UNITED NATIONS — Formerly derided as the domain of time-wasting and self-obsession, social media has emerged as an unlikely shining light for international relations and social activism. Twitter diplomacy now has world leaders, diplomats and non-governmental organisations harnessing the people power of social media to amplify their own messages and goals.
“Today, 84 per cent of governments have a Twitter presence. There are 130 heads of states and government on Twitter,” said Adam Snyder, global digital and social media strategist with the communications firm Burson Marsteller.
“It is giving people accessibility to their leaders. It takes activism and communicating with your government to a new level.”
Snyder was speaking on the results of his firm’s latest report, also titled ‘Twiplomacy,’ at the United Nations’ first ever Social Media Day on 30 January in New York City. That an entire day was devoted to the likes of Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter shows the degree to which the U.N. considers social media a tool for diplomacy and change.
“Social media is helping to demystify diplomacy, and opening doors to what we do,” said Michael Grant, deputy permanent representative of Canada to the U.N.
Through harnessing the power of viral videos, Twitter hashtags and strategic outreach, even the smallest of social campaigns can become globally ubiquitous. Recent notable examples, including ‘black lives matter’ (protesting the deaths of black men at the hands of police), and ‘bring back our girls’ (calling for the release of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram), saw the transformation of essentially local campaigns into slogans recognised worldwide.
Anna Nelson, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and editor of its Intercross blog said social media had radically changed the way her agency and many others executed campaigns.
“When a crisis or disaster happens, people want to do something. It’s hard to give them an outlet to do anything, especially in a war zone, but social media gives people the opportunity to participate in fundraising or awareness,” Nelson said, adding that social media has been hugely effective in helping ICRC reunite families separated in crises. She also singled out a 2011 TEDx event the ICRC curated in Geneva, which included a talk by an Afghan man with no legs and one arm.
A video of the talk, raising awareness of the Afghanistan conflict, has since been translated into many different languages and viewed 700,000 times. She said social media allowed even smaller organisations to bring global attention to their causes.
“Social media is a megaphone. You won’t reach everybody, but it levels the playing field,” Nelson said.
Andre Banks, executive director of LGBT advocacy group All Out, also spoke on Friday about awareness and activism successes achieved through social media. He outlined a recent campaign that was successful in forcing a prominent hotel chain to discontinue their indirect funding of anti-gay groups, through mass mobilization of All Out’s social media supporters.
“Social media is the critical way we ask people to get engaged, and also get their own networks engaged,” Banks said. “Without social media, it would have been impossible for us to be the kind of success we have been.”
Nelson and Banks both also acknowledged the pitfalls of ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism,’ a term denoting the online sharing of social or political issues without any material support of that issue; however, Nelson said she did not consider the trend as a concern to aid agencies or charities.
“International diplomacy no longer takes place exclusively behind closed doors,” said Maher Nasser, acting head of the U.N. Department of Public Information, in opening a panel on how diplomats use social media. The Twiplomacy report states more than 3,500 embassies and ambassadors are active on Twitter, and that all but one of the G20 governments have an official Twitter presence.
Grant said, in his position as deputy permanent representative of Canada, he uses Twitter daily to both find and spread information. “Is social media absolutely 100 per cent required? No, it isn’t. But I think you can do your job better by engaging with social media,” Grant said. “Is it 100 per cent part of diplomacy? Yes it is.”
He said Canada uses social media to “replicate and amplify messages,” such as diplomats’ speeches and public appearances, as well as more practical information such as warning Canadians overseas of conflict or natural disaster. “We use Facebook and Twitter in emergencies, to target Canadians in affected areas… it’s very much part of our mainstream,” he said.
Masood Khan, permanent representative of Pakistan to the U.N., was even blunter in his assessment.
“My participation in social media is static. I don’t have any clear directions from my government. It’s a grey area, they haven’t made up their mind,” he said. Khan said “digital wars” had already started between some members of the Security Council, with confidential information allegedly leaked to journalists through social media.
“You have all these allegations about espionage… In the Security Council, members love to Tweet. Even the most confidential information would appear in the newspapers, New York Times and Washington Post, and usually the source would be a Tweet,” he said.
“Members would blame each other, that it was done by the others… In that sense, Twitter wars have started, and we have to find ways to resolve those conflicts.” (IPS)