, political life, and international relations.  Cultural programming promotes retention and “useability” of new knowledge through dialogue, debate, and learning-by-doing.  Two-way knowledge transfer and “paying know-how  forward” are frequent outcomes of cultural programming.

  • Pilarani Phiri from Zodiak Broadcasting radio station in Malawi – a participant in the State Department Foreign Press Center’s (FPC) 2012 Elections program for visiting journalists – reported that he Malawi journo interviews presidentsecured the first live phone interview with a Malawian president as a result of his U.S. program experience.  In his words: “one thing I learned while covering the elections is that the American President is always scrutinized by the public.  Immediately I arrived home I got in touch with our ‘White House’ to have the President answer questions from the public.  I am proud to announce that on December 31, I was the first Malawian journalist to have a live phone interview with the President where people posed questions to [him], a thing that has never happened before in my country.”
  • For four months, hundreds of Indonesian English teachers gathered every Saturday morning to take part in the series “Shaping the Way We Teach English,” taught by the [U.S. Embassy] Regional English Language Officer and English Language Fellows.  The teachers came to @america [the high-tech American Center] in Jakarta or participated via digital link from the Consulate in Medan and the American Corner in Yogyakarta.
  • U.S. Embassy Kampala’s Information Officer gave a presentation at the “Writing Our World” (WOW) workshop at Makerere University, coaching participants on using social media to broadcast their voices and market their writing.  Facebook, Twitter, and blogging were introduced as tools to expand the young writers’ network and increase attention to their work.  The Embassy has also given grants to facilitate the activities of Writing Our World through readers and writers clubs in 10 schools.  WOW’s leader is a member of the Embassy’s Youth Council.
  • AC SalfeetJerusalem: The board game Monopoly has proven a potent tool in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit among Palestinian youth, while simultaneously introducing a mainstay of American culture.  American Corner Salfeet hosted 20 undergraduate students from Al Quds Open University for a discussion about business plans, barriers to entry, and board games with a visiting U.S. diplomat.
  • Seven officials from Zambia’s Ministry of Tourism traveled to the U.S. in January on an IVLP program to enhance their planning of the 20th session of the United Nations World Tourism Organization General Assembly, which will take place in Zambia in August 2013. During the program the officials examined how to plan a world conference, including best practices, leveraging partnerships, and capitalizing on them for longer-term benefit beyond the conference.

3) Spreading the word – via local media coverage or on digital media.  While the previous two genres of cultural programming are designed to make a significant impact on the immediate participants, the purpose of this third type is to spark positive interest among the many.

  • U.S. Embassy Caracas held its annual “Baseball Visa Day” during which Venezuelan players in the U.S. major leagues and their family members obtain visas for the upcoming season.  This year some 40 major leaguers and their families visited the Consular Section for their visas, and afterwards participated in a brief ceremony and reception with coverage by multiple print and television media outlets.  Chargé d’Affaires (CDA) James Derham reminded those present that baseball is just one of many historic and cultural ties uniting Venezuela and the United States, and congratulated the players for an unprecedented season in which one Venezuelan won the batting Triple Crown, one pitched a no-hitter, another pitched a perfect game, and nine played in the World Series.   During this event, Embassy Caracas took the opportunity to promote its youth outreach program “Béisbol y Amistad” (Baseball and Friendship), now in its seventh season.
  • OBama in hong kongIn the lead-up to the U.S. Presidential Inauguration, Consulate Hong Kong began a social media project that included photos, videos and travelling cardboard cutouts of President Obama and the First Lady.  Consulate Hong Kong Facebook posts of “President Obama” riding the Mid-Levels Escalator and standing in a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station generated 42 comments, and 213 likes.  Public Affairs Section Hong Kong will complete the project on January 21, 2013 with a video montage of the cutout President’s “tour” of Hong Kong.
  • The Innovation Generation Facebook page of State Department’s IIP Bureau hosted Monica Dodi, co-founder of MTV Europe and The Women’s Venture Capital Fund, on its “Ask the Entrepreneur” series, which features accomplished American entrepreneurs.  The discussion sparked questions from around the globe including from India, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, and Pakistan.
  • MeetUS program in GermanyThe U.S. Consul General in Munich spoke to students and faculty of “Berufsschule 4,” an off-the-beaten-track school in Nuremberg.  He addressed U.S.-German relations, the U.S. presence in Bavaria, and economic and commercial ties, and tackled tough questions about car emissions, Guantanamo, gun control, and social media topics.  The MeetUS speaker program is a core part of Mission Germany’s youth outreach, and the discussion was live Tweeted to highlight the event to a broader audience.
  • Bosnian Brooklyn Nets Player Interview Makes Front Page:  The State Department’s New York Foreign Press Center assisted the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in securing an interview with Brooklyn Nets player Mirza Teletovic – a Bosnian basketball star who has recently joined the NBA – in Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice), the leading Bosnian newspaper and news website.
  • In January, [State Department] hosted 20 Youth Ambassadors from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Panama for a reception and meeting with the Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), which promoted the event on social media along with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the relevant U.S. Embassies; Embassy San José alone received nearly 6,000 Facebook page views and 300 likes.

