ShareAmerica

Described by the Washington Post as “the U.S. State Department’s Upworthy clone,” ShareAmerica is a website allowing people to easily share viral pro-American content on social media.  The site certainly has a feel like Upworthy or other social media feel good sites.  The articles usually have a short write-up along with accompanying video and have easy options for sharing on Facebook and Twitter.  There are different categories of content, or “themes,” as the site calls them ranging from visa information to human rights.

On Facebook, the ShareAmerica has a little of 11,000 likes, which questions the overall reach of the program.  Additionally, as we discussed in class, what is the purpose of this site.  Is it to actually win hearts and minds, or is it to just push out pro-American propaganda regardless of the overall message.  In other words, what how will State define success of the program?  Number of likes and shares, or effectiveness of the messaging in the content?  Guess we’ll have to wait and see….

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Public Diplomacy in Web 2.0

The State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) focuses on “people-to-people” conversations and engaging foreign audiences, so they can connect and learn about the United States. According to the website, “IIP works in between the news of the day and the experience of a lifetime.” With that intangible workspace in mind, it is interesting to look at the IIP’s newly launched ShareAmerica, a website optimized for sharing its content on social media networks (Facebook and Twitter) and on mobile devices. The site design is fairly simple and offers a variety of content from videos, short uplifting profiles and brief articles peppered with external links. It includes serious subjects like HIV/AIDS to glib topics like how to get 1,000 followers on social media. In keeping with its intent to have global visitors “connect with America” through policy, culture, values and English language learning, the site has 17 subject themes and available in seven languages.

Similar to Upworthy in its design, variety of information and hopes of content going viral, the site is geared toward quickly dispersing short messages versus inciting lasting, substantial conversations. While ShareAmerica says it aims to “spark discussion and debate on important topics,” the information flow is one way. Aside from the ability to suggest stories and propagate content, there is no way to interact with “America” as none of the pieces allow user comments. True to its name, visitors are simply sharing (curated pieces) of America. Unlike Merlyna Lim’s article that examines how “social media can represent tools and spaces, which various communication networks make up a social movement emerge, connect collapse and expand,” this site is clearly not meant to create a public forum. Instead, it offers a subtle way for bits of American culture to innocuously travel across global networks at the grassroots level. It could possibly fit with Joseph Nye’s idea of soft power in that it is attempting to shape a context through inspiring ideas and dreams of what America is. Nothing socially controversial (gay marriage, race, etc.) is posted and the tone is kept optimistically upbeat. Because public diplomacy seems difficult to oftentimes measure, an interesting aspect about the site is its ability to provide data by tracking the number of shares for each theme and looking at its sharers’ demographics.

Taiwan’s Public Diplomacy

Due to its international position and contested relationship with mainland China, Taiwan has relied heavily on soft power and strategic public diplomacy as part of its foreign affairs strategy. As part of these efforts they are building up robust cultural diplomacy initiatives. For instance, in 2012 they turned their Council for Cultural Affairs into a Ministry of Culture with 4 core policy objectives:

1) “To ensure that every village and township in this nation, regardless of its geographic remoteness, has an equal chance to achieve its full cultural potential.”

2) “To contribute to the nation’s soft power by promoting Taiwan’s unique blend of modern and traditional cultures on the international stage.”

3) “To enhance the overall output and value of the nation’s cultural and creative sectors.”

4) “To offer the nation’s citizens equal accessibility to cultural resources by harnessing the power of cloud computing.”

Taiwan has also been involved in nation-branding from creating logos:

Old Taiwan Logo     Heart Logo   New Taiwan Logo

To bidding to host or participate in international events:

In 2010 Taiwan participated in the World Expo for the first time since 1970 when it was held in Osaka, Japan. They made a considerable investment in their 2010 World Expo Pavilion which was designed by Taiwanese architect Lee Tsu-yuan (李祖原), the architect who also designed the famous Taipei 101 building.  

2010 Shanghai World Expo submitted design:

“Mountain, Water, Heart and Lantern” Pavilion:

World Expo

Another example of public/cultural diplomacy was the Taiwanese government’s support of AIESEC in Taiwan’s bid to host the 2014 AIESEC International Congress, which brings together AIESEC youth leaders from 113 countries. Their video, while not official PD since touches on common themes that Taiwan tries to highlight in their nation-branding, tourism outreaches, and public/cultural diplomacy. Namely what they say in this video: “diverse culture, amazing foods, and warmest people…Taiwan will touch your heart.” Though the quality of the video itself is not great, I think they did a great job of tying together all of the themes Taiwan likes to highlight. The video utilizes both English and Chinese lyrics with some aboriginal singing intermixed, scenes of beautiful places in Taiwan (emphasized by the refrain referencing “Formosa,” Taiwan’s old name which translates into “beautiful island) as well as popular tourist attractions like Taipei 101, night markets, the lantern festival, etc.

