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From Michelle Obama’s “BringBackOurGirls” tweet to the Islamic State’s Instagram pictures of grisly executions, social media have become a popular tool in international relations. But their effectiveness is still in question, given that the sensational often gets more attention than the official. Tech Tuesday explores how governments are grappling with the challenge of influencing world opinion via social media.
- William Youmans Professor of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University
- Hamdullah Mohib Director of social media for the campaign of Afghanistan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani
- Philip J. "P.J." Crowley Former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs; Fellow, Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, The George Washington University
- Kori Schake Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; She worked in the Pentagon, White House and State Department on national security
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Islamic rebels live tweeted their events across Iraq this summer. Israel and Hamas are both firing a barrage of tweets aimed at winning hearts and minds. And Afghanistan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani used his popular Facebook page to rally voters. But when a State Department official tweeted the hope that Russia would live by the promise of the hashtag and back off in Ukraine, she was ridiculed around the globe.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn a trend that's been dubbed "hashtag diplomacy," diplomats and rebels alike are trying to harness the power of social media to get their message across. But the results are mixed. Tech Tuesday explores how social media are reshaping foreign relations by empowering social groups and individuals while creating new headaches for governments that are used to controlling the message. It's a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. How much of your international news do you get from Twitter and Instagram? 800-433-8850.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Aspen, Colorado is P.J. Crowley, former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University. P.J. Crowley, thank you for joining us.
MR. PHILIP J. "P.J." CROWLEYA pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios of KRCB in northern California is Kori Schake. She worked on national security in the Pentagon, White House and State Department in the Bush Administration. She's a Research Fellow with the Hoover Institution. Kori Schake, thank you for joining us.
MS. KORI SCHAKEIt's a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd in our Washington studio is William Youmans. He's a professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. William Youmans, thank you for joining us.
MR. WILLIAM YOUMANSThank you.
NNAMDIAnd also with us is Hamdullah Mohib. He is Director of Social Media Strategy for Afghanistan Presidential Candidate Ashraf Ghani. He's here to talk mostly about that, but Hamdullah Mohib, feel free to join in on any other part of the conversation. And thank you for joining us.
MR. HAMDULLAH MOHIBIt's a pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIP.J. Crowley, I'll start with you. You're a former State Department spokesperson. What's it like to stand at the podium in the age of Twitter and social media? How do their speed and their reach affect the way you shape the government's foreign policy message?
CROWLEYWell, it certainly has the potential to reshape the environment. There's tension in the concept of traditional diplomacy. Frequently, traditional diplomacy tries to, you know, slow things down. And yet, we see with the emergence of the internet and social media and so on the information, the news cycle is speeding up. And so there's inherent tension here. And certainly, Kojo, as you said in the introduction, you know, information is power. And States can no longer control the flow of information as they used to. The fact that now ordinary people have access to a wide range of quality information.
CROWLEYThere are no production costs to producing content, but we're also seeing, in Ukraine, the value of these networks in that they're producing information in the middle of a crisis and now governments which are struggling to introduce -- to figure out how to introduce social media into their programs and understanding its ramifications. Yet, in this particular case, as we've seen in recent days in Ukraine, with the tragedy of Malaysian flight 17, governments are mining the social media, pulling content off that to buttress their strategic narratives.
NNAMDIRecent days in Ukraine, Kori Schake, and just before that, the militant Islamic group ISIS, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now just IS, live tweeted its march across Iraq, video streamed purported executions of Iraqi soldiers. Tweeted out grisly photos of a beheading. How do social media make that kind of gory and threatening message effective?
SCHAKEWell, I think P.J. already identified the key to that, which is the connection to a strategic narrative. So, if you think of what IS is trying to do, they're trying to show the relentless progress they're making and try and persuade the United States and other countries not to intervene. And the barbarism and focus of their tweets does that. One of the most effective was actually -- they showed a decapitated head during our World Cup match and said, this is our soccer ball. Right? So, they have a strategic narrative that they're messaging reinforces. And American diplomacy too seldom has that.
NNAMDIMessage being you don't want to mess with us. Care to comment on that either William or Hamdullah?
YOUMANSYes. I would have to say that with an emergent organization like Islamic State or that kind of organization that is new, they have a tactical advantage in use of information sources, because they are formed, you know, during the social media time. So they can involve it in their institutional structure, in their institutional logic much more easily than an old government that has to adopt this new kind of logic. And so governments are playing from behind and the sort of nature of social media is highly fragmented, highly pluralistic, doesn't really fit well within governmental structures, which are based on centralization.
YOUMANSAnd having a culture of control and message discipline. So unfortunately, governments are playing from behind.
MOHIBI haven't really been following on their tweets, to be honest. But the gruesome pictures that I've seen, that other people have been retweeting, it just shows that it is that defragmentation, so you can reach a larger audience with that and hide behind it. So, it's difficult to find. You don't need anyone to censor your data. You get across a larger audience.
NNAMDIWilliam, Israel and Hamas are also using Twitter in a public relations battle alongside their actual fighting. How do hashtags like "Gaza under attack" and "Israel under fire" reflect the way each side is shaping its message and transmitting it over social media?
YOUMANSWell, to go back to this point I made about governments and the centralization of information, you have on one hand Israel, a very powerful government that has, you know, the Gaza strip under siege and under a sort of occupation kind of control, that has, for a long time, enjoyed tremendous leverage in the informational realm by being a very advanced, industrialized kind of government. Whereas, on the other side, you have the Palestinians and Gaza, who are largely refugees. 70 percent of the population deeply impoverished, who don't traditionally have the power over broadcast media and print media.
YOUMANSAnd so, for them, for the many different parties and factions who are just -- who are more than just Hamas, social media has given them an access to a global audience the Palestinians never really had before. And this is one area where you see leveling in the great power disparity. And I think that that's been very hard for the Israeli government to deal with, and its social media strategy is much more dynamic than it has been with previous episodes in this conflict. But it's still at a huge disadvantage, partially because the images coming out of Gaza strip are so powerful and so compelling.
YOUMANSAnd the Israeli narrative just doesn't seem to add up to that, and that's a problem the Israeli public relations operators kind of faced with the first Intifada in the late 1980s when you had pictures of Palestinian kids throwing rocks coming through traditional media. They considered that a problem. But that's so tiny compared to the scale of things that are happening on social media.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join this "Tech Tuesday" conversation on what we're calling "Hashtag Diplomacy." Are YouTube, Instagram and Twitter good foreign policy tools, in your view? You can also send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. P.J. Crowley, I'll start with you this time. In addition to using social media to get out a message, some groups seem to be using it for recruiting purposes. How is ISIS, or now IS, positioning itself in social media to recruit jihadists from other parts of the world.
CROWLEYCertainly. We've seen that with Al-Qaeda for the last, you know, 10 or 15 years, using the internet, you know, to try to attract followers. And I think it's a double edged sword for both a group like ISIS and governments. I agree with Kori, absolutely, that messaging needs to be an integral part of policy and strategy. That certainly is not necessarily the case, you know, with the United States, and there's reasons for that. You know, traditionally, diplomacy and what we call public diplomacy have been distinct. During the Cold War, we had the State Department formulating policy.
CROWLEYAnd an agency called the United States Information Agency formulating the messages. And they weren't always connected. In today's world, both governments, and I also think ISIS, you know, struggle in a unified global information environment over messaging for a domestic audience or an internal audience or a local audience. And then your international one. So, I don't know that ISIS has an effective strategy here. Sure, they use graphic pictures of beheadings to try to intimidate foreign audiences, but the reality is, I don't know that those pictures are necessarily going to gain them much political support inside Iraq, for example.
CROWLEYYou know, ISIS is tolerated there today, primarily because Sunnis in Iraq see ISIS as the lesser of two evils, Maliki for the moment being the larger issue -- larger, you know, problem. But AQI outwore its welcome in -- Al-Qaeda in Iraq outwore its welcome through its brutality and it could very well be that these kinds of graphic pictures hasten, you know, a counter movement that might develop over time in Iraq.
NNAMDIBut P.J., diplomacy has historically involved carefully constructed relationships and private discussions behind closed doors. How have social media broken down those doors and made diplomacy a much more open process?
