Friday, June 19, 2009

The tweet heard 'round Tehran: A new channel of public diplomacy?

Guest post by Jessie Daniels

Jessie Daniels recently received a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Prior to that, she worked as a national security staffer in the U.S. Senate. She is a Truman National Security Project fellow.

[This is Jessie's second post at The Reaction. Her first, on Obama's Af/Pak strategy, can be found here. -- MJWS]

As we watch with interest the events unfolding in Iran, one of the major stories dominating the headlines is the Twitter effect. Twitter, and other new media, have given a global voice to the angst over the elections and have made the intensity of those marching in Tehran palpable to those sitting on the couch watching halfway around the world. Most importantly, the social networking phenomenon has undermined the Iranian regime's attempts to isolate its country from the rest of the world and has, perhaps, opened a new chapter of informal public diplomacy efforts.

Despite the regime's efforts to prevent the outside world from witnessing the post-election ramifications, new media sites continue to provide the most up-to-date information on the events in Iran. Moreover, these sites have become forums not only for reporting but also for advocacy. For example, tweeters on Twitter have been urged to turn their avatars green in solidarity with the Iranian protesters.

The increased attention has also highlighted the complications faced by the regime as it tries to effectively counter the public reaction to the election results. The regime's dismissive rhetoric, which often plays well when denouncing the West, has instead stoked the flames of internal dissent. After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compared the protests to the "passions after a soccer match," members of the Iranian national soccer team wore green armbands during a World Cup qualifier in protest. Efforts to blame the United States and Israel for improper meddling seem to fall on deaf ears as the protests continue to resonate.

Events in Iran have sparked a debate here at home about what the U.S. should be doing in response. Some assert that the administration should openly and actively encourage the protesters in Iran while others believe that we should stay out of the process. Regardless of where one falls on this spectrum, though, these events already illustrate the power of a new public diplomacy channel present in new media venues.

As opposed to formal public diplomacy measures, such as educational and cultural exchanges, social networking sites like Twitter provide a way to informally connect people. These small-scale efforts could have long-ranging benefits. Right now, the American public is getting a glimpse of the Iranian public and gaining an understanding of what drives them, what they are fighting for, and how they are expressing their dissent. The Iranian protesters are also aware that they have a global audience, including those watching in the United States. Although the Iranian and American publics have been kept apart for three decades, new media may be helping to debunk stereotypes in each country that have been built up since the 1979 revolution.

In this paradigm, government works best when it works to ensure that free and open dialogue continues. Doing so can help to pave the way toward increased support for further engagement at higher levels. There will likely be opportunities for the administration to capitalize on this situation as it pushes forth with direct engagement. Already, however, social networking has gone far beyond allowing high school buddies to keep in touch. With a significant percentage of the population in Iran younger than 30, this method of connecting the Iranian and American publics could eventually lead to a level of engagement and understanding that is beyond the realm of formal public diplomacy.

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