In the past few months, Israeli ministers have been engaged in an international effort to enforce legislation that will have Facebook and other social media networks take responsibility for content published by its users. Israeli officials see it as a necessary measure to fight mass online incitement that exacerbates attacks against Israelis in outbursts of violence. Several times in past years in Turkey, the government has blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to prevent the spread of what they deem “harmful content.”
Meanwhile, European governments are debating privacy laws that can allow them access to data about potential terrorists, in light of the Paris and Brussels terror attacks. It appears that in the aftermath of The War on Drugs and The War on Terror, governments have a found a new common enemy: The War on Social Media.
There is little doubt that social media is used for spreading messages of hate, incitement and recruitment of terrorists – acts that eventually cost lives.
However, there is much more room for states to cooperate with social media rather than seeing it as an enemy.
Instead, there are ample opportunities to use social media’s features, low costs and high effectiveness as tools to promote a state’s foreign policy objectives.
The presence of billions of people on the same network offers unprecedented capability for countries to reach out, communicate and deliver messages to citizens of other states. Foreign ministries can (and do) use social media to promote relation building, trade, tourism, education and even disaster management.
The most frequent use of social media by states is public diplomacy. Twiplomacy – a website dedicated to researching how governments and international organizations use social media – publishes a variety of reports about this engagement and its effectiveness.
These include the most followed heads of state on Twitter, peer-peer connections between foreign ministries, virtual diplomatic network of European embassies and even a report of world leaders who take selfies and those who use Snapchat. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be glad to know that he is ranked as the second most “likable” world leader, with an average of 127,432 likes for each of his Facebook posts, despite his critical approach to social media in Turkey.
Worth noting is how some states use social media to support foreign policy strategies as state branding. Last year, the Finnish government created a set of 30 unique Finnish emojis that can be downloaded by anyone in an effort to create awareness of Finnish culture worldwide. The official Israeli Twitter channel exposes Israeli innovations and culture to more than 300,000 followers (more followers than official US and Russian Twitter channels) in an effort to rebrand Israel as more than the “conflict.”
Beyond presenting foreign policy, social media can also be used for creating foreign policy, especially between states that do not have diplomatic relations.
Groups on Facebook or WhatsApp can serve as platforms for dialogue processes between governments and high-profile individuals from other states as part of conflict management processes.
Another use could be direct state-tostate public dialogue negotiations via Twitter. In this context, publicity could serve as an advantage for states that want to present their own willingness to promote peace, especially if the other state chooses not to respond.
All of the above can develop into a whole new level of influence, that of when future technologies – such as virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence – become more common and embedded in Facebook, Twitter and others.
The giant tech companies that operate social media networks share the same interests with states and do not want their platforms to be used for exercising virtual or physical violence. Just as other multinational corporations, they seek legitimate goals as profit and influence. States and international organizations should work with them in cooperation to fight those who use social networks for harmful purposes – as the US government is currently doing as well – to use social media’s power to achieve foreign policy objectives and promote national interests.