CROWLEYWell, absolutely Kojo. And we tend to have historically thought of diplomacy and public diplomacy policy and messaging as things that are distinct. They're no longer distinct. We have to think in terms of a growing public dimension of diplomacy. And traditional diplomats, who are used to going behind closed doors, you know, closing the doors, exchanging talking points or formal papers and then deciding what to say about it. Much more of what they are doing is now visible to a wider array of people. Not only on -- and governments are having trouble protecting or -- protecting sensitive information or secret information, as we've seen through the workings of folks like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
CROWLEYSo, over time, yes, there's going to be a need for traditional diplomats to develop a greater public, you know -- recognize that diplomacy is more public and do it and operate in both realms. This is probably a generational thing. And it will evolve over time and we're only in the early stages of incorporating these public tools into the diplomatic practice. It will take some time.
NNAMDIKori Schake, on the flip side, social media pose a challenge for governments whose message is hope, peace and freedom. After Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls in Nigeria, the White House tweeted out a photo of a somber Michelle Obama, holding a sign with the hashtag, "bring back our girls." How does that campaign illustrate the difficulty of using Twitter to counteract violence?
SCHAKEWell, in two ways, I think. First, it seems slightly ridiculous to have the First Lady of the United States appealing for public interest in solving a problem, when in fact the person with the greatest ability in the entire world to solve that problem is her husband. And so, it seemed weird that she was appealing for public support for something that she had the power to influence. Second, it was a one off thing. Right? She posted the picture, but it actually doesn't connect to our policy. It wasn't part of a messaging campaign that reinforced what we were trying to do, and so in a weird way, it actually ended up helping Boko Haram because it publicized what they were doing and made us look impotent to respond to it. And I think that's a kind of classic bad social media campaign.
YOUMANSI would like to share another bad social media campaign, or at least one that backfired, which is one of the challenges of incorporating social media strategy. The Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, organized a hashtag called "Ask Dermer," which was something like an AMA or an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit, in which members of the public could submit questions and comments to the Ambassador for answers. And the hashtag, which is kind of a common venue for discussion, was totally overrun by criticism of Israeli policy, so much so that, you know, there was very little the Ambassador could actually do to respond.
YOUMANSAnd looks, in retrospect, like something of an embarrassment, in terms of public relations or really trying to improve Israel's perception in the United States.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation. But you can still call. 800-433-8850. Do you think the US government is good at using social media to convey its foreign policy or not? 800-433-8850 or you could send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. It's "Tech Tuesday."
NNAMDIWelcome back to a "Tech Tuesday" conversation on "Hashtag Diplomacy." We're talking with Hamdullah Mohib. He's Director of Social Media Strategy for Afghanistan Presidential Candidate Ashraf Ghani. William Youmans is a Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. Kori Schake has worked on National Security in the Pentagon, White House and State Department in the Bush Administration. She's a Research Fellow with the Hoover Institution.
NNAMDIAnd P.J. Crowley is a former Assistant Secretary of State For Public Affairs and a Fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University. If you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can see lots of examples of tweets and social media posts. You can make your own judgments about whether they were effective or not. That's at our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to join the conversation by phone, call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. P.J. Crowley, governments are used to one sided communications, putting out their own message.
NNAMDIBut social media favor two way interaction and encourage back and forth dialogue. How are governments struggling to adapt to this new forum?
CROWLEYIt's gonna take some time, Kojo. You're exactly right. You know, most governments inform their citizens or other -- the populations of other countries what their policy is, but social media, particularly, as it is attractive to younger generations, they join social media with the idea of having a two way conversation and Will Youmans, with his example of Ron Dermer, just underscores, you know, the struggle of how to balance traditional diplomacy, which is done one way, and the public dimension of that diplomacy, which is done another way.
CROWLEYAnd you see that struggle, for example, in what has happened in Egypt over the past, you know, three years. Certainly, social media played a role, not necessarily a pivotal role, in the overthrow of two governments, the Mubarak government and the Morsi government. But particularly the young, they're now on the outside looking in at -- as the Egyptian military re-establishes its firm grip on Egyptian government and Egyptian society. So that's part of the challenge here is not only governments looking at social media and using it to understand where the public mood is, but also those who are adherence to social media are -- haven't necessarily yet figured out how to fully exploit the political impact that comes with, you know, social media.
