Scholars have disagreed to what extent social media tools, like Twitter, played in the “Green Revolution,” as well as the Arab Spring in 2011 – but most agree that without these tools, protestors would not have been able to spread the news globally of important events. Ultimately, it was publicity that social media promised, and subsequently delivered.
Today, several countries actively either ban or restrict certain social media sites, presumably because of its ability to promote collective activism like “Twitter Revolutions,” and spread (unwanted) ideas. Countries that are currently known to do so are shown in the illustration below.
Government Takes the Internet: US Case Study
However, digital tools are not just used by everyday citizens for these forms of collective activism, governments also utilize them to help shape public opinions and sway society on a specific issue.
Lina Khatib, William Dutton and Michael Thelwall examined a case study exemplifying this in an academic paper in 2012. As the United States’ “war on terror” waned in popularity, the U.S. government engaged on a massive “transformational diplomacy” campaign, pioneered by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This was taken further by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who encouraged the government to “reach beyond traditional government-to-government relations and engage directly with people around the world” by utilizing new informational tools, like social media.
Specifically, the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team (DOT) used an interactive, digital outreach program towards the Middle East. The authors examined the DOT’s outreach program after President Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009, and ultimately found that it was difficult to measure the effect such programs had on changing social views of the United States and its “war on terror” because, as the authors state, “it is impossible to be sure whether they (lurkers on blogs and websites) are convinced by the DOT arguments.” However, by the government actively engaging with a foreign audience, reframing debates about the U.S. and directly developing digital programs in response to specific issues – it can be assumed that their message is being heard, digested and perhaps, accepted.
Arguably, this direct engagement between citizens, non-citizens and governments actually empowers everyday people, as they are able to directly oppose rhetoric spread by governments online, or support it. Governments, like the U.S., ultimately rely on people to spread their desired ideas/messages digitally and non-digitally.
What About Canada?
The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD) reports on its website that it utilizes 11 different social media and digital platforms ranging from Twitter, and Youtube to Buzzfeed. DFATD’s digital footprint has indeed increased since 2014, following Minister’s Biard’s push for Canada to take seriously digital diplomacy. The official Twitter accounts for DFATD have over 30K followers and in particular, the DFATD (Development) account has utilized it to tweet about the Syrian crisis. Including spreading information regarding its new campaign to help support the Syrian Emergency Relief Fund. The U.S. Department of State’s Twitter account has also been recently used to announce the White House’s “Aid Refugees” campaign.
Despite the lack of empirical evidence determining how effective social media and digital tools can be for shaping opinion and social movements, it is safe to say they are useful for a government in terms of outreach, flexibility, collaboration and information. Therefore, it is puzzling to observe that Canada and DFATD doesn’t have an official digital diplomacy strategy, or any type of comprehensive roadmap for agencies acting on behalf of Canada globally. In an article published in April 2015, Julian Dierkes and Gregoire-Francois Legault argued that decentralization of Canada’s digital diplomacy “brings risks of incoherence, rogue action, negative publicity, and misunderstanding.” Therefore a strategy must be developed, which will require “local language skills” and “social media savviness” for embassies and foreign diplomats especially.
The Good News:
Canada’s need for a digital media strategy could be a potential career opportunity for younger Canadians who are already social media savvy. As these individuals also become more aware of public opinion and global events, as well as involved in social movements through digital platforms, their knowledge and skills will ultimately benefit Canada’s digital diplomacy aims.
So, the next time you see a tweet, watch a Youtube video or read a Facebook update, particularly from your government’s sanction social media account, ask yourself, what am I actually reading, and what’s the aim behind it?