The “YouTube Effect” on Public Diplomacy
Posted By: Drew Margolin
If there’s one thing the 2008 election promises to be about it is “change.” While the candidates emphasize their credentials at bringing change, it is important to remember that there is also a need to respond to change that has already occurred. And nowhere has change been more evident than in the arena of communication.
The media environment has been transformed in the last decade, presenting new challenges to the presidential candidates and to the victor in November. Much as the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate signaled the beginning of the “visual era” of politics brought on by the advent of television, this election could very well contain similar lessons in the game of politics 2.0.
There are two things to watch: the way the candidates handle the new media environment in their campaigns and the extent to which they incorporate an understanding of this environment into their foreign policy, particularly in their approach to diplomacy.
The election could very well come down to which candidate is best able to manage the “YouTube effect.” We are now in a world where any conduct of even remote interest is likely to be: a) recorded by anyone with a cell phone and b) distributed around the world almost instantaneously. Politicians have always had to be careful about what they say and tiptoe through real and apparent contradictions, but the dangers of a misstep have been amplified by The YouTube effect. Video evidence, though distorted in its own way, leaves less room for ambiguous interpretation and thus allows politicians less wiggle room. But much as television opened the door to more “telegenic” candidates, the YouTube effect is also likely to offer opportunities to those who can master its sensibilities. Candidates need to figure out not only how to avoid the pitfalls of the YouTube effect but also how to turn it to his or her advantage.
So far, none of the three remaining candidates appears poised to do so. Hillary Clinton’s “misstatements” about Bosnia and Barack Obama’s delayed reaction to Jeremiah Wright’s sermons indicate their staffs do not plan for the YouTube effect the way they should. Meanwhile, a video montage of John McCain’s “100 years” comment about the war in Iraq is taking on cult status on the web. There is still time before November for one (or more) of them to figure out how to use the YouTube effect to their benefit, but the learning curve may be steep.
The second impact of the new media environment is likely to be felt in the debate on national security. In this new media environment public diplomacy can no longer be treated separately from state-to-state diplomacy. In many nations–even undemocratic or semi-democratic ones like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia–the broad dissemination of information, including, in many cases, radical and distorted interpretations of that information, means that local politics have become a critical force in international negotiations. We might think of this as the “I’d like to help you but I’m afraid of a coup” effect. Whether these concerns about local instability are real, perceived, or fabricated, they remain a credible threat until the U.S. can use communication strategies to establish its own rapport with foreign publics.
A smart U.S. foreign policy will recognize that the apparent disadvantages of the new media environment can be turned into advantages. If official U.S. diplomatic actions can, in fact, undermine the legitimacy of foreign governments, that means our government wields foreign political power. Thus, it might be possible to use such actions as tools to serve our own goals. The current debate in the Democratic campaign over whether to meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad is a good example. On the one hand, as Senator Clinton argues, agreeing to meet with the president may be perceived by his regime as a reward for Iran’s bad behavior. However, if communicated by the American president in the right way, the action may also be perceived as an opportunity for the Iranian public to make demands on their government to improve human rights and tamp down aggression. Senator Obama, as president, would need to build a connection between American openness and the allegiance of foreign publics.
How might he, or any American president, build such a connection? As in building any diplomatic alliance, the primary incentive is shared interest. This means deploying America’s communicative power as a force that helps the Iranian public achieve its goals rather than merely disseminating information, encouraging them to share America’s goals. One area that might be fruitful to explore is fostering the Iranian blogosphere. Blogging represents a form of individual expression that is both popular amongst the Iranian people and restricted by the Iranian government. A stronger, freer Iranian blogosphere would be in the interest of both the Iranian and the American people.
Perhaps the next president can agree to meet with President Ahmadinejad on the condition that, during his visit, he will grant exclusive interview rights to a set of well-respected Iranian bloggers in the spirit of “open-ness.” Ahmadinejad is thus in the position of legitimating Iranian blogs (by accepting the deal or some version of it) or refusing access to the potentially large material gains that would result from negotiating with America. Thus it is either a political win for Iranian moderates or a political loss for their conservative opponents.
This is just one idea, of course. There are likely to be many more once we begin thinking strategically about the new media environment as a living, adapting entity that must be conversed with rather than a pre-programmed tool through which we merely transmit information.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.