Recently Robert Faris, research director at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, made a distressing prediction to the National Endowment for Democracy: international diplomacy is going to get harder than it used to be.
The reason? Not terrorism (though sure) or fighting over increasingly scarce resources (though yet): but rather, social media like Facebook.
As more people in different countries get on social media, Faris said, more people in different countries talk directly to each other, and this virtual citizen diplomacy makes it very difficult for diplomats to control the conversation.
"The role of diplomacy given social media is going to be more complicated than it used to be," Faris said.
Nor are diplomats the only ones trying to figure the implications of the new technology out. Gail Ervin, a Saybrook PhD student in Human Science who works as an environmental mediator, says that “at this point, most mediators are just learning the basics of social media, and we are far from experiencing the promise of it regarding reducing conflicts.”
“I think we are at the dawn of a grand global experiment regarding these questions,” Ervin added, “and there are only inquiries at this point, no answers.”
However, according to Joel Federman, who directs Saybrook’s concentration in Social Transformation, there is reason for optimism. More people talking to each other directly means more people reacting to actual human beings, instead of crude stereotypes and propaganda. Diplomacy might get harder, but more human relationships across borders means it might get better.
“People-to-people exchanges create a positive relationship among nations upon which government diplomats can build,” Federman says. “The more far-seeing diplomats recognize this. In fact, it was a State Department officer, Joe Montville, who decades ago created the term "track two diplomacy" to describe these citizen diplomacy efforts; the term has since been morphed into "multi-track diplomacy." Online political networking just adds another track to this process."
Additionally, Federman suggests, that while the impact of social networking on diplomacy can be good, its impact on activism is even better.
“The capacity for instant, online, communication among activists is making social change work much easier and more effective,” he says. “It also has a tremendous democratizing effect, in that the power of the press is disseminated to anyone with a computer or cellphone with an internet connection. These developments are also making suppression of activism among less-democratic regimes harder. Current events in Iran make this case well. The government shut down and expelled most mainstream media reporters, yet cellphones, text messages, blogs, and websites that bypass government control are allowing individuals and groups to continue communicating developments and political positions, both among themselves, and with the outside world. It may be, as one commentator said, that there can be no such thing as a total media blackout anymore."
Federman, who has been posting messages of support for the Iranian democracy and human rights movement on his website, says the postings have received hundreds of hits from within Iran, as well as messages of appreciation. "These people are risking their lives and freedom to improve their country," he said. "Their government is doing everything it can to isolate them, and they are very appreciative to know that the rest of the world is paying attention and supporting their efforts."