By Guy Golan
Over the past few years, the political landscape of the Middle East has wholly transformed by the diffusion of social media across the region. Accounting for 50-65 percent of the region’s population, young Muslims quickly embraced these new platforms of mass communication and soon thereafter, they became leaders of revolutions.
Social media has enabled citizen journalists with the ability to create and distribute content across the globe. It allowed millions of strangers to unite behind the cause of greater freedom and economic opportunity and organize mass demonstrations that would forever change the autocratic Middle East. Social media along with Arab Satellite television provided a real information alternative to the state controlled media outlets that for generations engaged in pro-regime propaganda often at the expense the truth.
It is hard to imagine that Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Jack Dorsey (Twitter) ever foresaw the liberalizing impact and magnitude that their creations would one day have on the Middle East. Social media was instrumental in the mass communication and organization of the Arab Spring movement that expressed the aspirations of millions of young people for meaningful political change.
The Obama administration has time and again expressed its commitment to genuine relationship building with Muslims around the world. Through social media, it launched an ambitious multiplatform public diplomacy campaign that allows for direct two-way communication between the State Department and Muslims. Through videos and blogs, Facebook pages, and mobile phone applications, America can now both talk and listen. It seems like technology is reinventing the very essence of international relations.
Yet, recent evidence indicates that launching a successful public diplomacy campaign via social media may be easier said than done. An innovative global digital outreach campaign was recently introduced by the US State Department. Their campaign allowed citizens from across the world to ask Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Judith McHale, questions in 10 different languages using the #AskUSA Twitter hashtag.
This campaign turned out to be a bust. Most of the tweets consisted of either spam or communication from American officials from outside the USA.
Yet, the American State Department should not let one failed effort deter them. All relationships both off and online take time to develop.
The American State Department understands this. Just last month it reached out to young Iranians with its “Ask Alan” campaign through the USAdarFarsi social media platform that combines Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter.
Will “Ask Alan” fair better than previous campaigns? Only time will tell.
One key point that all public diplomacy officials should keep in mind is that communication does not take place in a vacuum. This is especially true in the Middle East.
Recent scholarship on Anti-Americanism reflects a key challenge to American public diplomacy. Public opinion data collected in the Muslim world points to perceived inconsistencies between the values that America communicates regarding its commitment to freedom and democracy and its regional policies. Such perceptions were often related to America’s support of autocrats past and present day.
As the struggle for democracy continues throughout the Muslim world, millions of young people look to the social sphere as a virtual meeting place where they can share ideas, frustrations, and hopes regarding the struggle for greater freedom in their nations.
America’s digital outreach campaign can both guide and support the cause of democracy.
But no matter how many Twitter followers or Facebook friends America will have in the virtual world, it will ultimately be judged on the basis of its actual policies.
As the old Arab proverb goes: A promise is a cloud; fulfillment is rain.
Dr. Guy J. Golan is an associate professor of public diplomacy at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. You can follow him on Twitter @Guygolan; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Global Experts (www.theglobalexperts.org), a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.