All the above constitute just a few of the highlights shared by the Under Secretary’s office for January alone.  January’s highlights in turn constitute a tiny sliver of the cultural programming that takes place week in, week out at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate around the world.  Most of it is targeted to advance specific foreign policy goals, and just about all of it is conceptualized strategically.

Each example is also a reminder that cultural diplomacy IS communication.  The U.S. can only benefit from greater use of cultural programming  to advance U.S. foreign affairs priorities.

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!

New Media, Old Media, and the Syrian Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activists in Syria use social media to rapidly propagate images.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Opinion Leaders: Still the Most Important PD Audience.

Diplomeet Tweetup co-sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Morocco and the Social Media Club of Casablanca.

 Note:  First in a new Take Five blog post series 

The Office of U.S. Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine began several months ago to distribute summary PD activity highlights to interested members of the U.S. public.  In a series of blog posts starting today, I’d like to showcase some of these highlights, and use them to illustrate key facets of ongoing U.S. public diplomacy work.

Last year, after diving into the world of public diplomacy scholarship as a Fellow at GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (IPDGC), I began to realize that a frequently missing piece of the academic puzzle is concrete discussion and analysis of what public diplomats actually do in the field.  And considering that U.S. public diplomacy remains significantly field-driven, this feels like a major gap. Thus a blog series is born.

Each piece will begin with a few thoughts on what the selected programs and activities have in common, and what is significant about that common theme.   The highlights speak for themselves.

Today’s theme is Opinion Leaders.  Future topics will include: Not Always Setting the Agenda; Messaging Creatively; Arts Programs as Communication; and more. As always, readers, I welcome your interest, your feedback, and your additional thoughts.

Focus:  Opinion Leaders

Over the years, debates have raged within U.S. Public Diplomacy about how much energy and resources to direct towards “opinion leaders” (journalists, professors, artists, political and social movement leaders) and how much towards the broad general public (e.g. via youth outreach.)

Rhetoric in these debates tended to confuse “opinion leaders” and “elites.”  Practically no one objected to the idea of going far beyond elites, but most public diplomacy practitioners recognized that opinion leaders come in all shapes, sizes, ages, classes, genders, and income levels.  Acutely aware that there were only so many PD dollars to go around, they hesitated to abandon working with opinion leaders (sometimes termed audience multipliers) in order to concentrate on engaging ordinary citizens directly.

Fortunately, among the many benefits of digital technology and social media are two that have helped lay to rest the elites vs. opinion leader debate.  First, digital media has expanded the communication power and resources of non-elites to the point where no one any longer can doubt their ability to shape public opinion; and second, digital communication means field diplomats can now reach the general public (in a more interactive and targeted way than broadcasting allows) with much less expenditure of funds and time resources.