CROWLEYAnd then the whole aspect of informal movements which are characterized through social media versus formal political movements, which have more brick and mortar to them.
NNAMDIWilliam, we got an email from Mark who asks, what do your guests think about the fact that social media dumbs down the argument. It seems that through tweets and Facebook posts, we oversimplify the complex issues of our day. This leads to more misunderstanding, misinformation, and in my view, poor judgments on all sides.
YOUMANSI would say that that is certainly one perspective on it. Part of the perspective that someone should take is to think of social media as engendering conversations over many different posts and many different tweets. Of course, a tweet is limited in the number of characters. There's only so much sophistication and nuance that you can put in such a limited format. But if you look at an ongoing conversation over time, there can certainly be more room for sophistication and nuance.
YOUMANSTo me, the most powerful thing about social media is the presentation of data. Data as raw information that comes through and then gets processed by many different social media users, looking and commenting and challenging the validity of things. But at the same time, the reader does make a point, or the questioner does make a point about, you know, there's other problems with the information. Like, is there too much information or information overload? What about misinformation, which is information that's bad or not verified. There's rumors. And so, there's other problems besides just sort of simplicity and kind of dumbing down the conversation.
YOUMANSBut I think if you look at the conversation as a whole, to me, it's a much more sophisticated than what we see on broadcast media.
NNAMDIWe'll get back to the data question in a second, but Kori Schake, we got this tweet from Lina who writes, we need to realize that social media can't replace person to person communication and diplomacy. Governments are having a harder time adapting and will ultimately lose.
SCHAKEWell, I do think the medium itself, that social media, as a medium, advantages insurgents, it advantages those who expose hypocrisy. That's much easier to do in a quick sensational way than explaining the benefits of a solid judicial system. Or the nature of Sunni/Shia conflict in the Middle East. So, there is an advantage to it, but that doesn't mean it has to be a vacuous medium. Or it has to dumb down our conversations. It's a messaging medium that we need to use with sophistication. The ability to succinctly summarize what is happening is a huge advantage, if you're good at it.
SCHAKEAnd it's not obvious to me why the country that has Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley, a 24-hour news cycle, Hollywood and a permanent political campaign, isn't good at this.
NNAMDIP.J., social media are creating an unprecedented window into the thoughts and actions of rebel and radical groups around the world, like the pro-Russian insurgents who reportedly boasted on Twitter about shooting down what they thought was a Ukrainian army plane that you mentioned earlier. How do governments, including ours, mine social media for intelligence, about ISIS or Boko Haram or Hamas?
CROWLEYWell, a couple of ways. You can look at an information network, a social media network as tactical intelligence and a smart, shrewd government, rather than trying to control a social network, will tap into that network as a snapshot of how a population is reacting. Understanding, you know, there are traditional elites within a society, you know, who governments engage on a regular basis. But we are now seeing the emergence of digital elites. You know, Wael Ghonim in the context of Egypt was a particular case who's helping to shape perceptions of things that are happening on the ground.
CROWLEYSo recognizing those influencers and finding out what they're thinking and engaging them in some fashion is one way. At the State Department, they recently created something called the CFCC, the Center For Strategic Counter-terrorism Communication. One of the things they do is to tap into chat rooms and try to figure out what are groups thinking? If Al-Qaeda's trying to recruit people, you know, through that medium, perhaps offering a different point of view. You know, I'm sure CFCC is doing that in the context of ISIS today.
CROWLEYSo, and we can think back also to just about a year ago where it was YouTube that presented to governments the first indications of the use of significant use of chemical weapons that forced governments -- the United States and Russia and others to respond to that. And they struggled with it, obviously, but at least at the end of that process, there was an international agreement to remove chemical weapons from the battlefield in Syria. So, that's where governments need to pay attention to the conversation or the pictures that are emerging from social media, because that will give them a window to what's happening in the middle of a crisis.
NNAMDIWilliam, social media are especially challenging for countries that are not used to open dialogue with their citizens. You've consulted for Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. What do you tell that government about using social media?
YOUMANSJust to clarify, I'm not a consultant or I've never been a consultant to the government of Bahrain. But since you brought up Bahrain, I think it's an interesting example of a way that diplomacy can be made more complicated when you have citizens who get mobilized and start speaking, sort of, on behalf of the state. That's what we saw with the uprising in Bahrain where protesters were turning to social media to criticize the lack of equality for the Shia majority population in Bahrain.
