Citizen Diplomacy’s Evolution onto the Web

Youth in Des Moines, Iowa have more in common with students in Tunisia than they thought. In particular, a passion for social justice.

While participating in Youth for Understanding’s (YFU) Virtual Exchange Initiative, a program that digitally connects students in different countries for moderated, in-depth discussion, a group of students in Iowa brought up the Black Lives Matter movement.

“They were somewhat shocked to find out that their peers in Tunisia, though in a slightly different capacity, could relate having just gone through a revolution,” Erin Helland, director of Virtual Exchange, said.

YFU’s program is just one example of social media and other digital platforms providing new opportunities for citizens to engage with each other and their governments, as discussed at a June panel organized by the Digital Diplomacy Coalition.

Citizen diplomacy is the simple phenomenon of person-to-person communication and an exchange of ideas, often cross-culturally. It has become the grassroots for foreign relations.

It is discussions about race and politics on college campuses. It’s volunteering in a community that you’ve never been a part of or networking at a convention.

Recently, these interactions have become normal in digital settings. Two of the most popular social media platforms for unfiltered dialogue, Facebook and Twitter, experienced exponential growth after launch. Through these networks, people across generations and borders have integrated digital conversations about news, culture and identity into their daily routines.

One advantage of citizen diplomacy being so constant and accessible is that such discussions can clear up cross-cultural misunderstandings. For instance, a recurring theme in YFU Virtual Exchange conversations is the students in Tunisia and Indonesia wanting to explain their Muslim religious beliefs, Helland said.

“The students want to make sure that their faith is understood,” she said. “And when you’re working in a country like Tunisia that has essentially the highest number of jihadis sent to ISIS, you have a passionate young group of individuals who wants to makes sure that the rest of the world knows that that is not the groupthink.”

Digital diplomacy can also function by bringing likeminded people together to create political or social impact.

A grandmother in Hawaii made the Facebook event that launched January’s women’s march in Washington, D.C., panelist Sharon Yang, a member of the Politics and Government Outreach team at Facebook, said. What started as a desire to respond to the presidential election results became a massive global movement that drew more than 2 million to the streets in protest.

There are also protests that have taken place entirely on the internet.

The largest in history was in 2012 against the anti-piracy SOPA and PIPA Acts. Worried about the legislation’s potential to enable a culture of internet censorship, many of the world’s most visited websites organized a one-day internet blackout.

Wikipedia replaced its domain with a three-sentence message, the first reading “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge,” and Google placed a black censorship bar over its logo. Three million people wrote to congress in reference to the legislation, and there were 2.4 million tweets about the subject that day.

For the first time…you had this massive mobilization of citizens which used digital technologies to express their views,” Andrea Glorioso, the counsellor for the Digital Economy at the Delegation of the EU to the U.S., said.

But of course, beyond organized activism are the day-to-day uses of digital communication which function as citizen diplomacy. For example, discussions on Facebook about politics or chats about feminism in a group message.

Yang predicts that social media use will continue to increase, which leaves us grappling with what that means for the future of politics and public discourse.

The U.S. has never had a president more personally active on Twitter than Donald Trump, which Yang says will leave citizens expecting more and more government transparency.

Glorioso emphasized a need to formally teach upcoming generations the principles of civil debate so that digital discourse is as respectful and productive as one might expect such conversations to be in an offline setting.

“It really makes a difference whether a teenager is accustomed that,” he said. “You know, when I talk to you in a normal setting I don’t scream at you. I don’t say that you’re an idiot simply because I disagree with you. That kind of culture is very, very important.”

Teri West is an editorial intern of The Washington Diplomat

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