Lastly, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has teamed up with Google to launch a Wow! eye Taiwan Video Contest. While on the surface this looks more like an effort to encourage tourism, it also looks like the Taiwanese government has more in mind for this contest when one reads the stated contest purpose:  “To encourage public participation in digital content production as we enter the era of Web 2.0, the Government Information Office (¡GIO,¡ ¡the organizer¡) will hold the Wow! eye Taiwan Video Contest, in the hope that people both at home and abroad will be able to gain a new and multifaceted understanding of Taiwan.”

Taiwan is still integrating its public/cultural diplomacy and nation branding efforts and have encountered some challenges. For example at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Taiwan’s pavilion was placed in the China “domestic” pavilion area right by Hong Kong and Macau. Also, Taiwan wanted to participate in Milan’s upcoming 2015 World Expo, however, they were only offered a space in the “corporate” area, and told that World Expo invites were only for UN member countries.

However, winning the bid and hosting 2014 AIESEC International Congress is an example of their PD/CD efforts paying off. Taiwan seems to be quite successful at hosting niche international conferences and events like 2010 Taipei International Flora Exposition which attracted more than 8.9 million visitors. Ultimately, the strength of Taiwan’s PD/CD efforts stem from the truth of many of their claims. Speaking from personal experience, Taiwan does have great food, incredibly warm and hospitable people, and breathtaking beauty. It certainly has its faults like anywhere else in the world, but if you do have the chance to visit, the experience will certainly “touch your heart.”

Logo Photo Credit: http://logos.wikia.com/wiki/Taiwan_(tourism)

World Expo Pavilion Photo Credit: http://www.meet-in-shanghai.net/expo_pavilions_taiwan.php

Convergence Culture: Platforms Matter

Many theorists have argued that the “participatory turn” in media has opened new spaces for civic and political engagement (Benkler, Shirky, etc.). While these arguments have been criticized as “technological determinism,” they represent important perspectives within the ongoing scholarly efforts to grasp the true impacts of new technologies on social and political engagement, as technology continues to rapidly advance, often outpacing research. “Platforms” are an important part of this conversation. As Gillespie (2010) states, the term platform has been deployed by “content providers… in both their populist appeals and their marketing pitches – sometimes as technical platforms, sometimes as platforms from which to speak, sometimes as platforms of opportunity. Whatever tensions exist in serving all of these constituencies are carefully elided” (p. 1).

The term “platform” also serves to distance content intermediaries from responsibility for the content that users post there, be it content that is invasive of someone’s privacy, libelous, or an intellectual property infringement (Gillespie 2010; Solove 2011). The SOPA/PIPA laws were designed to hold platforms accountable for at least some of these items, online piracy and IP infringement, priorities of behemoth content producers such as Hollywood, but an outpouring of dissent turned the tide on the legislation. Opponents based their arguments on the argument that the legislation would have a “chilling effect” on free speech (McKinnon 2011), would have problematic technical ramifications, and the fact that many platforms would go out of business due to the threat of lawsuit. However, the fact that content intermediaries continue to be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act means that while they enable participation in all its noble aspects, they can also be slow to act when user-generated content infringes on the civil liberties of others (Solove 2011).

Dr. Deen Freelon, a professor in American University’s School of Communication adds a valuable piece to the conversation on the way in which platforms afford particular types of social and political engagement. He argues that the literature on online democratic communication has privileged the concept of “deliberation” to the exclusion of other important forms of democratic engagement, thus remaining oblivious to their presence and impacts. Freelon instead proposes three models of democratic communication: liberal individualist, communitarian, and deliberative. Most pertinent to this discussion is the fact that he argues that these models map onto the affordances of online platforms in ways that allow many platforms to be characterized as falling predominantly into one of these three categories (2010). For example, he argues that online newspaper comment sections are the site of predominantly liberal individualist communication, as individuals value expression over reciprocal communication (2011). Twitter, on the other hand, is the site of primarily communitarian communication, he argues, since its affordances promote communities of like-minded individuals to converge and converse (2011). Last, Freelon uses the example of “Living Voters Guides” as an example of a deliberative communication space, as citizens are asked to support opinions, ask questions, and remain open to the possibility of agreement between adversaries (2011).

As Freelon aptly demonstrates, when it comes to the democratic potential of “convergence culture” (Deuze 2009), platforms do very much matter. I tend to agree with Winner in his argument that politics are embedded in technology. While the concept of technological determinism is a useful check on the extremes of this argument, like Freelon, I think it is worth excavating technologies like platforms in order to identify the social and political values upon which they are based. Ultimately, any conversation about the extent to which platforms matter should consider the particular affordances they offer, the extent to which they are held accountable by law and publics, as well as their sources of funding, which is implicated in the momentous quantities of salable data we share with platforms everyday…an important topic for another day.

