Exploiting the Information Gained through Social Media

posted by Matthew Wallin on November 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

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As discussion of the diplomatic use of Twitter and other social media continues to expand, Douglas Yeung of the RAND Corporation posted a thought provoking blog that highlights a different aspect of the discussion. Pointing out that social media can be useful in partially analyzing public sentiment in foreign countries, Yeung also argues that these same platforms can be used to gauge the priorities and attitudes of foreign governments by looking at their online interactions with their own populations.

Certainly, better understanding the domestic politics of another country is important in preparing a U.S. response to those policies, or determining whether that response is actually needed.

Certainly, better understanding the domestic politics of another country is important in preparing a U.S. response to those policies, or determining whether that response is actually needed. Our own country’s internal online political discussions serve as a prime example.

In The Atlantic this month, Matthias Lüfkens explored the role that twitter plays with world leaders. Looking at the United States, Lüfkens notes that President Obama’s Twitter account is used to connect mostly with his domestic constituency, and rarely covers foreign policy issues. Furthermore, his twitter account follows only two other government leaders.

Is there a foreign policy opportunity here that the current administration is missing? Perhaps an opportunity to exploit the assumed power of social media? Whether the Administration, the State Department, or other social media practitioners are successfully tapping this assumed power for foreign policy purposes is unclear. Social media provides an overload of information that any one person cannot fully absorb. It can still be difficult for a team of individuals to absorb and process that information, even with the aid of electronic assistance and processing/sifting technology. Even then, the question is, what do you do with that information?

The question that should always be in the minds of those researching social media, is what the information can be used for, and how. If social media indicates that a large number of Iranians are angry at their government, how should that inform American foreign policy? Does it indicate why they are angry? Are they angry about certain issues? Does that anger justify an American response, or is the United States better to allow events unfold?

As Yeung contends, perhaps analyzing foreign government’s online reactions to domestic events within their own countries provides an opportunity. Particularly in areas where there are growing opposition movements against governments that run contrary to American policy goals, there may be opportunity for exploitation of these rifts. Though attention should be paid to the consequences of meddling in foreign politics, public diplomacy is fundamentally about influencing foreign publics to take certain actions. Using social media to find out where other governments are most sensitive may be useful in achieving that influence.

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