YOUMANSBut then the government was actually able to work through an active -- like loyal citizens who were then taking to social media to sort of spread the government perspective. So I think that's another interesting element of who speaks for the government is something that's getting more complex. So even with the Israeli example, there's a group of volunteer students who are now working on social media to spread sort of the government's position, the government's line. And so the lines are being blurred between public and private in terms of speaking kind of for the government.
NNAMDIWhat the government of Bahrain apparently recognized is that tweets from individuals can be more effective than tweets appearing to come from the establishment.
YOUMANSYeah, I think so. I think that fighting fire with fire, in a sense. If you have a decentralized sort of mass movement of people. The sort of insurgent groups who are exposing hypocrisy, as was pointed out earlier. Then, if there's those on the government side, the loyalists, those who are supportive of the government, doing the same thing, that might be just as effective. I think that that was part of the thinking that happened over there.
NNAMDILet's talk again about Nigeria, starting this time with Kim in Washington, D.C. Kim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIMOh, thank you Kojo. I want to bring attention to one of your analysts. I'm sorry, I forgot the name. From Hoover Institute.
KIMThe comment about Michelle Obama's tweet being ineffective, I think it's really false and it's colored by a convoluted lens. Specifically, I believe that because Michelle Obama was able to tweet that picture, it so simply transmitted to the whole world the importance of that issue, which actually aligns really well with the female issue, with the woman issue. In line with Barbara Bush's efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan. Hillary Clinton...
NNAMDISo, you're saying that you thought the tweet was very effective, and I'm glad you raised that issue, because Kori Schake, what role has Twitter played in stirring up international outrage over Boko Haram's kidnapping of hundreds of school girls? Boko Haram has countered the uproar with its own YouTube video, mocking the "bring back our girls" hashtag. Who's winning the social media war here?
SCHAKEWell, I don't believe we are winning the social media war on the Boko Haram issue. I think the commentator's quite right that it drew attention to it, but the attention that it drew is that we're actually not doing much to help free those girls. And that shows Boko Haram's ability to act with impunity. And that's why I think the campaign isn't -- the US government campaign isn't successful. And it's actually connected to things we're doing, to highlight progress that we're making on it. I don't think drawing attention to a problem is actually an adequate way of judging our success.
NNAMDIYou think that the fact that there doesn't have to -- there doesn't seem to have made significant progress so far is an indication of the lack of effectiveness of raising these issues on social media.
SCHAKEI personally do. I mean, I don't think the kidnapping of those girls in Nigeria wasn't lacking for attention before. There were lots of news stories about it, and so that the First Lady tweeted the picture didn't put the issue on the map. The issue was already on the map. So I think a social media campaign that puts issues on the map can be helpful. But in this particular instance, I think the issue was already on the map. Can I add one point to the discussion about how it affects diplomacy?
SCHAKEBecause one other way in which social media is really affecting not so much American diplomacy, but the diplomacy of other countries toward the United States, is that it used to be fairly common for states to agree to help us but not take public responsibility for their foreign policy choices. And one of the things that social media is chipping away at is the ability of states to say one thing and do another. Because they simply provide information that it's not true.
NNAMDIAnd we got an email from Erica who says, who writes, I was in Nigeria for several weeks when the photo of the First Lady was released. I can tell you that for many people with whom I spoke, the photo was the first time they realized that the matter was serious enough to generate real international interest. I and my colleagues did not see this as the First Lady choosing not to speak with President Obama, but rather as a means of signaling that she stood with millions of other people in publicly expressing her concern.
NNAMDIWilliam Youmans, I want to get to another issue, because you have to leave shortly. And that is some of the policy positions of these social media platforms.
YOUMANSYes. I have been thinking about this issue of social media as being a kind of marker place of ideas, that it can be sort of a forum for the exchange of ideas and information. And, you know, maybe that's an idealist perspective, but I'm also -- I'm kind of concerned about these companies having to comply with laws in the US that I think limit the range of voices that can be available. So, I just want to bring up this issue of -- so Twitter, for example, is often asked to take down accounts, based on various US laws, one of them which is anti-terrorism law. So the US actually removed one of Hamas's English language accounts because they wanted to comply with this anti-terrorism law.
