When the Distance Is Greater than Three Feet

Like Z’leste and company, I also had the pleasure of attending the “The Last Three Feet” conference at the Elliott School last Thursday. It was very exciting to attend an event that focused exclusively on my small field of study- public diplomacy! Plus it will henceforth be known as the day that I was in the same room as the very intelligent and talented Michelle Kwan. Who knew she got her MA at Fletcher and serves as an honorary public diplomacy ambassador? I’m still kicking myself for not getting a photo with her!

So after the conference, Professor Hayden asked us to think about not only what was said at the conference, but also what was not said. In fact, this was something I was thinking about during the panel discussion on new outreach strategies. Two of the panelists, Aaron Snipes and Rachel Leslie, talked about their use of social media at their posts in Iraq and Bahrain, respectively.  Walter Douglas, who served in Pakistan, focused on analyzing Urdu-language TV, since Pakistan has still not wholeheartedly adopted social media. While it was interesting to hear about the role of social media in Bahrain and Iraq, one girl in the audience asked a question that I had in mind as well. She said something like, social media is great, but is it really that effective at reaching normal people?

Good question, with an answer that varies. Leslie told us that internet and mobile penetration is very high in Bahrain, and that whoever did not use social media before the Arab Spring is now on board. However, states of critical importance to the US such as Afghanistan and Pakistan (and to a lesser extent, Iraq*) do not have such wide access to social media. The infrastructure is not there and literacy rates are low.  Anyone who is using social media in these places is apt to have been educated abroad or at least living in an urban area. So it seems to me that while social media may be an avenue of reaching elites in these places, it is not sufficient to reach everyone.

Recently, I talked to an FSO who had spent time in Afghanistan. I asked him what his experiences were like in interacting with the Afghan people. He chuckled and said that the people there are really just centuries behind, and that some don’t even really understand why American forces are in their country. This assertion seemed somewhat unbelieveable at first, but when you think of how rural and remote parts of that region can be, you can see how that is possible.  Yet, these far out people are the ones we need to reach if we want to be somewhat successful in the War on Terror. So what should we do? The panelists agreed on the continued importance of pan-Arab channels such as al-Jazeera in influencing public opinion. Another avenue that was not mentioned is radio. Radio is able to reach people in the most remote of places, and like TV does not require literacy. Finally, nothing can replace person-to-person interaction, as was described under a different context in the second panel.

So while I see how important it has been in facilitating revolution in the Middle East this spring, I have to say that I roll my eyes a bit when people rhapsodize about the wonders of social media. We cannot rely on Twitter alone to create democracy, and we cannot let a US embassy’s Facebook page be its only way of communicating with foreign nationals. I think these platforms are tools of public diplomacy, and not solutions to our problems. We cannot abandon our old but widely-available tools of TV and radio, and FSOs need to ensure that they are regularly leaving their fortress embassies to go interact with the people. I understand that this work can be dangerous, but I think it’s worth the risk.


*In Iraq, literacy is fairly high but only 15% have internet access, placing it above these states but it seems that access is still very limited.


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