Benkler, Yochai (2007). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press. http://www.benkler.org/Benkler_Wealth_Of_Networks.pdf.

Deuze, Mark (2009). “Convergence Culture in the Creative Industries” in International Communication: A Reader, Daya Kishan Thussu, ed. 1 edition. London ; New York: Routledge.

Freelon, Deen G. (2010). Analyzing online political discussion using three models of democratic communication. New Media Society 2010 12: 1172.

Freelon, Deen G. (2011). Dissertation Proposal. University of Washington.

MacKinnon, Rebecca (2011). “Stop the Great Firewall of America”. New York Times. November 15, 2011. Retrieved November 18, 2011.

Shirky, Clay (2009). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.

Solove, Daniel J. 2013. Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.

Gillespie, Tarleton (2010). “The Politics of Platforms,” New Media & Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2010.

Winner, Langdon (1986). “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the Reactor: a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, University of Chicago Press.

National narrative for higher education: Is America is still THE place to study abroad?

While the reputation of our primary and secondary education lags behind Asia in Scandinavia, the U.S. continues to hold a monopoly on the Ivy League schools and many of the top Science universities globally, attracting international students from every corner of the world. The United States’ economy clearly benefits from its historical reputation of being the “best” place for international students to pursue their education. During the 2012-2013 academic school year, 819,644 international students poured over $24 billion dollars into the us economy with tuition, housing and cost of living. The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) also indicate that international student funding “supports innovation through science and engineering coursework, making it possible for U.S. colleges and universities to offer these courses to U.S. students.” In addition to the obvious economic benefits in attracting international students, the U.S. Department of State has a clear “soft power” agenda when it comes to maintaining this national education narrative.

Education USA is a program created by the U.S. Department of State primarily to attract and support international students. It collaborates with international offices, embassies, consulates, non-profits, bi-cultural centers and the Fullbright program. The website highlights that, “The United States has thousands of accredited colleges and universities renowned for quality, numerous programs of study and flexibility to change fields of study and schools.” Strategic framing is being used to highlight the legitimacy and yet personalized flexibility of the higher education system in America. Clearly there is an agenda of soft power in continuing to play up the narrative that the U.S. is the ideal place to study abroad.

This narrative perhaps emerges in the face of growing popularity of foreign universities coupled with a decrease in international students flows from strategic regional hubs over the last few years. Many believe that the novelty of studying in America is wearing off. While China and Korea are some of the largest groups of incoming international students, uncertainty in the U.S. job markets and increasing economic growth and educational improvements at home are leading many students to study in their country of origin. A New York Times article published this year stated that, “the number of South Korean graduate students in the United States has been dropping since 2010, and the Council of Graduate Schools recently reported that graduate applications from China were down for the second year in a row.”

International Student’s debate is particularly serious within the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine). Because many students are unable to work in the U.S. without a visa, programs are being implemented to allow student to stay and work without employer sponsorship. In order to maintain a narrative of legitimacy, higher education is filled with increasing incentives for STEM students to study and work in the United States following graduation. John Kerry recently stated, “Each and every day, I see how we use science and technology to advance our diplomacy.” International students are vital to science and technology innovation as well as well as contributing to the professional world after graduating.

For decades, America has formed and maintained a narrative of educational excellence and technological innovation. With growing powers forming throughout Asia, the quest to maintain the soft power advantage of being the most rewarding place to study abroad has serious implications for both the U.S. economy and for public diplomacy. Higher education in partnership with the Department of State will continue to pursue American educational narrative coherence through strategic marketing, increased program flexibility, and improved post-degree employment opportunities for international students.

Understanding Multistakeholder Governance

The term “governance” is an increasingly referenced concept that captures the fact that in many arenas governments are no longer the sole or even primary “governors” (Castells 2008). Instead we are moving towards “multi-stakeholder governance” in many sectors, with different actors playing different roles. For example, the neoliberal paradigm in the U.S. has seen the private sector take the reins of institutions such as schools, prisons, and hospitals to an extent which in previous eras would have been thought unimaginable. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, since the structural adjustment period of the early 1990s, NGOs have taken over much of the work of “development,” an arena previously monopolized  by the state, providing healthcare, education, water, loans, and other basic necessities to people. By implication, these NGOs and their donors have a role in determining which region, which ethnic group, and even which gender will develop faster and according to what definition of “development,” an inherently political and value-laden agenda (Piot 2010).

Denardis’ 2014 book The Global War for Internet Governance, offers a window into the way that values and politics shape the Internet’s governance vis-à-vis its architecture and the many actors that play a governance role. Denardis explains that the Internet by its nature is a distributed network, and therefore it inherently entails a “distributed and networked multistakeholder governance, involving traditional public authorities and international agreements, new institutions, and information governance functions enacted via private ordering and arrangements of technical architecture” (p. 23).

Denardis argues, and I would agree, that the politics of Internet governance matter to a great degree because governance can either be a mechanism for corruption, oppression, and exploitation, or instead a mechanism to ensure freedom of expression, relative security, fair competition, innovation, and interoperability. A key takeaway of her work is the understanding that the same technologies that enable the free flow of information can also be used to block access to information and/or surveil individuals (p. 24). Therefore social context is required to evaluate the implications of a particular technological formation. For example, the same software that can protect a child from online pornography, thereby opening up the Internet as a source of academic knowledge, can also be used by authoritarian regimes to censor content that challenges their legitimacy. Denardis’ book is a must-read for anyone who cares about governance at the intersection of technology and politics.

Castells, Manuel. 2008. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks and Global Governance.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (1): 78–93.

DeNardis, Laura. 2014. The Global War for Internet Governance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Protector or Meddler? Strategic Narratives and Foreign Policy

As Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin assert in their work, narratives are central to human relations. They shape the world and constrain behavior. They are a loose script of detailing on how we should interact with our environment. This can be applied on both micro and macro levels. At a micro level example, a single individual can create a self-narrative of victimhood, ascribing it as part of his/her identity. This lens of reality will presumably affect how s/he interacts with others, validating his or her choices. On a macro level, nation states are no different. Governments are keenly aware that creating a narrative is an essential tool in diplomacy and foreign policy as it can provide legitimacy and set expectations. As Miskimmon and O’Loughlin write, “Strategic narratives are means for political actors to create a shared of the past, present and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors.” Besides simply having control on the information flow with media systems and crafting content, it is also important to create a conducive atmosphere. Narratives are a means for actors to extend influence, manage expectations and change the operating environment (Miskimmon and O’Loughlin). An essential part of priming an environment for strategic goals is being able to provide a context for citizens to understand actions. This is achieved, as the authors state, by creating a collective memory and identity within a nation and a space for establishing norms and rules in which to operate. The relationship between strategic narratives and policy is cyclically reinforcing. A national narrative influences and justifies policy, but policy will also strengthen the public’s conception of the narrative.

After World War II, the U.S. created a strategic narrative of being a world leader of democracy and a “liberator” of other nations. Under this narrative, it is the U.S.’ duty to mediate conflicts, spread ideals of freedom and lead the way for other nations. This narrative has persisted and supported the country’s turn to interventionist foreign policies. The nation transitioned from an isolationist framework, that marked the period between World War I and World War II, to becoming involved in other nation’s affairs even if it was not a direct threat to national security. Barbara Conry from the Cato Institute wrote, “…referring to Vietnam, America’s most ambitious intervention since World War II, one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s top aides conceded that ‘it takes some sophistication to see how Vietnam automatically involves [our vital interests].’” While Vietnam was a failed war, the historical narrative conveyed to the public was “great powers did not lose, did not turn their back on their allies and acted with honor. Leaders designed and supported Vietnamization…” (Miskimmon and O’Loughlin). This framing of historical events at the time supported the U.S.’ strategic narrative of being a world leader and liberator for democracy, making it palatable to the public, but ignored the mass protests from citizens who could see the disjointedness between the narrative and the policy.

The post World War II narrative also symbiotically supported the locked competition with the Soviet Union. The rivalry fostered motivation for interventionist policies and adjusted the U.S. narrative to include a specific responsibility to fight against the spread of communism. Because the threat (an ideologically opposite, powerful country) and policy aligned with the narrative, it was widely accepted. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with the change in media ecology, the U.S.’ security strategies slightly shifted to incorporate changes in the international arena and to keep the national narrative relevant. According to Miskimmon and O’Loughlin, President George W. Bush set out to focus on combatting non-state actors and rogue states and how the U.S. needed to be involved.

The U.S. strategic narrative of being the world’s leader and liberator continues today. President Obama’s speech discussing Russia’s actions in Ukraine to the UN General Assembly last September is a prime example. The President said,

“Big nations and small must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms…America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might—that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future…We call upon others to join us on the right side of history—for while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of nations and peoples to make their own decisions.”

One can easily recognize themes of the U.S. as a “protector” (on the side of good) of freedom/democracy with a responsibility to involve itself in a conflict even if it does not have direct effects on national security. The British paper, The Guardian published an article on Russian citizens’ reactions after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over the Ukraine. The expressed views of Muscovites illustrate a stark contrast to the U.S. narrative and perhaps the ability to recognize a strategic narrative when it is not an embedded in a group’s reality or consciousness.

“There is another side” to the disaster. ‘Who benefits from portraying Russia as the monster? The Americans do. They want to go to war with the whole world.’ the US has every capability to frame ‘either Russia or the rebels.'”