Social media becomes a diplomatic battleground

Other governments have their own uses for Web 2.0 tools

Social media’s capacity for sharing and disseminating information hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government. The Defense Department and civilian agencies are looking at the tools for extending public diplomacy and winning hearts and minds.

Linton Wells, transformation chairman at the National Defense University, said using social media is critical for supporting population-centric strategies such as military operations in southwest Asia.

“If you can’t communicate, collaborate, transmit, engage with the local population you’re trying to influence, you cannot achieve the social, political and operational goals for which the military blood and treasure was committed,” he said.

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Wells explained that leaders are beginning to realize that social media is not simply a useful adjunct to kinetic military operations or humanitarian missions. Local outreach must be a core part of the strategy from the beginning, and to meet those goals, some kind of social media will be important, Wells said.

However, the United States is not the only government interested in social media. Wells noted that authoritarian regimes are also using social media for their own ends and cited the recent political unrest in Iran, which began with protesters using social media tools to organize and get around the regime’s restrictions on organizing. But at the same time, Iranian government agents have studied Facebook pages and YouTube videos of anti-government protests in foreign countries and then put pressure on anti-government protesters outside Iran by threatening or harassing their relatives living in the country.

“Social media is not just a one-way street,” Wells said.

Nevertheless, Wells said, he is a firm believer in the importance of social media. “Even if we feel uncomfortable with it, even if we are concerned that there are security risks in using it, the other side is going to be using it. This is something the U.S. government is going to have to deal with, and so the question is how can you deal with it responsibly, recognizing that there are risks.” 

Likewise, governments must be able to respond to events such as terrorist attacks or disasters in hours or they will be drowned out by the torrent of commentary from a range of media and social media outlets. The challenge is almost no government is organized to respond in such a short time. Wells said the quest is how to best organize a range of responses, including social media outreach for such situations.


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