In our last class, our guest professor Robert Kelley told us about a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine called Twitter vs. the KGB. Not only was the story an interesting example of the use of social media, but I think it also was a great way to put into context the themes we have been discussing all semester long about how information technology and networks are transforming the public sphere, with significant implications on public diplomacy and global governance.
It’s worth a read but just in case here’s the quick summary. The article tells the story of Nic Tanner, a photographer living in Kyrgyzstan, in the middle of post-election conflict, who while filming a protest gets approached by some Kyrgyz men claiming they are KGB, (national security), who ask for his passport. He calls an American friend for help, who helps him think of ways to stall. When he starts running out of options a friend reaches the US embassy where the officer gives him the advice to “tweet it” (what’s going on) and within minutes the conflict is resolved.
Twitter and other social media are usually highlighted for their power to mobilize civilian activism, but this article’s focus on Twitter was different. Professor Kelly’s point in telling the story was to illustrate the shift occurring in public diplomacy action from the official agent to the network (in this case, the network of people tweeting and responding). Not only do civilians become more empowered by networks, but the speed at which the network comes together is ever increasing with technology. As a result networked action through social media becomes more efficient and potentially effective than the governance systems or diplomacy efforts we have in place currently. In this instance, citizens as a network could problem solve just by re-tweeting a post, which takes seconds, rather than the lengthy process that would be required of an officer or government system to get involved. Going back to the Public Diplomacy conference we attended a few weeks back and the critique by many of the students, I think this story further exemplifies the need for public diplomacy conversations to include more of the actors that are increasingly involved in its processes.