Over a year ago Ben Eltham and I did a conference paper on Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis. The paper proved too controversial for the conference’s refereed stream yet it has gone on to become our most widely read and cited paper.
Today, Paul Raymond posed some questions about Twitter and Wikileaks for a forthcoming article in Saudi Arabia’s magazine The Diplomat. Below are my email answers:
You express doubts that Twitter and other social network tools will “enable ordinary people to seize power from repressive regimes.” But what other political potentials do these networks have, in terms of broadening the public sphere for debate, mobilizing political networks, and helping to globalise civil society? What will be the results of these potentials for governments?
Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools certainly have the potential to broaden debate, mobilise political networks, and to globalise civil society. Perhaps they are today’s equivalent of the Cold War’s Radio Free Europe or Voice of America broadcasts. They are able to mobilise autonomous, self-regulative networks of people on a salient issue, and allow government agencies like the US State Department to reach a wider audience. However, these same qualities also mean that particularly for Twitter, social networks can be used to spread rumour and propaganda.US neoconservatives recognised these qualities in 2000 during their discussions on what a ‘next generation’ capability might resemble.Twitter’s interest in Iran gradually faded after the weeks of political uncertainty, as it became clear that Ahmadinejad’s regime would remain in power. Our conclusions echo the late sociologist and political scientist Charles Tilly’s work on political violence and repressive regimes.
The US State Department implicitly recognised Twitter’s importance when it asked Twitter to delay server upgrades – or at least, officials wanted to know what would happen next in the political cyber-laboratory of Iran. What would be a proper response by western governments to the results, including the “unintended uses” different actors gained from the network?
Firstly, to understand that Twitter, Facebook and other social networks will have their own dynamics similar to the CNN Effect of the 1990-91 Gulf War. Second, to counterbalance the ability to reach different audiences with the reality that people may only sustain their attention during a crisis. Third, that different actors will use ‘open network’ tools for their own ends and ethics, such as the Iranian Basij paramilitary using Twitter to arrest and kill protestors.
A ‘proper response’ may depend on the specific government agency. Whilst the US State Department was interested in public diplomacy, other agencies may have different agendas or uses for the same data. The US Department of Defense may be interested in the danger of social networking sites to be used for adversary propaganda and disinformation to international public audiences. A US intelligence agency may be interested in ‘contextual intelligence’ that may arise from diaspora networks, or alternatively, how many ‘tweets’ or messages can lead to ‘noise’. We tried to explore how the same data could be used in different ways depending on the aims and objectives of the specific end-user.
The State Department reacted very differently to the recent phenomenon of Wikileaks. What would be a proper governmental reponse to that kind of use of the internet?
The likely response of the US Government will probably be to charge Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange under the relevant espionage and national security legislation for releasing diplomatic information. In the short-term this will also mean increased security and restricted access in the US Government on a ‘need to know’ basis to diplomatic cables. In the long-term, the US Government could work with specific media and scholarly groups — the American Political Science Association, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, The New York Times, The Washington Post, or George Washington University’s National Security Archive — to release declassified versions of the diplomatic cables in a more controlled and possibly ‘redacted’ manner. However, this might also require changes to US freedom of information laws and declassification schedules. Marc Trachtenberg at the University of California, Los Angeles, is an expert in these declassification issues for historians and political scientists.
What general rules would you suggest governments apply to make best use of the public diplomacy potential of social networking?
Use social networking tools to openly inform the public, such as Saudi Arabia’s initiatives on combatting terrorist financing and successful rehabilitation programs for ex-jihadists. Understand the limitations of social networking tools, such as their varied use by different groups, and how they can become disconnected in crisis situations from ‘on-the-ground’ events. Have mechanisms in place to identify, monitor and to counter disinformation and propaganda that may propagate on such social networks. Integrate social networking tools into a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy that uses a variety of media.
Can government’s efforts to crack down on freedom of information (such as the Chinese attacks on Google and the worldwide campaign against Wikileaks) work in the long run, or has the playing field been permanently leveled, giving civil society and opposition groups the ability to challenge governments’ influence over media agendas and foreign publics’ perceptions?
Constructivist scholars like Alexander Wendt, Peter Katzenstein and Martha Finnemore note the growing power of civil society groups to shape public perceptions and influence media agendas. Sophisticated governments may even work closely with aid organisations like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies during a crisis. It depends on the context and the nature of the information being publicly released. Google’s problems with China were foreseeable since at least early 2006 because of how Google’s management handled earlier crises about the identities of Chinese human rights activists. The campaign against Wikileaks and its publisher Julian Assange appears in part because the information was released in an ‘unredacted’ form and not through an establishment source like Thomas Friedman or Bob Woodward. The realist scholar Stephen M. Walt and others have pointed out the hypocrisy of this: Assange and Wikileaks are being attacked whilst mainstream media institutions like The New York Times are not. Perhaps the challenge also is that the information Wikileaks has published is about recent and current events, and not the usual 20-30 year gap of normal declassification procedures. The public’s demand for ‘real-time’ information and more transparency is an opportunity for governments and public diplomats, should they decide to seize it.