The immediacy, interactivity, and accessibility of new technologies have changed the rules of the game.
Much of what is new in contemporary diplomacy may one way or another be attributed to the emergence of the internet. Over the space of about 20 years, it has displaced other venues as the principal medium for global information exchange and interaction. As more and more people look to the web as a primary source of information and communication (via email, social networking, video conferencing, telephony, etc.), and as higher transmission speeds and greater bandwidth expand audio and visual streaming possibilities, communications media are converging. In recent years, the internet has edged out newspapers, TV, radio, and conventional telephones as the primary communications medium. Current Web 2.0 applications, featuring an emphasis on networks, wikis, interactivity, file sharing, and downloadable “podcasts” – in marked contrast to the simple Web 1.0 presentation of static information – promise to further accelerate this trend.
The power and pervasiveness of the new media can be striking. There are believed to be some five billion cellphones registered globally, and an increasing number of those are “smart” miniature computers with full online functionality. It is estimated that 30.2 per cent of the world’s population now has internet access, and that figure is growing especially quickly in Asia, Latin America, and Africa – regions that still lag significantly behind North America (78.3 per cent) and Europe (58.3 per cent).
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To offer just a sampling of the implications: Beginning in the second half of the 1990s, campaigns on the web played a critical role in publicizing and catalyzing the anti-globalization movement, they stopped the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, they have changed the outcome of elections, and they have provided unprecedented profile to consular cases. It has also been widely reported – if somewhat contested – that cellphones, text messages, Blackberries, and social-networking sites played a significant role in mobilizing the forces behind the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East earlier this year. Furthermore, given the much higher rates of usage in the U.K., these technologies almost certainly played an even larger role in facilitating the planning and execution of the summer 2011 riots in that region.
Today, anyone with a mobile phone or digital camera and the ability to upload content can become a reporter. Think of the first images we saw of 9/11 in 2001, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the 2007 pro-democracy uprising in Burma, the 2008 anti-Chinese rioting in Llahsa, Tibet, suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the unrest throughout the Greater Middle East in 2011. Almost none of that initial visual content was provided by journalists employed by large corporate news organizations such as the BBC, CNN, or Al Jazeera. Most of it was unmediated. And almost none of it could be effectively suppressed by local authorities.
The elemental qualities of immediacy and interactivity that characterize internet-based communications are particularly evident in the explosive growth of blogs and blogging. While not quite the equivalent of face-to-face contact, blogs represent something much closer to “live” conditions than the publication of documents posted on relatively static websites. These attributes make blogs especially effective at breaking down cultural barriers. Bloggers from Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East have brought the human toll of those conflicts to desktops around the globe: Executions have been streamed live on anti-occupation sites, and the Abu Ghraib prison pictures spread faster than Seymour Hersh’s writing in The New Yorker could ever be distributed. Those images effectively branded the U.S. presence in Iraq, and turned Bush-era public diplomacy into something that could easily be described as a “mission impossible.”
In the wake of developments such as these, it is not entirely surprising that Rand Corporation analysts recommended that the U.S. military try Madison Avenue internet marketing techniques as a way to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most innovative, technologically sophisticated public diplomacy, however, will never be enough to compensate for failed policy. What a country does will always have more impact than what it says, and when those two dimensions diverge, the resulting “say-do gap” can have a devastating impact on international credibility, reputation, and influence. This is part of the reason that, in much of the Arab and Islamic world today, the U.S. is perceived just as poorly, if not worse, than it was five years ago.
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Today, diplomats and journalists are only two of many sources that feed into an increasingly crowded “info-sphere.” Their longstanding advantages over the sourcing and control of information have disappeared. In the age of mass travel and communications, and with the exponential growth of internet use, more people are able to exchange more data and ideas with increasing speed. A substantial share of the world’s accumulated knowledge is, for the first time, available to anyone with an internet connection. Among other things, this is having the effect of breaking down barriers, blurring borders of every kind, and creating a kind of shared consciousness – a form of universal and collective intelligence that I have referred to elsewhere as the emergence of a “Global Political Economy of Knowledge.”
Diplomats and journalists both rely on the new media, often share similar reporting objectives, and frequently base their reporting on the same sources. But ultimately their purposes diverge. Journalists are interested in getting at the most compelling angle on a given story. In contrast, diplomats, by virtue of their connection to national governments, have policies to advocate and interests to advance or defend.
This means that interpretations can differ – sometimes profoundly.
These distinctions – and much more – have been underlined in the ongoing WikiLeaks/Cablegate disclosures, which have also revealed much about the nature of contemporary diplomatic practice.
More on all of this in a future article.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.