Digital Diplomacy, Disruptions, Hashtag Movements and iWars
Vietnam, often called the ‘living room war,’ was the first war broadcast into our homes through our TVs on the nightly news. Many antiwar movement supporters and analysts say that TV coverage helped fuel the movement and ultimately helped end the war. With the advent of social media, TV was replaced by a different populist influencer, which begs the question: what is social media’s role and influence on war and conflict? The answer is digital diplomacy, disruption, hashtag revolutions/movements, and what I call iWars.
While working in mainstream media, I first awoke to social media’s impact on diplomacy in 2010. I was working in television news in Washington, DC and was mostly focused on covering politics in the U.S. Typically for planning purposes, the White House would send out press releases to the media before making announcements to the public. For television news this was especially helpful because you could organize your reporters, the journalist could fact check and make some calls and newsgather, and you could get a camera in front of the White House or on the lawn by the time the information was being released to the public. But on this particular day, there was no press release. In fact, I was one of the first people to see the news because the White House had tweeted the press release they would normally send to news organizations. The White House had bypassed news outlets and had shared an announcement directly with the public via social media. This was huge!
Livestreams allow people to view press conferences and sometimes protests in full as opposed to isolated soundbites chosen by media organizations. TV news organizations tend to pick the clips that make for the best television. In a ten-hour mostly peaceful protest, some shows may pick that 30 seconds of tear-gas. But this come down to the individuals involved in the production of this segment. If the protests were livestreamed, then anyone can go back to the feed, watch the video, and make up their own mind on whether the protests were peaceful, filled with clashes, or both. If a speech by a head of state is livestreamed, then a global citizen can go to the live feed and watch the entire speech. Anyone can watch the message in its entirety as opposed to a single soundbite, which was picked out by a media organization.
In today’s world, foreign ministries, governments, politicians, and candidates around the world are actively trying to develop digital strategies. We’ve seen world leaders like the President of Azerbaijan use Twitter to threaten the use of military force against Armenia. Nicole Matejic, author of ‘Social Media Rules of Engagement,’ says that—although Twitter is used divergently—it is still utilized in a predominately monologue fashion by heads of state and government leaders and department. Matejic says this same monologue approach is used on Facebook and Instagram. Officials are using Twitter “to speak, to be heard, but they do little if no engagement on the platform.” Matejic is also the CEO of Info Ops HQ – an international civil-military think tank specialising in the area of social media and warfare.
While most politicians or leaders are simply using social media as another one way broadcast platform – some are using the platform as it was intended. India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj uses Twitter to answer what seems like every single one of her 5.38 million followers. She addressed their concerns and questions and with a personal tone. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has taken to social media to be present for Ask Me Anything – question and answer sessions. And recently he used video to reply to people’s questions. This shows his audience that he’s present.
But just as some leaders have used social media to engage in discussion or share information, others have used it to monitor. Terry Pattar, Senior Consultant at IHS Jane’s, (an organization specialising in military and intelligence analysis) says social media is a key component in the extension of the information war. He says “the Assad government has used social media as a means of monitoring activists who are publishing stories that show the government in a negative light.” Groups like the Syrian Electronic Army have “deliberately targeted media outlets in the US and Europe with cyber-attacks in response to what they claim is the media’s anti-Assad bias.
Terrorists’ and militant groups’ use of the web as a recruiting tool is nothing new. But what was less transparent behind the webbed veil of chat rooms is now more viewable through the sphere of Twitter and Facebook. She says Al- Shabaab were the first known terrorist group to take to Twitter and that ISIS has taken social media warfare to a new level. Pattar says militant groups have been able to use social media to “disseminate their strategic messaging and to build a brand and identity that can attract recruits to their cause from outside of the conflict.” Matejic says this divergent use of social media by terrorists organizations has “changed diplomacy irrevocably-pushing many Nations into the social media sphere out of necessity to counter the disingenuous information that is being spread. Without a voice in the Twittersphere you leave an information vacuum where your adversary simply fills the void.”
So what is digital diplomacy? I would say it is the communication and management of international relations in the digital sphere. I would include websites in the digital sphere as well and feel that social media has just offered a more disruptive element to this sphere.