YOUMANSAnd so what that -- while Hamas can go and start a new account and then that will get taken down, it kind of keeps them from providing the information that is needed for intelligence by other countries. But also for the public to sort of get a sense of what their perspective is on things. And so I think that this relationship between certain laws in this country and these companies as US based companies, I think, can affect, sort of, the credibility of these platforms as a place for the exchange of ideas. That's just an idea that I'm playing with and something we need to think about more.
NNAMDIKori Schake, talk about the role of social media in Egypt and the Arab Spring uprisings. Twitter got a lot of attention at the time for uniting young people against unpopular rulers, but has it been able to help rebuild those countries since then?
SCHAKENo, and one of the important aspects of new media is that authoritarian governments actually use them pretty effectively as well. And the excitement in Cairo as Mubarak was being challenged and people were able to organize absent kind of traditional political party organization, it's an enormous force for mobilization. But it does not replace, as Secretary Clinton pointed out, it does not replace effective political organization. and the move to governance, which continue to be essential for political movements to get traction and to be effective in societies.
NNAMDIWe got to take another break, but you can see a gallery of the best and worst diplomatic tweets on our website, kojoshow.org. William Youmans has to leave, but the rest of our guests will be staying with us. William Youmans is a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Thank you for joining us.
YOUMANSThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIWe're still taking your comments and questions at 800-433-8850. Do you follow any international figures on Twitter? 800-433-8850. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday, and we're talking about hashtag diplomacy with Kori Schake, who worked on national security in the Pentagon, White House, and State Department in the Bush administration. She's now a research fellow with the Hoover Institution. P.J. Crowley is a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs. He's now a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University.
NNAMDIAnd Hamdullah Mohib is director of social media strategy for Afghanistan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani. Hamdullah Mohib, how did the Ghani team use Facebook and Twitter in the race to be Afghanistan's next president?
MOHIBWell, there was a discussion about social media being more interactive, so you can reach more people and engage them at the same time. So while we used normal media to reach messages of manifesto in campaign to the public, we used social media to engage them so that we can then use those that we engage to mobilize and spread the messages across. Now, they usually have trendsetters on social media the same in Afghanistan as anywhere else in the world who then take those messages and dissect them, explain them to their own networks in their own way that they would understand.
MOHIBSo a big part was to show that the Ghani campaign is a transparent and open campaign to the public where we can engage to take questions and actually take that feedback. So if we're doing something wrong, we can immediately figure out, what is it that doesn't resonate with the public, and then take back and fix it and re-transmit new messages through both social media and public media.
NNAMDIHow widespread is it though? How many Afghans are there on Facebook and Twitter?
MOHIBTwitter doesn't have a large usage in Afghanistan. But we have journalists and diplomats that use Twitter to get news on Afghanistan. So most of our tweets on Twitter aren't in English for those audiences. But Facebook has a large audience. We have seven -- according to Facebook statistics, we have about 780,000 Afghans on Facebook. But the key thing was that every user that you could reach on Facebook has five family members who then also get that message across. So the educated elite will have access to Internet and can see the messages and then relay it to other family members who don't.
NNAMDITalk about how the campaign has used social media in conducting, in a way, its own diplomacy. For instance, how did you use Facebook to encourage your opponent to debate?
MOHIBWell, because the opponent didn't want to show, we used a hashtag. And the same that was earlier mentioned, having posters and little message boards that people would hold up and attract and to tell the opponent to come to attend a debate. People did that across town and even abroad. So holding up poster saying, Dr. Abdullah, why didn't you come to a debate? What's -- and just to spread -- it was not just a campaign in terms of getting the opponent to debate about policies, but it was also to show that we are open and transparent. We want -- we're ready to talk to you about any policies, whereas the opponent is not. So it worked two ways.
NNAMDIAnd it ended up in some way, shape, or form in a story, a story about a student who disagreed with everyone else. And that story went viral. That story spread beyond the bounds of social media. That story spread as far as your mother, who doesn't participate in social media. What was that story? And how was it spread?
