Digital diplomacy, 140 characters at a time

Updated 22 October 2012
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Digital diplomacy, 140 characters at a time

PARIS: When Canada’s ambassador to China posted photos of his car on the embassy’s Twitter-like weibo page, the instant, mass response boosted his country’s image in a way that surely stunned many diplomats.
Hundreds of Chinese netizens posted comments marvelling that the Canadian envoy at the time — David Mulroney — was driving a relatively inexpensive car compared to the luxury vehicles favored by their own officials. In just one click, Ottawa had managed to engage a wide audience in a debate about corruption and transparency, using one of China’s hugely popular social networks.
“Digital tools — including social media — are being used by an increasing number of countries,” said Antonio Deruda, author of “Diplomazia Digitale,” a book on the topic.
“It is an important process that can be very useful for administrations... Through social media, the goal is to establish a dialogue with the foreign public.”
Dubbed “21st century statecraft” by the United States, the use of digital tools to help achieve diplomatic goals is on the rise in a world where the web has changed how people engage with each other and higher authorities.
Washington is at the forefront of this trend — led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was made painfully aware of the power of social media when she lost the Democratic nomination to a tech-savvy Barack Obama in 2008.
There are now around 300 State Department-affiliated Twitter accounts globally — which include those run by ambassadors or embassies — over 400 Facebook pages and 180 YouTube channels.
US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, for instance, has used the embassy’s Facebook page to post declassified satellite images showing troop movements in civilian locations, in a propaganda tug of war with the Damascus regime.
The State Department has also organized Google+ Hangouts — group video chats — to engage with people in Iran on issues such as sanctions and studying in the United States. “One of the benefits of using these technologies is we’re in places where we don’t have a diplomatic presence on the ground,” said Victoria Esser, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the State Department. Other countries have also got in on the act in a bid to improve their political clout, or attract foreign investment.
Widely regarded as a symbol of the modern Arab woman, for instance, Queen Rania is a key asset in Jordan’s soft power push. With Twitter, she is an even more powerful force, with each post reaching over 2.3 million global followers.
“Queen Rania is followed not only by people interested in Middle East issues and political issues, but by people who are more interested in what she buys in shops or where she goes abroad,” said Deruda. “This is a key point for digital diplomacy — the importance of reaching a broader audience, not just the same old people who usually follow foreign affairs.” As such, top diplomats are increasingly holding live, virtual chats on social networks to engage with people whom they would otherwise never meet.
British foreign secretary William Hague took this a step further earlier this month, meeting five of his 109,000 Twitter followers to discuss Somalia, Europe and other issues in an effort to bring online interaction offline. But for all its immediacy and accessibility, social media is a minefield where a misplaced comment can generate a whirlwind of controversy as fast as it takes to type 140 characters — the length limit for tweets.
Linda Sobeh Ali, the Palestinian representative to Canada, was recalled in October 2011 after she retweeted a video of a Palestinian girl reciting a poem that begins innocently enough, but later mentions “destroying Zionism.”
Social networks have also been used as platforms for public fighting matches.
In May, US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was severely rebuked on Twitter by Moscow about a speech he made on US-Russia ties.
Netizens watched with amusement as the Russian foreign ministry fired off nine consecutive tweets blasting McFaul, who was eventually forced to post a link to a blog post clarifying the message he had intended to get across.
Giuseppe Manzo, spokesman for Italy’s social media-savvy foreign ministry, acknowledged the risks involved.
“The outreach you achieve with social media is much greater — and thus the risks — but we’re still going through an adaptation process,” he said.
“I believe it’s indispensable to engage with the world out there... Why not exploit tools like social media networks to help us? That said, I believe traditional diplomacy remains key.”
But Deruda said it was also crucial for governments to act on this engagement.
“If you start a conversation and I tell you what I think about your policies, or about your image, your leaders... and then I see you don’t change anything, the dialogue is doomed to end,” he said.
“This is a key point for the future of digital diplomacy.”


Gigi Hadid visits Rohingya refugee camps

Updated 18 August 2018
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Gigi Hadid visits Rohingya refugee camps

  • American-Palestinian supermodel Gigi Hadid is visiting Bangladesh to meet Rohingya Muslim refugees
  • Hadid visited the Jamtoli Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar on Friday

JEDDAH: American-Palestinian supermodel Gigi Hadid is visiting Bangladesh to meet Rohingya Muslim refugees. The 23-year-old model is documenting her work with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Bangladesh on social media.
Hadid visited the Jamtoli Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar on Friday, where she met with Rohingya refugee children.
“En route to the Jamtoli Refugee Camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh,” she wrote on Instagram. “As well as providing for the Rohingya refugees, UNICEF supports the host communities in need, including an estimated 28,000 people given access to better sanitation and safe water through the WASH Program, and 53,000 locals have been supported in educational activities.”
She shared several images of children at the camp, detailing the conditions they live in and UNICEF’s work in the area. “Across all the camps, 1.3 million people currently require humanitarian assistance; more than half of them are children,” Hadid wrote.
Hadid visited a “women/girl-friendly” zone, where they get a basic education and learn skills such as sewing. “We spoke about their personal stories and hardships, what they enjoy and benefit from currently in the refugee camps, what they still need, and what they hope for their futures. Their strength, bravery and desire to learn and better their lives and the lives of their children is inspiring and encourages us @unicefusa to continue to find new ways to support these amazing human beings during this crisis,” she wrote.
The cause of the refugees is one that is close to Hadid’s heart. Her father, Mohamed Hadid, came to the United States as a refugee before he became a billionaire real estate developer. In January, Hadid and her younger sister, Bella, protested US President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting some Muslim-majority countries.
On Saturday, Hadid visited UNICEF’s child-friendly space in Camp 9 of the Kutupalong Balukhali Refugee Camp. The purpose of the camp, Hadid said, is to “let kids be kids.”
“As well as psychosocial work to help them get through trauma through activities like art, they also can play sports, learn music, and learn to read and draw (some for the first time in their lives). Separate from educational spaces, the importance of these spaces is huge due to the fact that refugee children can spend a majority of the day working, usually collecting firewood from miles away so their families can cook, taking care of siblings, helping around the house etc., and here they can just focus on having fun,” she wrote.
The model also visited the UNICEF Learning Center in the Shamlapur Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar.