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.

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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.'”

Governments and Governance

According to Avshalom Ginosar’s article, Media Governance: A Conceptual Framework or Merely a Buzz Word?, the definition of “governance” is ambiguous and disagreed upon by media and communication scholars. Ginosar suggests viewing the term as a way to classify communication systems within six components:
1. modes of governing;
2. institutions;
3. level;
4. stakeholders;
5. mechanisms of control;
6. products of the policy process

The definition of “governments,” however, is less contentious and traditionally viewed as institutions that create public policy to govern a nation-state. The traditional regulation process and power structure of governments are vertical with no private actors. But because of globalization and a shift of power among actors (private sector, NGOs, etc.), Ginosar asserts that this old school concept of national government and its role in public policy has been challenged. Governance is a complex, new control system that can be multileveled with multiple actors–from traditional state institutions to international institutions, to private corporations to public organizations, etc.– that both create policy and participate in various ways. This process can be pluralistic, thereby distributing the power. Importantly, the differences between the two terms/concepts helps to establish a sliding scale of the different types of governance possible within communication systems.

The Bummers of Convergence Culture

Both Mark Deuze and Brittany Fiore-Silfvast in their respective works mention the benefits of convergence culture’s participatory nature, including a decentralization of power between industry and consumer and an ability to organize and cooperatively engage in everything from war to shopping. However convergence culture still has its pitfalls.

Deuze mentions Castells’ term, “networked individualism” where in a “digital culture people interact, collaborate and engage, but tend to do so strictly individually, interacting their own interest—whether it is in a certain type of news, a certain aspect of a game or a certain product for sale online.” According to Deuze, in convergence culture, community and individual actions occur simultaneously. This schizophrenic nature gives users an illusion that they are engaged in a vast community while they are actually being filtered into a bubble of their own interests. Because users can cherry pick the content that they see and engage with and the platforms on which they produce material, it narrows their worldview. New media may have eliminated physical proximity to other users, but it is also siloing users into disparate communities.

Another downside to the illusion of engagement is “slacktivism” or “armchair activism”– where one does advocacy through liking, thumbs-upping, reposting, regraming, retweeting, (insert other feedback mechanism here), etc. content. Minimal effort or commitment is required, yet the user feels he or she is engaged on an issue. Kirk Kristofferson, Katherine White and John Peloza published a study this year where they found that those who support causes publicly (via social platforms) are less likely to meaningfully engage later on versus those who privately supported a cause (i.e. wrote a letter to congress). The support via a public digital platform becomes merely a token gesture. If slacktivism becomes a norm and pushes real engagement to the periphery, it would negatively impact the public sphere and cut into the decentralized and participatory nature (i.e. the positives) of convergence culture.

Be Our Guest

To diversify its economy, Malaysia began investing in its tourism industry. The country did several successful campaigns (became the 9th most visited country in the world) to entice global visitors, including country specific websites and the Visit Malaysia Year 2014 campaign. The campaign promises potential visitors outdoor and rare wildlife adventures. The picture below is from a tourist package—a boat ride (captain wearing Ray-Bans and a Nike shirt) that includes monkey luring with Pringle potato chips so passengers get the perfect photo op.

monkey(click to enlarge photo)

Globalization and IC

Whether one is pro globalization or a staunch skeptic, we can’t ignore that globalization and communication technology are inextricably linked. As Elizabeth Hanson mentioned in her work, “The globalizing processes…are the product of technological innovation, market forces, political change and consumer choices—combining and mutually reinforcing each other (p173).” Improvements in communication technology have allowed firms to grow, coordinate, produce at a distance and tap into markets all over the world. Because communication has been an essential ingredient in globalization, there are many facets that practitioners can understand about it and the debate to add context to the field of international communication.

First, it is important to recognize an argument from those who see globalization as a second imperialism, or westernization campaign. Media outlets were not immune to the trend of consolidation and vertical integration that created conglomerates and multinational corporations, such as the recent proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. This consolidation is not just happening within countries. Because there is a concentration of media and news producers in wealthier countries, critics of globalization cite that states exporting an influx of their cultural products and media could not only affect local culture, but also frame world views in a decidedly Western way. For example, before Al Jeezera came onto the scene in the mid 90’s, there were only three Western news agencies– AP, AFP and Reuters that dominated international news flow. However, at the same time, international communication practitioners should understand that globalization is not static, but a moving process. As economies become more intertwined and create more multinational corporations, including media outlets, the producers of media and communication may become even more “global.”  An example is the Academy Award nominated movie “Babel,” a co-production of companies based in the US, Mexico and France. Similarly, in the “Ugly Betty” case study, Jade Miller points out, that the companies in the case study did not have a “Colombian” identity. They were “companies with global concerns before they are domestic companies” (p 209).

Globalization has also illustrated that a greater access to global products doesn’t necessarily have a open armed response with consumers. In some cases, it’s noted that globalization can promote individuals to cling to their local culture and identity. Media is no different, as Miller points out in her article that cultural proximity can occur where people tend to prefer things that they relate to. What an international communication practitioner can take away from this is that his or her message should include some aspect of culturally specificity in order for it to take root.

Old Media, New Media, Still #Americans

Somewhere between a shower and my first cup of coffee I checked my phone to scroll through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and various news apps. I’m willing to wager that most people in my apartment building also checked in with their devices to see what was happening in the world.

It has happened time and again—new technology slowly supplants outdated gadgets and ways of doing. As the song goes, TV killed the radio star. News media and broadcast communication are also not immune to the evolution of innovation. But while new media technology is slowly replacing traditional forms or forcing a change in media systems, it still has not eliminated the role of sustaining a sense of nationalism.

The concept of nationalism, as Silvio Waisbord explains, is a way to provide unity and identity while asserting differences of other groups. The scholar Benedict Anderson saw the consumption of print media as creating a shared experience, or common public culture, across a region. For Anderson, what constitutes nationalism is a collection of daily rituals versus a collective identity.

New media technology has created an expansion in both the variety and volume of virtual interaction possible. As users continue to embrace technology with open arms (Apple sold more than 10 million iphone6 in its first weekend), media will persist to pattern our lives. Like the technology itself, the frequency and how we consume it may be in a different form, but as a group, we are changing our habits so a sense of nationalism is kept in tact. Our morning paper is now our daily feeds. We incorporate innovations into normal, or banal, social processes.

Besides the rituals with usage, the content of new media itself also continues to promote a collective identity. Michael Skey discusses how the media are critical in setting “acceptable limits,” or setting the parameters on mourning, celebration and reflection. It provides the forum and framework for how events are witnessed and debated. This is still the backbone of new media. We continue to learn what is relevant and appropriate through cultural references, symbols and stories. We can literally see now what is “trending” among our fellow Americans. The hashtag campaigns of #wherewereyou, which promoted a 9/11 memorial and national dialogue and #istayedbecause, which discussed domestic violence on the heels of the Ray Rice elevator scandal are prime examples. Be it a watch or a chip embedded into an armpit, people will still consume and seek media to gather information and interpret their environment, bringing people “under the same cultural roof (Waisbord).”