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Ediplomacy: A powerful supplement

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12 June 2012 11:51

Shannon Smith's post on Australian ediplomacy raises some excellent and often overlooked points on social media. There are also a few that I take a slightly different view on.

Most strikingly, his post points to the modernisation of Australia's government generally. Shannon provides a whole list of great digital initiatives from different arms of the Australian Government operating overseas. The notable absence (with the exception of the new Facebook page) was DFAT, although even that is changing and clearly the embassy in Jakarta gets it. AusAID could also have been added to the list. It has been working hard on the technology transition.

Shannon's last point is also critical: 'With only 22% of Indonesians accessing the internet, e-diplomacy is no solution in itself to the decline of Australia's broader public diplomacy capabilities — it is simply a necessary supplement.'

There seems to be a perception in some areas that social media is a replacement for public diplomacy, and a related view that just having a Facebook page or Twitter feed means you're all done and dusted, no strategy or work needed. Anyone who holds those views is likely to be very disappointed. Murrow's emphasis on the 'last three feet' is as relevant today as it was back in the pre-social media world. But I am afraid I don't share Shannon’s analysis of the US Embassy Facebook strategy or its utility.

Shannon seems to dismiss the US Embassy's 485,000 Facebook fans because they represent only 0.21% of the Indonesian population and because Indonesian celebrities have so many more fans. That is a bit simplistic to me. Because Kim Kardashian has a zillion more Twitter followers than Mitt Romney, does that mean it's a useless tool for him in his election campaign and he should stop using it? Or because The Australian newspaper reaches less than 2% of the total Australian population (according to Roy Morgan data) and people who buy it self-select, does that mean it has no influence?

Shannon also argues that 'social media can only do so much and reach so many. Social media only reaches the influential few, and reinforces their positive notions towards Australia.'

I'm a bit more uncertain about these claims. Social media can certainly help reach the influential, but it is also one of the best tools embassies have ever had to speak directly and daily to a wider audience. Social media certainly has its limits, but the reaction of governments around the world to the Arab uprisings, particularly the sharp ramp-up in filtering and monitoring of these tools, suggests they at least see them as powerful platforms.

And while not everyone uses social media, reach through these platforms is pretty staggering. There are now over 900 million active monthly users on Facebook. And while most of the world does not yet have smart phones, that is rapidly changing as costs decline.

What I assume Shannon means is that the audience for foreign ministry tweets is probably pretty small and will soon be saturated. That's entirely possible, but it remains a largely untested proposition. The State Department's Facebook and Twitter audience reach continues to grow as it modifies and grows its content. Australia might choose not to allocate resources to competing seriously in this space, but that doesn't mean the audiences aren't there to be reached.

But Shannon's wider point is the most important: these tools are only a supplement, not a replacement for diplomacy.

Photo by Flickr user veo_.