An early leader in employing social media, the United Nations heralded January 30, 2015 as Social Media Day. The event was probably of many to come where digital-diplomacy is addressed in practice and theory. As with the many innovations in social media that occur at a breakneck pace, one can expect similar evolution and revolution in digital diplomacy. While dialogue and deals still may require direct, face-to-face contacts, transparency must be balanced confidentiality. (UN Photo above: Ambassador Madeleine Albright, US Diplomat Stewart Seldowitz and Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey consult during the one of many public debates within the UN Security Council during the Bosnia crisis in the 1990’s as the UN was at the start of its now long journey to open windows and access to global citizens.) Perhaps though, one of the first challenges/dangers to social media is the effort to deliver conformism ostensibly via greater “regulation.”
While hate and terror groups from white supremacists to ISIS have sought to exploit social media to recruit and/or incite, the most effective utility of such tools as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. has been to inform and raise awareness and activism. From Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to an array of animal rights and environment protection NGO’s, awareness has reached new levels and policies altered and modeled to benefit a broader constituency of global citizens as well as the shared earth and animals for whom we are stewards. The UN, and its many various agencies and related organs have become effective practitioners in digital-diplomacy, such as the ILO (International Labor Organization), UNEP (UN’s Environment Program), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – (See: “Can Muslim Human Rights Chief Save Humanity from Itself?”) and the World Bank (See: “World Bank Goes into the Mind & Heart of Poverty.”)
Yesterday’s UN “Social Media Day” was opened by the UN’s Department of Public Information (DPI), Maher Nasser, and included a presentation from Adam Snyder, a strategist at the private sector firm Burson-Marsteller, who helped produce a study spotlighting Twitter’s impact on diplomacy. National governments, their officials and competing political interests have also become active practitioners. This has created another platform where ideas and agendas can compete in what I tagged more than two decades earlier as the “free-marketplace of ideas” – a means to a more free society, greater inclusion and diversity, and thus more genuine democratization. Peace has been enhanced by recognition of both differences and shared values but also the evolution of the inclusive shared identity of global citizen.
Now, some who are ostensibly shocked by the terror assaults upon free speech, as Charlie Hebdo in Paris, want more controls on attempts to recruit via social media. Perhaps not unexpectedly, more authoritarian regimes from Beijing to Teheran to Moscow have sought for years to exert their stamps of approval, or simply suffocate unauthorized channels. Some elements within more free and democratic societies have effectively come to acquiesce to such agendas in the name of national security and the war on terror. (See: “The Interview – Digital Diplomacy, a Battlefield or Marketplace of Ideas?”) The UN at times has become the venue, the global institution, by which the efforts to “control” may be agreed, exercised and monitored.
Undoubtedly, legitimate concerns on security, incitement to hate, and terror do exist. The hurdle to silence or censor should though be a very high one – even the road to legitimizing draconian controls in some circumstances could become a tool and rationale to silence any opposition or disagreement with the prevailing view, from politics to sexuality to social justice to religion. (See: “Is God More Insulted by Cartoons or Those Who Kill in God’s Name?”)
The best way to counter the haters and promoters of terrors is in the open air, the “free-marketplace of ideas.” Digital-diplomacy cannot regress into another tool for approved propaganda, but must test the bounds from the dissemination of evidence to ideology. The UN has already adopted a more open stance; but let there be no doubt, the lowest common denominator could also prefer silence. The UN must first defend against such efforts to silence before ever becoming a tool to quiet the riot.