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The Rough and Tumble of Digital Diplomacy, For Better or Worse

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, October 25 2012

Screenshot from the the State Department's blog

Digital diplomacy is a bit of a buzzword these days. It is practiced widely, both formally and informally, by governments across the globe — the United Kingdom has a particularly extensive site. Brian Fung of the Atlantic explores the impact of direct engagement via social media in an article for the Atlantic: Digital Diplomacy: Why It's So Tough for Embassies to Get Social Media Right.

The State Department employs digital diplomacy extensively, under the rubric 21st Century Statecraft; with 200 Twitter handles followed by 16 million people, dozens of embassy Facebook pages with a couple million "likes," YouTube channel with millions of views and constantly updated Flickr page and a State Department blog, the outreach is substantial — as are the opportunities for direct engagement.

In some cases, direct engagement can be a bit rough and tumble — as in the much publicized recent Twitter spat between the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Given the prevalence and influence of social media platforms, diplomats cannot afford to ignore it. But is digital diplomacy effective?

Governments are driven by anxiety in their pursuit of direct engagement via social media, writes Fung.

Beneath the rhetoric about making new connections with people is a constant uneasiness that if we don't get this right, we'll get left behind. Never mind by whom; the fear alone -- of missing out on conversations, missing out on telling people what and how to think, missing out on the prospect of leveraging a nation's collective voice for strategic purposes -- is powerful enough to get governments scrambling to figure social media out. "If we don't join that vibrant arena, we will become irrelevant," fretted U.S. State Department spokesperson Tara Sonenshine at the United States Institute for Peace earlier this week.

This attitude, "...does nothing to resolve the ambiguity over what social media can actually accomplish for diplomats."

Fung goes on to explore the question of whether or not there is any benefit in direct engagement. He also highlights the ancillary benefits of digital diplomacy — e.g., crisis management and fundraising for disaster relief.

It's an interesting read.

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