'Twitter Diplomacy', an article by US NPR (National Public Radio), sparked a flurry of interest on Twitter itself. The original article posed both sides of the case for 'Statecraft 2.0'. It highlighted the view of John Brown, from Georgetown University, that "what's most important about public diplomacy.. is not Facebook to Facebook, but face to face".
However, the article also talked at length about blogging ambassadors such as Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, who is using Facebook intensively even while he is out of the country, for example posting satellite images of tanks moving on cities in Syria, and ambassador, Michael McFaul in Russia, 'who is using social media to counter what's being said about him in the Russian press'.
Influencing people, their perceptions and their behaviour is the target for all those investing huge resources into social media. Careers, and possibly fortunes, are being carved out in the wake of our mass migration online by pundits and experts mapping our social footprint and telling us how to increase the potency of our media profile.
Unsurprisingly, platforms like Facebook are keen to encourage us to spend even more, in our own interest. Facebook commissioned research from Deloitte - 'Facebook's economic impact on Europe' which claimed that for Europe as a whole, the economic impact of Facebook was an estimated €15bn in revenues, supporting 229,000 jobs. The report was published a day ahead of the annoucement by the European commission of plans for a "comprehensive review" of the EU's 1995 data protection rules "to strengthen online privacy rights" and "boost Europe's digital economy". John Naughton was among many who smelt a rat in the timing, and scorned the disclaimers from Deloitte that they couldn't be held accountable for its accuracy.
Ben Ramalingam, a visitng fellow at the UK Overseas Development Institute, does a more thorough debunking of the report and locates his analysis in a wider critique of claims by social media giants to enormous influence. Ramalingam researches and writes on the implications of complexity science for climate change and international development. He quotes approvingly from - and summarises - a piercing analysis by Philip Sheldrake in the Guardian newspaper, illustrating how the ideas and tools of complexity science are abused to lend an air of credibility to claims of social media impact. While not at all denying the power and influence of social media he urges reason and caution:
"Overall, it seems that each of us is more influenced by the 150-odd nearest to us than by the other six or so billion combined. Influence is truly complex. And this is a considerable challenge – and opportunity – to marketing and public relations firms. So far, many have claimed to be able to identify the influentials, get to know them, and influence them. They are effectively claiming to be the influencer of influencers, a sort of influencer-in-chief if you like".
And he urges us to " avoid such simplistic thinking, such hyperbole, and recognise complexity and navigate it appropriately". Diplomats need no introduction to complexity. Perhaps their increasingly wholesale adoption of social media will provide a better opportunity to explore cautiously the subtle interaction of communication and influence.