Disruption is a shift or change within the status quo regardless of whether one judges that change as positive or negative. People, systems, innovation can all elicit disruption. And sometimes disruption has a ripple effect within an industry or space.
Hashtag Revolutions and Hashtag movements
Matejic says hashtags were deployed by Twitter to curate conversations around a particular topic. But questions the effectiveness of hashtags revolutions or movements in a real-world context. A correlation can be used between developments in current events and the hashtags associated with those events. But Matejic raises an interesting question. What mechanisms are there to influence calls for action when using a hashtag. Matejic says she isn’t convinced that the calls to action are little more than vanity metrics when compared to civil action. I find that hashtag revolutions are effective in raising consciousness – but in calls for action it depends on the movement, situation and many outside factors. The climate has to be right and the importance of the call to action has to outweigh the inconvenience or obstacles for the majority of individual users. But what about when a hashtag isn’t used by those who launched the movement? Pattar says the use and popularity of individual hashtags seems to be more of an art than a science. Pattar highlighted a recent PR blunder by the Syrian government when they launched the hashtag #SummerinSyria. The government was encouraging Syrians to post pictures of their happy summer days. Pattar says the hashtag was “quickly hijacked by people living in areas that have suffered the devastation of bombings by the government and its allies to show the other side of life in Syria.”
So what is a hashtag revolution or hashtag movement?
Hashtags are like tags. They are identifiers – sometimes for a subject matter, characteristics and when it comes to movements they can signal an event, mobilisation, call to action, protest, or effort to raise awareness. A hashtag revolution is a mobilisation that most occurs in the digital space but users of the hashtag aren’t necessarily activists. And not all hashtags are revolutions, mobilisations, or movements.
The largest change brought by social media has been the possibility of access to information. More modes of communication have been opened up. But the influx of users on any given platform increases the challenge of any individual to receive unfiltered information. Most people are accessing information shared by their friends, accounts they choose to follow or primary sources they choose to follow. Very few, other than some (not even all) journalists are following various primary sources and analytically looking at multiple sides of an argument. While social media enables us to hear stories that might otherwise go unheard. Internet connectivity is not equal and not global. And I’m not entirely convinced social media is being fully utilized by individuals and/or news outlets to find information from places or areas that are physically difficult to access, unless a movement or post grabs enough attention and goes viral. That’s why I refer to wars in the digital sphere as iWars. Not just because many access the internet or social media on their phones, but because our access to this information has become so individualized. The way we consume the information, for the most part, is all about us, all about a single post, all about an individual, as opposed to the big picture. In many ways we are embedded in a narrative based on the accounts or voices we choose to look at and/or follow. Pattar says “social media has become another battlefield in the information war that accompanies any conflict, but the biggest difference it has made is in the speed of dissemination and in some instances, the ability to find out what is happening in inaccessible locations. However, while it might open up some difficult-to-access information environments, in other cases it could actually compound the problem of not seeing the reality of the situation on the ground.” I agree with this especially because majority of mainstream media hasn’t fully grasped social media. Pattar says “social media is more prone to the rapid share of misinformation, since it circumvents the role of traditional information ‘gatekeepers’ such as media outlets and publishers.” Pattar also says it’s the speed of information that makes fact-checking and verification more difficult. I feel that this can be avoided if news organizations realize social media has disrupted tv news and that outlets should no longer be obsessed or place priority on being first ahead of all else. Instead, news organizations should place priority on being right the first time. Pattar says that “social media has allowed us as distant observers to see more of conflicts than ever before, but we need to question the evidence of what we’re seeing more rigorously than at any time in the past.” Information is power when it is vetted. As a journalist – when it comes to news in the social media age – I think the most important thing is to provide the public with sourcing; context, background and information that answers the question – so what? An informed society is the backbone of an efficient society. If we truly understand the underlying cause for past events, then we can gauge some of what is to come in the future and why. Over simplification is misinformation and a narrow lens can be paralysing.
That’s why viral misinformation also needs to be addressed. There’s a point – a threshold -when diplomats, news organization, etc., need to look past the point of whether or not something is true before addressing it. If it has gone viral and enough people believe it – fact checking or replying becomes a necessity.