Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Digital Diplomacy: Social Media and Data Collection as a Bridge to Cultural Differences

Katherine Hess, Katherine Hess is a Sophomore studying Political Communication at the George Washington University.

In The Federalist Papers, No. 10, James Madison lays out the framework of the United States based on the idea of information and communication costs. His idea is very simple – the further apart one is from the person one is trying to communicate with, the higher the information and communication costs. As we know, this is no longer the case. Social media has made it incredibly easy for individuals to communicate across great distances at zero monetary or other costs. However, it is not a fair assumption that everything that is communicated is also simultaneously understood. Language barriers are not even the most important consideration within this discussion, as google has a (mostly) functioning translator that now can even be turned on automatically through their Chrome web browser. In the age of information abundance, how one communicates, or through what official channel, is often less important than what one communicates. This is how confusion occurs – when the information itself is misunderstood due to cultural barriers. Cultural differences could be within groups in the same country, or groups within completely different countries. It is my belief that technology has made a PD officer of every person with a computer or internet-capable information communication technology. It is in this way that the individual can help bridge cultural differences.
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A girl speaks on her cell phone. Public Diplomacy initiatives can be broadened by active use and reporting of information using communication technologies
Mark Thompson and Monroe Pricestated that “information interventions” on social media are impossible without the assistance of the state. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts can be leveraged to communicate information to the masses about conflict, and later preventative, peace-oriented information. Once the state establishes a large social media presence, it can use trending tools to promote its message. One way of accomplishing this is via Livestreaming, a method that would be immensely effective in broadcasting PD initiatives to widespread audiences. States and individuals can use this approach to promote messages of humanization of different cultures, which could potentially turn into cultural understanding and acceptance. This has been known to be quite effective when paired with a push notification to draw individuals to watch the video. Another method to reach large groups of individuals is blogging, in which popular officials or individuals write peaceful messages individually to try to initiate a larger trend (which, not ironically, is the method in which I am communicating with you). On an individual level, state-led initiatives on social media help bridge cultural difference because states share information about cultures through a shared, comfortable medium (such as Facebook or Instagram). Individuals become more exposed to information and therefore can become more comfortable with cultural differences. The mere-exposure theory states that individuals look favorably upon situations, people, and more when they are familiar with them. Increased communication across cultures as well as for information gathering and sharing can make individuals more comfortable with cultures unlike their own through this exposure.
It is safe to say that the crux of previous literature written on this topic has undervalued the role of the individual in promoting cultural bridges. Emulating Madison’s The Federalist Papers, No. 10, many are not optimistic about the mass’s role in this process. However, one must consider the impact of when the state cannot intervene, or even understand the demographic of people due to underdevelopment or lack of information. Assuming that the government is fair and unbiased, it is still difficult to create cross-cultural, state-bridging initiatives when a population of individuals is unaccounted for. Although many undeveloped areas previously off of the technology grid are starting to get on the grid, many of their governments do not have the resources to data map the growing population. These people were previously off of their government’s radars, figuratively and literally. It is impossible to humanize individuals that one does not even know exist. Furthermore, one cannot understand and start to work with cultural gaps that are unknown to the state or to the individual through a lack of collection of data. Individuals can help by collecting data to potentially identify cultural differences. Every person with a computer can now become a Public Diplomacy Officer (in a broad sense) if they use these technologies for positive cultural acceptance. For example, many individuals respond to Embassy accounts when other individuals spread messages of hate and violence and tag the official account. In this sense, individuals have more legitimacy to stop the other individual; or at least fill the sphere with which they are discussing different cultures with messages of positivity and inclusion.
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A photo that documents contributors from 8 years ago to OpenStreetMap data in the Paris area. Information communication has increased significantly since then.
An example of data collection is exemplified by Primoz Kovacic, a graduate of the George Washington University, founded the “Spatial Collective,” an organization that uses data to bring individuals together in developing countries. Kovacic’s team works to encourage individuals in developing areas to use their cell phones to gather data on the logistics of how and where they live, effectively placing themselves on the grid. This data collection is useful in a number of ways. If individuals are not on the grid, then the other side of their conflict might also not be on the grid, therefore making the entire violent event unknown to intervening third parties. Actors within the state benefit from having the most information possible on these conflicts as well as the people in general. Organizations such as the Spatial Collective are making it possible for individuals to bridge cultural difference.
This can be used by the state to gather information on other states to push Public Diplomacy initiatives. For example, Russia would most likely not willingly grant the United States information that would assist in countering their disinformation. However, if individuals are collecting information themselves and posting it online or to a data collection website that was open source, the United States could use this information to strengthen their counter frames. In this way the role of the individual is intensified to assist in state to state initiatives, even when the other state is not complicit in this change. Analytics are crucial to discovering audiences to target initiatives to. I am not stating that the state has lost legitimacy. Rather, the state and individuals gain more legitimacy when working together to bridge cultural differences. The more information one gathers on their culture, the more information they can give to others. The more others see this information, the more they feel comfortable with others. This is how we bridge cultural difference in Public Diplomacy. The future of Public Diplomacy, especially that which occurs over information communication technologies, lies in the relationship between the individual and the state.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

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