MOHIBYeah. That was funny. So someone posted on one of the trendsetters on Facebook about how they had a student in their class who wouldn't agree to anything, so they had a lecture, and all the students would agree on the homework or the date for an exam or a test. Everyone else would agree, but Gulmal John, (sp?) this one guy whose name is Gulmal John, would disagree.
MOHIBSo they had -- in their class, they had a saying, Gulmal John (unintelligible) -- this in partially means Gulmal John disagrees -- that Gulmal John became -- when the opponent disagreed with the results and didn't want to accept the national institutions. That became a viral thing. Everyone went -- politicians talked about it on TV. But it all started from Facebook. We also have our Twitter hashtag that started. It was organic. People started it. And they continue...
NNAMDI'Cause your mother and brother doesn't participate in social media. She doesn't watch the news. She doesn't understand how the Internet works. She doesn't read or write, but she knew the story.
MOHIBBut it spread. It went everywhere. Everyone was talking about it, so Gulmal John became the new story. It was -- it went viral on social media, but it didn't -- it spread.
NNAMDIIt wasn't limited to social media.
NNAMDIHow did you develop your social media campaign strategy? And how does Ashraf Ghani use social media to engage with citizens and to indicate to them that he's actually listening to them?
MOHIBWell, we reply to their message, so the way I said we -- it's interactive. And the same time, we can respond to messaging people, ask questions, and they send us their concerns. And Dr. Ghani replies. So if we have people asking questions, he even took, during the campaign, took questions. So what is the most concern? What is it that he should address, the policies that he should talk about or there -- and then recorded video messages and posted them on Facebook and Twitter so that they could watch.
MOHIBAnd answering their question while -- when answering the question, he would mention the name of the person that he took the question from and where it came from. And his response -- and we continue to reply to messages that we receive on -- both via email and Facebook and on Twitter -- and deliver it to Dr. Ghani so he knows the statistics on what happens or what is the mood set on each day so that he can reply to them the next morning. And he can adjust the messages through that, seeing how -- if the audience all is happy with what he's doing or not.
NNAMDIWhere are we now in Afghanistan? We're awaiting the recount of the vote in the presidential election?
MOHIBYeah, the -- so the preliminary results were announced. We're doing 100 percent audit of all the results because of the fraud allegations. It's currently underway, and we hope to have it -- we'll have the results announced in a few weeks' time.
NNAMDIOn to Chris in Ellicott City, Md. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYeah. I have a question regarding information warfare, politics, and technology from a different twist. What about the ability of Twitter or YouTube or other companies that outsource the information -- it has to go through somebody. What about their ability to influence this information? For example, Israel has the ability to manipulate and control, since probably about 1946, 1947, they've held the ability to control information in Palestine. So what if they paid enough money to Twitter to twist the Twitter to their advantage? Thanks.
NNAMDIWell, I don't know what you mean, paid enough money to Twitter to twist the Twitter to their advantage. What do you mean by that?
CHRISI mean, what if -- Twitter is the company that owns the ability to tweet. And so significant information has to go through somewhere in a lot of these means, or YouTube. I mean, what if I had enough power, such as owning a newspaper, to -- you could influence a newspaper if you own the newspaper information. What if I could pay enough money to Twitter to cancel out certain tweets or to change certain tweets?
NNAMDIOK. Allow me to have P.J. -- P.J. Crowley, care to respond to that?
CROWLEYWell, governments around the world are approaching social media with -- in different ways. If you go to China today, you can't tweet very easily 'cause China's worried about, you know, having hashtag Tiananmen Square there. And...
CROWLEY...so they degrade that service, you know, deliberately. Obviously we've had some concern in the aftermath of what the NSA is doing and what kind of data that they have access to -- is their mining operations with respect to Facebook and Twitter to try to determine, you know, analyze that stuff. And so we're in the midst of a debate over the proper role of government and in these spaces and what information they should and should not, you know, have access to.
CROWLEYYou had a situation in Egypt where the Mubarak government tried to turn -- tried to disconnect its country, you know, from the Internet. And the net effect was it made the government less effective, turned more people out in the street, and actually enhanced the protest movement as a result. And you've got a kind of a mixed kind of situation in a country like Turkey.
