In June, the inventive use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook by ordinary Iranians, primarily to report on, but also to organize protests in the streets of Tehran, once and for all proved that new media have vast geopolitical implications. But an Internet coup it wasn’t; the real “Twitter revolution” was happening not in Iran, but in Washington’s Foggy Bottom. After all, what better term to describe the newly elevated role that social media now plays in America’s public diplomacy?
In the months after the Iranian election, American diplomats began preaching the virtues of “public diplomacy 2.0,” a fancy catchall term to describe their ambitious efforts to profit from services such as Twitter. For example, the work of the Digital Outreach Team — a 10-person group inside the US State Department that finds controversial posts about the country on foreign blogs and discussion forums, and responds to them in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu — is a direct outgrowth of this approach.
To some, the triumph of “public diplomacy 2.0” appears inevitable, given that the old toolkit used for winning hearts and minds of global audiences — consisting mostly of US-funded TV and radio broadcasting — has been rapidly losing ground to the Internet. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of the US Congress, leaves no ambiguity about the urgency of the matter, positing that a failure to adapt to the Internet age may “significantly raise the risk that US public diplomacy efforts could become increasingly irrelevant, particularly among younger audiences.” Most importantly, many of America’s adversaries have eagerly embraced new media, too; the propaganda of the deed has given way to the propaganda of the tweet.
However, navigating today’s new media maze has proven rather challenging, especially for multi-layered and inflexible bureaucratic entities such as the State Department. The edgy, chaotic, and rebellious spirit of blogging and social networking appears to be a poor fit for the stiff, officious, and centralized style of communications favored by diplomats; after all, a say-nothing press release sounds as trite when posted on Twitter as it does in print.
In retrospect, given how little influence American “cyber-diplomats” had on events in Tehran via Twitter and Facebook, one wonders whether they overestimated the power of such sites. “Polluting” these online communities with US-approved messages adds very little to the global appeal of American diplomacy; this fledgling form of geopolitical spam is surely irritating, and some online goodwill is destroyed in the process. This “geo-spamming” may have doubled the supply of American ideas, but it has not increased global demand for them.
American diplomats should stop trying to explain the country’s often inexplicable foreign policy in 140 characters or less. Instead, they should use the Internet to sell the very idea of America, and there is no better way to do this than to open up the country’s vast cultural riches to the rest of the world — in cyberspace. Allowing the global public to view what America’s best universities, libraries, and museums have to offer from the comfort of their browsers must be at the heart of any “public diplomacy 2.0” efforts.
For example, videos of more than 200 full-length university-level courses are available for anyone to watch online for free, virtually all of them produced by a handful of American universities. This, however, is only a tiny fraction of what American universities offer in one term. Helping schools to put more of their courses online could be the most effective way to promote American ideas to the “digital natives” of India, China, Russia, or Iran, as well as to teach them practical skills essential to their emerging middle classes.
Similarly, American libraries and museums should be encouraged to open up their virtual doors to foreign audiences. Although not every Indonesian or Egyptian can visit New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or Harvard’s library, they would surely appreciate more opportunities to explore their vast collections from their laptops and cell phones. A stronger nudge from the government, especially if it comes with financial incentives, could help boost the nascent digital outreach strategies that many of these institutions have already developed.
This could be done by having American diplomats forge effective partnerships with the private sector; companies such as Google and Amazon have already done a lot to make America’s best literary works available remotely. Unfortunately, much of this digital goodness is still unavailable to foreign audiences: Even the Kindle, Amazon’s revolutionary reading device, is currently available only in the US. Ideally, it should not only be available in Moscow or Delhi but also arrive there full of works by people who shaped American identity, from Franklin to Thoreau, and from Lincoln to Whitman, all brought to you by the US State Department. Now, that would be something even America’s loudest critics won’t ever dare call spam.