The following recent State Department highlights are selected to showcase the variety of ways that U.S. public diplomacy continues to work with opinion leaders — journalists, teachers, professors, NGO leaders, entrepreneurs, and selected youth leaders, and to communicate – through them – with their own respective networks and audiences. (Text from State Department highlights is marked with *)

 Journalists are opinion leaders par excellence.

VOA Program Connects US and Pakistan:  Viewers in Pakistan can now experience a slice of life in America, with the premiere of a dynamic new VOA program called “Sana, A Pakistani,” that follows show host Sana Mirza — one of Pakistan’s most popular television newscasters — as she gets to know this country.  “I just moved here, so I’m seeing things with fresh eyes,” says Sana. “I want the program to a picture of what life is really like in the United States.” The first program focused on Washington D.C. and included a visit to a mosque, the White House, and an aid organization that provides free meals to the homeless. Sana says she plans to travel around the country so she can show viewers how people really live, including the many Pakistani-Americans that have moved to the United States.

* Alumna’s Recognition Marks Fulbright’s 20th Anniversary in Vietnam:  July’s State Alumni Member of the Month is Do Minh Thuy, a Fulbright Program alumna from Vietnam dedicated to raising the professional and ethical standards of Vietnamese journalism.  The honor coincided with Fulbright’s 20th anniversary in Vietnam.

* Embassy Seoul Hosts Student Journalism Seminar:  In a first-ever collaboration with the Korea
Association of International Educators (KAIE), Embassy Seoul arranged the 2012 Student Journalism Seminar, inviting 34 top student journalists from 17 university newspapers and broadcasting stations across eight cities in Korea.  Under the theme of “Journalism and the Changing Media Environment,” participants enjoyed remarks from U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim, journalism workshops, visits to major media outlets, and meetings with U.S. and Korean journalists.

* Partnering with VOA in South Sudan
: Voice of America’s (VOA) South Sudan Project held a reporting training workshop in Juba, South Sudan for 19 journalists, including reporters from VOA’s radio program, South Sudan in Focus, as well as reporters and announcers from the Voice of the People, Radio Miraya, and South Sudan Radio.

IIP’s eLibraryUSA Wows Influential Ghana TV Station:  The Accra Information Resource Center (IRC) hosted staff from one of Ghana’s most influential TV stations; showing them how to locate documentaries and books, podcasts, videos, articles and reference sources via the collection of 30 commercial databases available to audiences worldwide.  Following the two hour session, TV3’s lead producer said they would extend training invitations to the most prominent people in Ghana’s media landscape.

But media influence is no longer just the domain of journalists.

* Libyan Civil Society Organizations Produce First Public Service Announcements: Four civil society organizations from the cities of Misrata, Tripoli, and Sebha completed technical training in video production and public messaging with a grant from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).  The organizations produced twelve public service announcements (PSAs) on electoral education, voter participation, rule of law, and mine risk awareness.

People listen to business leaders too (even those not profiled in major newspapers!)

*Russian Business Leader Credits FLEX Year in the United States for Success:  Leading Russian businesswoman Marina Malykhina was featured in a July 27 article in The Moscow Times, where she attributed much of her success to the entrepreneurial values learned as a teenager on ECA’s Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program.  Malykhina is the cofounder and CEO of one of Russia’s largest market research firms.

Fortune Alum Pays it Forward with Mentoring Challenge in Nigeria:  Consulate General Lagos partnered with Idea Builders Initiative, a non-governmental organization run by an alumna of the Fortune/State Department Mentoring program, to conduct a three-day orientation and training program for 35 young women.  These 35 women accepted a “Mentoring Challenge” to reach out to 100 female students in area high schools over the next 12 months.  They learned about public speaking, confidence building, goal setting, conflict resolution, money and time management, career planning, and handling peer pressure.

