On social media, proceed with caution

This year saw politicians and diplomats coming to terms with the huge reach and unique mobilising capabilities of the social media. But the same social media can also turn against them.

When Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt squeezed herself between US President Barack Obama and British Premier David Cameron and used her cellphone to take a picture of all three beaming, she faced a torrent of criticism. For not only did the incident take place during the state funeral of South Africa's Nelson Mandela but also, critics pointed out, because her behaviour was unbecoming: world statesmen are not supposed to behave like giggly teenagers, taking "selfies" on their phones. Even Mrs Michelle Obama allegedly shared the distaste: she ignored her husband's snapping gaggle by looking away, grim-faced.

Yet far from being contrite, Mrs Thorning-Schmidt defended her action: the selfie, she told journalists, showed that "when we meet heads of state and government, we too are just people who have fun".

Tasteless or not, the selfie episode neatly concludes a year in which world politicians and diplomats finally came to terms with the electronic age, with both the huge reach and unique mobilising capabilities of the social media, but also with its immense destructive powers.

Political role and reach

Social media online platforms have long been used for political purposes. Popular views expressed on microblogging sites in China frequently play a key role in influencing Beijing's policies. And the wave of revolutions in the Middle East now known as the Arab Spring would not have spread so quickly had it not been for Twitter and Facebook.

But the use of social media has changed this year, in subtle yet profound ways. During the Egyptian revolution in early 2011, only a third of those tweeting were in Egypt itself, and the overwhelming majority of their messages were in English. However, when serious anti-Government demonstrations erupted in Turkey in late May this year, 90 per cent of the over two million tweets generated originated from Turkey itself, and 88 per cent were in the Turkish language. Social media is no longer Western-centric; it is being "nationalised", absorbed into national politics.

And leaders are also increasingly embracing it. That Pope Francis joined Twitter soon after he acceded to the Throne of St Peter in March this year was not surprising. But the fact that he publicly expressed his satisfaction at reaching 10 million followers within a few months certainly was unusual; until now, only movie and music stars admitted to caring about such figures. Either way, the result is that the Pope is now able to address more people in one day than all the previous 265 popes were able to address in their lifetimes.

The reach and mobilising effect of the social media is now also fully exploited by upcoming politicians. Take the example of Italy's Giuseppe Grillo, a former comedian with a criminal record, no previous political experience and a reputation for mouthing obscenities. In the general elections held in Italy in February this year, this "Clown Prince" captured a staggering fifth of the popular vote without a national political organisation and almost no money: voters were attracted by speeches uploaded on YouTube, and outrageous remarks posted on other social websites. Challenging the political status quo has never been cheaper or easier.

And that, in turn, means that existing leaders and established political parties cannot afford to lag behind: all of Europe's ruling parties have diverted money away from holding formal public rallies to beef up their online presence.

Meanwhile, diplomats are engaged in their own stampede to social media platforms. For the first time ever, an ambassador is now able to engage directly with the nation to which he is accredited by talking to people rather than just officials and grandees invited to cocktail parties. And embassies no longer just transmit messages: they interact. "Twiplomacy" - says Mr Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador to Lebanon and one of his country's gurus on the topic - "comes down to authenticity, engagement and purpose. Twitter is more raw, more human than normal diplomatic interaction".

The US State Department estimates that by the middle of this year its employees were already in "direct communication" with more than 15 million people worldwide. The State Department's Facebook page has attracted 443,000 "likes", despite the fact that its contents are neither that revealing, nor that entertaining.

A social leveller

Yet apart from spreading knowledge on diplomatic activities, social media performs a perhaps more important, if seldom-noticed role: it acts as a social leveller, offering smaller or poorer countries the same opportunities as the biggest nations. According to a July study by Burson-Marsteller, a global communication firm, the "best connected" foreign minister in the world this year was Mr Carl Bildt of Sweden, followed by the foreign minister of Poland; both are bright, articulate politicians, yet both would have stood no chance of reaching such prominence had it not been for Twitter.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, governments are scrambling to be original in their use of the medium. This year saw the first example of two foreign ministers - Mr William Hague of Britain and Mr Bildt of Sweden - coordinating their diaries and fixing a meeting online. Israel was even more innovative, by establishing a "virtual embassy" in the Gulf, to substitute for the real, bricks-and-mortar one which the Jewish state cannot have in Arab sheikhdoms. Both these initiatives are publicity gimmicks, although they do indicate a real desire to exploit the social media.

Still, caution is advisable in this cyber-race. The job of diplomats is not only to talk to the wider public, but also to transact confidential, sensitive business with foreign governments. No amount of snazzy websites or clever tweets can substitute for this.

Nor is it obvious that a politician who attracts many followers or "likes" on websites is actually listened to. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and French President Francois Hollande have stopped tweeting altogether after they were elected, yet both have seen the number of their followers increase; people chose to follow them because of their fame, and continue to do so despite the fact that their Twitter accounts are effectively dead.

The race between diplomats to dominate the new medium also has other baleful effects. It encourages the increased use of undiplomatic language. Mr Bildt has attracted a loyal following partly because he frequently uses language others won't: he recently accused Russia of "blackmail" in Europe. And, because it is so easy to respond to developing news stories, it also encourages silly or anodyne responses to various natural disasters and other tragedies around the world, of the "our hearts go out to the victims of the bus crash in Guatemala" variety.

Bane of social media

And despite the ubiquitous nature of social media websites, the reality remains that they are unrepresentative of world opinion. A study completed earlier this year by the Pew Research Centre, a US- based think-tank, found that "the reaction on Twitter to major political events and policy decisions often differs a great deal from public opinion as measured by surveys". And the reason? Even in the US, just 13 per cent of adults regularly use Twitter, and only 3 per cent do it regularly.

The unrepresentative image which social media conveys can result in severe consequences.

During the Egyptian revolution of 2011, for instance, the US and European governments chose to believe messages passing through Twitter and Facebook, portraying a popular Egyptian movement devoted to creating a Western political model in the Middle East. But when the revolution succeeded, the outcome was completely different, and it could have hardly been otherwise in Egypt, a country where 60 per cent of the population lives in villages, 96 per cent of all women above the age of 45 have been subjected to genital mutilation and only 5 per cent of the population has Facebook accounts. Trusting social websites can result in wrong policies.

Besides, all politicians know that the same social media which can serve them well in harnessing votes, can also turn against them: the Internet is full of conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated personal smears and doctored photographs. It is an essential medium. But it is hardly either risk-free or benign.

Which is perhaps why Ms Thorning-Schmidt ultimately decided that her "bit of fun" selfie phone picture will not, after all, be posted online. "It's not very good," she said, in a comment which can apply to much of the hype about social media.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


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