Diplomacy, Journalism, and the New Media

Over the course of the past few months I have been conducting research for an article on “Digital Diplomacy” and the implications of the “WikiLeaks/Cablegate” revelations for diplomatic practice and international relations. That piece, when finished and peer reviewed, is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming reference text entitled the Oxford Handbook on Modern Diplomacy.

Reflecting on that enterprise, it has occurred to me that 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 twenty 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, including e-mail, social networking, video conferencing, and telephony, 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 cell phones registered globally; an increasing number of those are “smart” miniature computers with full on-line functionality. It is estimated that 30.2% of the world’s population now have Internet access, and that figure is growing especially quickly in Asia, Latin America and Africa, regions which still lag significantly behind North America (78.3%) and Europe (58.3%). To offer just a sampling of the implications: beginning in the second half of the nineties, 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 been widely reported – if somewhat contested – that cell phones, text messages, Blackberries and social networking sites played significant role in mobilizing the forces behind the “Arab Spring” uprisings earlier this year. Given much higher rates of usage, these technologies almost certainly played an even larger role in facilitating the planning and execution of the summer 2011 riots in cities across the UK.

Today, anyone with a mobile phone or digital camera and uplink can become a reporter – think of footage of the first images of 9/11 in 2001; the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004; the 2007 pro-democracy uprising in Burma; the anti-Chinese rioting in Llahsa, Tibet, in 2008; 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 static Web sites. 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 US presence in Iraq, and turned Bush-era public diplomacy into something akin to mission impossible. In the wake of developments such as these, it is not entirely surprising that Rand Corporation analysts recommended that the US military try Madison Avenue Internet marketing techniques 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. In part as a result, the image and reputation of the USA in much of the Arab and Islamic world is today as bad, or even worse that was the case five years ago.

Diplomats – and journalists – are today only two sources that feed into an increasingly crowded infosphere. Their longstanding advantages over the sourcing and control of information have disappeared. In the age of mass travel and communications and the exponential growth of internet use, more people are able to exchange more data and ideas with increasing speed. A substantial share of all 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, of blurring borders of every kind, and of creating a kind of shared consciousness, a form of universal and collective intelligence.  I have referred to this 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 by the publication of over 250,000 US-origin classified diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks web site. The implications associated with the continuing Cablegate affair, not least as an illustration of the double-edged quality of science and technology in the era of globalization, will endure long after the story has been exhausted.

More on these issues in the next post.