Coca-Cola Scholars:  The State Department’s Bureau of Near East / North African Affairs hosted 100 young leaders from the region on July 13 to mark the completion of their month-long entrepreneurship education program sponsored by the State Department and the Coca-Cola Company in partnership with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (IU.)  The young leaders showcased community-based initiative proposals they developed during their program at IU.  Under Secretary Sonenshine and White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the scholars and NEA Spokesperson Aaron Snipe took extensive questions from the group.

All posts aspire to engage future government and political leaders:

ECA Alumni To Play Key Role in Yemen Transition:  Yemen’s President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi has appointed five ECA alumni (from International Visitor Leadership Program and Fulbright) to serve on the Preparatory Committee for the National Dialogue.  Committee outcomes will set the stage for the anticipated constitution-drafting process.

First Mongolian Fulbrighter Joins Parliament:  Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a Fulbright and Eisenhower program alumna and a board member of the Embassy Alumni Association, was recently elected to the Mongolian parliament.  She is the first Fulbright and the third Eisenhower alumna to become a Mongolian parliament member.  She is one of only nine women parliamentarians serving alongside 67 men.

At the local government level, ensuring that at least one or two people know the U.S. can have a big impact:

International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) Transforms Iraqi Views of Muslim Life in America:  A member of the Anbar (Iraq) Provincial Council shared his views of Muslim life in America, after participating in the “Transparency in Federal, State, and Local Government” IVLP.  He said his colleagues thought it was “impossible to be a Muslim in the United States, since the Americans all hate Muslims and kick them out of the country.”  He said, “I immediately corrected my friends’ misunderstanding and told them about the vibrant community of Muslims that I met in Miami.  I knew what they were saying was wrong, and I couldn’t stay silent.”

Teachers and scholars spread knowledge and shape opinions for a living.

* A Record Number of Fulbrighters Prepare for Departure:  180 new Fulbright Masters and PhD scholars from every province in Pakistan, the largest group of Pakistani Fulbrighters ever, prepared in June / July to head off for universities throughout the United States.

Exchange and public affairs reach current and future influential Americans too:

ECA Teacher Alumnus Is Connecticut Teacher of the Year:  ECA’s Teaching Excellence and Achievement (TEA) alumnus David Bosso was honored by President Obama as the 2012 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year for his passion for learning and teaching about the world.  The TEA program provides outstanding secondary school teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), social studies, math and science with unique opportunities to develop expertise in their subject areas. One student wrote: “Mr. Bosso has taken what he has learned from classrooms across the globe and shared his insights with us. When he learns something new, so do we.”

USUN Panel on Media in a Changing World:  Nearly 100 [U.S.] students interning at news outlets in New York City came to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) on July 23 to discuss “Media in a Changing World” with peers and media veterans.  The program began with a panel, moderated by Deputy Spokesperson Kurtis Cooper, featuring Richard Roth of CNN, Marcelle Hopkins of Al-Jazeera, Sylvan Solloway from the New York University Curtis Institute of Journalism, and Koda Mike Wang of the Huffington Post. The convergence of media and tech, social media, changing business models for news outlets, and many other aspects of covering international affairs were part of a lively discussion.

Helping the Truth Put On Its Shoes: Public Diplomacy and the post-Arab Spring

U.S. Fulbright Scholar Dr. Ana Gil-Garcia and members of the Fulbright Alumni Teacher’s Circle in Cairo
(Source: Fullbright Chicago)

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
         ~ Mark Twain (attributed)

Like many others, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks absorbed by Middle East events and wrestling with the many complex and difficult questions raised by journalists, analysts, and scholars:  How much of the tragic violence in Benghazi and elsewhere was a genuine reaction to that now-notorious anti-Muslim video, and how much is being promoted by specific actors for their own political aims?  Were Embassy walls breached in Cairo, Tunisia and elsewhere because the protests were uniquely powerful and emotional, or because some host-country governments, newly brought to power by the Arab Spring, hadn’t yet fully assumed the responsibility of protecting them?

