On January 30th 2015, the UN in New York held its first social media day. Social media professionals, practitioners of digital diplomacy and academics from various fields were all invited to share their knowledge with regard the use of social media in the conduct of diplomacy. In addition, the day included several panels such as the “Tweeting from the Top” panel in which UN ambassadors that are active on social media discussed the novel practice of digital diplomacy.
Looking back on the UN social media day, it seems that the United Nations has a vested interest in promoting digital diplomacy and the use of social media among its member states for three main reasons:
The Spirit of Social Media- Communication scholars are still attempting to understand the role social media played in the Arab spring of 2011. Some maintain that the revolution was “tweeted”. Others argue that given the relatively low penetration rate of social media in Arab nations during 2011, social media was a tool for organizing protests but not for mobilizing masses of demonstrators. Such scholars add that it was Al-Jazeera’s live broadcast of protests in Tunisia that led to the outburst of mass demonstrations throughout the entire region. Yet both groups of scholars agree that since the Arab spring, social media has been endowed with the spirit of democracy, freedom of speech and transparent government. These are the very values promoted by the United Nations.
In addition, given that the United Nations in New York is one of the world’s most important hubs of diplomacy, it is not surprising that both UN organizations and UN embassies attract large numbers of social media followers. The UN’s official twitter account attracts some 4 million followers, the US ambassador to the UN has 150 thousand followers while the British ambassador has 22 thousand followers. Combined together, the UN and its embassies attract a global audience of millions of followers. These are people who are interested in the world they live in and who want to take part in shaping it. In an age marked by political cynicism, loss of faith in government and a global decline in democratic participation, UN followers represent a vibrant public sphere. By conversing with these followers through social media, the UN and its member states may be able to increase civic engagement on a global scale.
Virtual Relations- Nations that have not established diplomatic relations in the physical world, often establish virtual relations on social media. For instance, long before John Kerry began meeting his Iranian counterpart, the US was conversing with Iranian citizens through Virtual Embassy Teheran. While digital relations are not tantamount to official diplomatic ones, they do serve as a preliminary basis for sharing information and communicating policy. Thus, digital relations may act as a prelude to full diplomatic relations.
Image: Virtual Relations between Israel and Arab MFAs
Such virtual relations are quite common in the UN. In fact, geo-political enemies often follow another at the UN (an activity I refer to as follow-mies). For instance, Israel’s mission to the UN follows the UAE’s mission even though both nations have no diplomatic relations. Likewise, although direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine are currently non-existent, Israel’s mission to the UN follows Palestine’s mission as do Iranian and US officials. By supporting digital diplomacy the UN is also supporting linkages between all nations, even enemy ones.
Leveling the Diplomatic Playing Field- Global diplomacy is often characterized by a geographic bias in which smaller nations struggle to compete with larger ones. Digital diplomacy enables smaller states to position themselves at the very heart of world diplomacy. For instance, African foreign ministries attract the attention of, and communicate with, world powers through social media.
The democratizing impact of digital diplomacy is most evident in the UN. For instance, Rwanda and New Zealand are among the most popular UN missions among their peers while Palestine and Norway’s missions serve as important hubs of information as they connect missions that do not follow one another directly on twitter. By supporting digital diplomacy and the use of social media, the UN may be leveling the diplomatic playing field in favor of smaller states enabling them to take part in setting the global agenda and promoting their global initiatives.
Image: UN Missions that are Information Hubs
In summary, by promoting the use social media and the practice of digital diplomacy among member states, the UN is promoting the values and ideals enshrined in its charter. Therefore, the UN’s social media day should represent a successful and humble beginning to a much larger effort.