CROWLEYOn the one hand, when they had the protests in Getty Square (sp?) a couple of years ago, they didn't turn, you know, Twitter off. By the same token, you've had Prime Minister Erdogan, who was railed against, you know, Twitter as a, you know, Western conspiracy. He tried to disconnect, you know, Twitter from, you know, Turkey from Twitter, and one of his higher courts overturned that judgment.
CROWLEYSo all of these governments are trying to figure out -- and certainly, as we've just been discussing, you know, political candidates are learning how to use social media to enhance political campaigns. The challenge is to bring that same mentality into government. Obviously if they embrace social media, which has the ability to transform the relationship between government and governed and have the political courage to let those systems alone, for the most part, that's going to definitely enhance the quality of government around the world over time.
NNAMDIWell, this question for all of you, Kori Schake, P.J. Crowley, Hamdullah Mohib: "Talk about the limits of social media in foreign policy. How far does a popular Twitter account or hashtag get you? And at what point are followers only useful if they're willing to take action?" Kori Schake.
SCHAKEThat's a fantastic question. I think the potential is enormous in terms of creating a conversation, puncturing falsehoods that governmental organizations try and create. But it's actually not a substitute for having something to say. And it's actually not a substitute for having the ability to build political consensus around what you believe needs doing.
NNAMDIAnd for you, Hamdullah Mohib.
MOHIBWell, we found through the campaign that these -- it's strictly related to the campaign. The trendsetters could actually change the mood and put pressure on the opposition, in our case, to just to behave a certain way and put pressure on candidates. And -- because -- but then in campaigns, you have to respond more to the audiences. I don't know if governments can be pushed back in the same -- in the...
NNAMDII was about to say, if at some point you have the opportunity to use the same techniques to try to see how effective they are in governance, the experience might be slightly different.
MOHIBWell, Dr. Ghani is committed to accountability. And one of the things that he has agreed to in his manifesto is that he will continue to be the same -- well, act in the same manner so that those who voted for him can then take him up on the promises he made. So we'll continue to use social media to be able to respond to their requests and perhaps answer criticism that comes through.
CROWLEYWell, I think social media and the role that it plays is part of a larger issue of what is the relationship between foreign policy and public opinion? And certainly social media provides public networks now the opportunity to express themselves, participate in the conversation, and one that governments have to find a way to engage and be involved in. I think what we're seeing with social media -- and Kori hinted at this earlier -- is the end of plausible deniability.
CROWLEYSo, you know, the United States has had -- you know, drone operations and Pakistan have been well covered by traditional media and social media. But it treats these operations as secret when they're not. And what we're seeing in Ukraine through the Malaysian Air tragedy is Vladimir Putin find KGB operative, by instinct and trade, has had a policy, you know, sub rosa of destabilizing Ukraine. We're seeing now it's a much more of a military conflict than perhaps we knew.
CROWLEYAnd social media's now playing a role as we see, you know, tweets of conversations with separatists and pictures of a missile battery being transported with one tube empty. You know, so I think this is going to -- governments are going to struggle with this. There'll be more information available. And the public's going to look to government for better explanations than perhaps they're getting right now.
NNAMDIKori Schake, how do you think the use of social media in diplomacy and foreign affairs will evolve in the coming years? How will diplomats, governments, and rebels use it all to their own advantage?
SCHAKEWell, I think the most effective way to use it is not for governments. Well, governments can provide information that way, but a much more effective strategy is actually to encourage a broad, fundamentally democratic engagement where Human Rights Watch and Freedom House and -- are providing information and encouraging activity that that's a strategy that's actually suited to who we are as a political culture.
SCHAKEAnd it suits the medium itself. And so a much more broad involved conversation about it is to the advantage of governments like ours that are trying to promote freedom and liberty and transparency and governance. And we ought actually not to try so much to control the message as to encourage a debate and put context for over the information that the public is getting.
NNAMDIKori Schake worked on national security in the Pentagon, White House, and State Department in the Bush administration. She's currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Thank you for joining us.
SCHAKEIt's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIP.J. Crowley's a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs. He's now a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University. P.J., thank you for joining us.
CROWLEYThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Hamdullah Mohib is director of social media strategy for Afghanistan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani. Hamdullah Mohib, thank you for joining us. Good luck to your candidate.
MOHIBThank you. It's a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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