As a public diplomacy practitioner, I’ve also been thinking about the people in the Muslim world who are most genuinely and deeply disturbed by the perceived insult — and am wondering, yet again, how best we can try to bridge the apparently yawning gap between their perceptions and those of Americans, for whom the positive value of free speech self-evidently outweighs the risks from insult.

It was through this lens that I took another look at “You Talkin’ To Me?,”  Ralph Begleiter’s still-invigorating 2006 article about international perception.  Begleiter describes a video dialogue between Lebanese and American university students in which a “common base of popular culture…did not mask notable differences in the way students at both ends of the videoconference saw charged political issues [such as] the publication of political cartoons lampooning the Muslim prophet Muhammad, including significant gaps in understanding of how the news media in each region relate to governments. In fact, understanding that media-government relationship proved to be a pervasive theme reflecting differences between the U.S. and Middle Eastern cultures [emphasis added].”

What does this tell us (beyond the fact that some things have definitely not changed since Begleiter first penned these words)?

For one thing, it is a reminder that dense thickets of factual misinformation currently impede mutual understanding on this issue of media-government relationships, and it suggests that more work on clearing away such thickets is needed before debates about principles can take place in a productively open field.

What do I mean by this?  What is an example?

Again and again in commentary from the Arab world about the current anti-Muslim controversy, including in comments posted by young people on U.S. Embassy Facebook pages, the point is made that America is being hypocritical because “the West” prohibits Holocaust denial and similar speech related to protection of certain religious groups.

For example, a recent New York Times article quoted a “spiritual leader of Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, [declaring] that ‘the West’ had imposed laws against ‘those who deny or express dissident views on the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a topic which is purely historical, not [even] a sacred doctrine.’”

American readers may impatiently skip over such comments, thinking “that’s not true, our laws protect speech even as condemnable as denying the Holocaust!”  We might also fail to see any legitimacy in the error, because many of us are unfamiliar with the fact that in Europe there are indeed laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.

And we may also fail to realize that such seemingly minor, in-the-weeds misunderstandings can have a big impact, for as Begleiter also notes, “‘double standards’ is one of the biggest reasons foreigners give for resenting the United States.”

Of course it’s not true that the U.S. free speech laws are applied selectively to different religions, but if people in the Muslim world widely believe that to be true, based on actual knowledge of certain European laws misapplied to the U.S. context, then our power to persuade people of the legitimacy of our free-speech position will be dramatically weakened.

Here is another example: public commentary on the current crisis reveals a mutual misunderstanding about numbers of people involved: earnest young peace-makers in the Arab world explain on Facebook that “only” 10% of Americans even saw the film in question, while bridge-building Americans comment online to the effect that “only” 10% of Muslims are violent extremists.  If both sides knew the figures were perhaps closer to .0000001% in both cases, how much of the super-structure of blame, fear, and anger might dissipate?

So, returning to the public diplomacy challenge, what can we do?

First of all, we should accept that there will be no overnight transformations.  The work of countless experts in communications tells us it is difficult to change peoples’ minds about what they think they know.  Innovative thinkers from Walter Lippman onwards have shown how human beings are programmed to filter out information that doesn’t fit with our preconceptions, and furthermore that the source of new information is a powerful factor in whether or not we listen and accept it.

Therefore, secondly, we need to remind ourselves of what public diplomacy practitioners and scholars have long emphasized, which is that how we present information, and how we establish ourselves as trusted voices, is enormously important.  Facts and statements by themselves, no matter how often repeated or at what level, won’t make nearly as much difference if we have not built two-way relationships through which to share them, and if we haven’t built credibility over time through our consistency in conveying – and accepting — reliable information.

Edward R. Murrow knew this when he famously said, “It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.”

It is in this last three feet that a big portion of the public diplomacy toolkit is usefully and productively employed.  For example, convincing influential local journalists (or religious leaders, or influential think-tankers) is easier if we take time to develop a track record of providing useful information targeted to their particular interests and cultural outlook.  If we have also invited the journalist (or religious leader or think-tanker) to the U.S. on a study tour, she or he may have a clearer understanding of what our policy statements mean in context, and also some genuine appreciation for the travel opportunity.

