Aldo Matteucci   15 Nov 2012   Looking Sideways

Printer Friendly and PDF

I’ve asked a US diplomat friend of mine what his experience had been with Facebook as a tool in diplomacy. Here is his answer: “we had good results with Facebook outreach to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs on business, economic, social and technology issues.”

There are a few interesting lessons to glean from this short statement.

The most important one in my view is that it provided immediate “incentives” for users. Life is about constantly and consistently adapting to change, and even one-cellular molds are very intelligent this way[1]. We can’t help ourselves dealing with an incentive (contrary to molds, survival is not our only aim, so an incentive will remain a propensity, not a necessity).  The stronger the incentive – here material change – the greater is the likely effect. The reaction is not linear: we may have a threshold effect. Awareness-rising may not be enough, for it is not confirmed by a concrete and transformative response.

The second lesson is that the incentives better be limited and circumscribed – simple and immediately tangible. The diplomats did not want to change the attitude of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs toward the US in one swell swoop. They just wanted to do something economically useful and constructive at the local level. This is akin to the wound-healing process[2]: it is a local affair (the conscious brain is not involved, it would only mess up things) of “building bridges” with bits of collagen, and then making new cells thrive, one at a time. After a month the wound has healed.

My analogy is apt in another way. Just as the wound-healing process is structured, with cells taking on different tasks in appropriate sequence, the US incentive grafted itself in the self-organizing structures of Palestinian society. It touched not just the “autonomous” individual, but the whole social context within which she was embedded. Such structures run very deep, and persist even under the most trying conditions – as we saw in Germany after the WWII[3]. Humans are flexible in ways biological life is not: it was women who brought Germany back of the brink, as millions of men had died in battle or been taken prisoner. I would not be surprised if similar reactions were present in the West Bank.

An incentive, in other words, “resonates”. Others in same situation may imitate. Complementarities emerge, as the businessperson who takes up an incentive distributes its effects to suppliers, helpers, workers. Looking beyond the “target” and establishing the strength and pitch of the resonance would provide guidance in increasing effectiveness. “Resonance”, by the way, is a Confucian view which underpins China’s current search for “harmony”.

Unfortunately the statement I received does not yield numbers, so one is left wondering whether this local process, successful as it might have been, made a difference in the end on Palestinian society.

The imbalance between micro-incentive and macro-effect need not be a drawback, if it is cleverly used to test the effectiveness of the incentive. Plausibility underpins many an incentive program, yet it is often a poor policy guide. One is well advised to establish statistical tests to verify the validity of the claims. This is done by comparing statistically equivalent groups, one “with” and one “without” the incentive, after controlling for other factors. By its very nature a pilot program is selective, so we may use this feature to test the underlying hypothesis. Testing in the context of social reality is far from easy, and diplomats who want to obtain verified evidence better get proper advice – before the fact.

“Evidence-based evaluation” may be constrictive, rather than constructive. Quality is lost, when we take quantity as proxy. Given our tendency to fabulate in search for self-affirmation, however, measuring is better than plain (i.e. self-serving) comment. One should always remember that incentives yield only propensities, not necessities[4]. Andno incentive will empower. The old adage “one can take the horse to water, but not make him drink” may confound all testing.

My friend also mentioned collateral benefits from the Facebook program. It was transparent – also for the Israeli authorities. Heightened transparency may in the end be the most important – if collateral effect.


[1]          Single-celled amoebae can remember, make decisions and anticipate change, urging scientists to rethink intelligent behavior.


[3]          See: Ben SHEPHARD (2011): The long road home. The aftermath of the Second World War. Vintage, New York.

[4]          See William EASTERLY (2002): The elusive quest for growth. Economists’ adventures and misadventures in the Tropics. MIT Press, New Haven.

Leave a Reply

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • You may use [view:name=display=args] tags to display views.
CAPTCHA This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.