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User generated content and its possible impact on public diplomacy

10 May 2010

New social media channels and user generated content cause a significant change on the way that political events are covered. This is not only true for situations in which the presence of journalists is restricted, like the 2009 Iranian elections. Content from Youtube and Twitter have also affected the coverage of stories in places where there is a strong and free media. (click to read more)

First of all, user generated content has found its way into traditional media, through initiatives such as CNN’s iReport or BBC’s Have Your Say. To some extent, it is possible to say that the agenda of mass media is partially set by users nowadays. This mainstreaming of user generated content is positive, although the draconian terms of use imposed by initiatives such as iReport, that give the television channels a broad range of rights over the content uploaded by users, should certainly be subject of public debate and scrutiny.

Secondly, even if user generated content does not make it to the big media channels, platforms such as Youtube or Twitter, for instance, give them the possibility of wide visibility. This is an important factor, which has to be taken into account in public diplomacy strategies.

Governments usually have influence over the stories told by the private media corporations, specially when it comes to foreign relations. This is mainly because government official are usually seen as reliable sources of information. When it comes to user generated content, however, the messages can rapidly be out of the control of the governments and the media. And this bottom-up, unpredictable content has the power to affect the way a story is told. The Internet makes it possible to tell different sides of the same story, which would not be heard otherwise.

If we focus on videos, it is not difficult to realize how their source (if they are user generated or if they are professionally generated by media channels) may influence the message. Even the framing of the video and the perspective of the observer are able to make a difference. For example: a person who watches a video may get different feelings if he/she sees a riot covered from abroad, in a video being shot from a news corporation helicopter, and if he/she sees a video being filmed from the perspective of a man-on-the-street (see examples of the two perspectives during the coverage of Greece riots). Suddenly, the person who watches becomes a part of the riot, and becomes “connected” with the person behind the camera, even if they are geographically and culturally apart. The eyes of the watcher replace the eyes of the person making the movie – a digital version of the astonishing effect that the renaissance painters achieved with the invention of the linear perspective.

Moreover, in a world in which everything seems to be a product of marketing ingenuity, in world in which every image seems to have been “produced” in order to be sold, images made by a layman and the ones made by a television employee strike us somewhat differently. An interesting phenomenon of empathy happens when we are aware that the person behind the camera is actually implicated on the situation and is being driven by personal feelings towards what he/she sees. The video is not only an attempt to document the facts; it is also a way of self-expression from someone who is living the situation. A shocking example is the video made by the friends of the girl murdered on the streets on Teheran, which had a great worldwide impact.

How does user generated content affect public diplomacy? How does it affect media diplomacy? Does it empower ordinary people and make them relevant actors in the diplomatic arena?

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