The fact that most such discussions now take place online does not change the equation, with an important caveat:  If the interlocutors know each other, then email, Facebook and now Twitter communications certainly qualify as contemporary “face to face conversation.”

And thirdly, creativity in opening minds to new ideas is essential.  Ambassador Cynthia Schneider makes great points about promoting cultural understanding via the “Oh I Didn’t Know That” Factor  – where presenting something eye-catchingly different from what the viewer expected opens the door to a reconsideration of many cross-cultural assumptions.

Finally, a very thoughtful perspective from Cristina Archetti (a U.K. scholar and former visiting lecturer at GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs) in her 2010 piece, “Was Murrow Right About the Last Three Feet?”    Archetti asks,

“Given that interpersonal communication is normally regarded as far more persuasive than other modes of communication, is this really the hard part?  I’d be tempted to argue that the hard part is actually closing the distance to the last three feet, figuring out who you should be talking to, finding them and getting them into the same room.  Alternatively it could be that finding the money to hire the people to do the talking is really the hard part [or, your blogger would add, finding the money to create sufficient exchanges and other collaborative opportunities for you to find the right people and ensure that they are in the room and are open to listening]. Or it could be trying to ensure that you are not forced to defend the indefensible.”  

All excellent points.

@Sweden: Connecting Citizens through a National Voice

In a progressive initiative by the Swedish government, a Twitter account is now unifying citizens of all ages and circumstances through social media. @Sweden is a government experiment that entrusts the country’s Twitter account to a new citizen of the country each week. According to the ABC News blog, the designated tweeters are chosen by the “three brains behind the idea: the Swedish Institute, a government agency, Sweden’s official tourism website VisitSweden, and a Swedish communications firm called Volontaire.”

@Sweden features a new tweeter every week.

Though the national Twitter account was incepted in 2009, this endeavor was intended to revamp its purpose. The concept behind @Sweden is to promote a unique and diverse image of the country. Philip Alqwist, a creative director at Volontaire, told ABC News that the correlation between Sweden, one of the most democratic countries in the world, and Twitter, one of the most democratic tools in the world, presented an ideal outlet through which the Swedish brand could be exemplified.

Further contributing to the account’s uniqueness is the fact that @Sweden is completely uncensored, fulfilling its role both as an instrument of free speech and as a true depiction of the Swedish population. The “soft suggestions” according to the New York Times are that people not do anything criminal and that they label political views as their own. Although the lack of censorship subjects the account to typos and sometimes seemingly outlandish statements for a nation’s official social media forum, citizens who tweet for @Sweden are encouraged to be themselves. There is not one typical citizen of Sweden, so there shouldn’t be only one voice.

The account is mostly uncensored by the Swedish government.

The Swedish project, which began in December of 2011, has already ignited a movement. After the launch of the “new” @Sweden account, @PeopleofLeeds, @WeAreAustralia and @TweetWeekUSA were each created, followed shortly by @CuratorsMexico and @BasquesAbroad. If projects such as these continue to flourish through social media and other outlets, it will be interesting to see whether they have the ability to stimulate international discourse a provoke further interests in the affairs of outside nations.

The @Sweden experiment typifies yet another instance of how social media has the ability to spark social change. As Nelson Bonner, founder of @TweetWeekUSA, @TweetWeekNYC and the Rotation Curation website said of his and similar undertakings in an interview with ABC, “Where I see this going is literally a revolution for world communications…What I wanted to do is to open a dialogue between people in the US about what’s going on in their country, and in the world.”

@Sweden embodies an endearing form of social media–a kind of civilian diplomacy–where, rather than having a state’s officials or diplomats interact with citizens, the country’s people act as the voice. It is not only the cornerstone of what may be a profound international social movement, but it also allows for a new form of insight into countries and their citizens, flaws and all…

Read more about the Swedish social media experiment at About – Curators of Sweden.

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