For all my work with new media for public diplomacy, the best engagement is still the oldest: face-to-face discussions. “The last three feet”, as Edward R Murrow put it, allow for more personal interaction than the sometimes detached and often anonymous online type. Working from Washington, D.C., where we are so removed from the field, it can be difficult to remember this.
Fortunately, I received a reminder of the importance of in-person public diplomacy earlier this week. As part of my trip across the Middle East, I gave many public presentations on how social media is used by the United States government in our public diplomacy efforts. I’d done this in the West Bank, Amman, and finally in Cairo.
This past Tuesday I spoke to the faculty and students of Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass-Communications and the Faculty of Economics and Political Science. Here is the presentation I used (PPTX). I can say, without a doubt, they asked some of the most challenging questions I’ve received about social media. Their interests were wide and varied. They asked about the risks that social media could detach us from our real-world lives, the use of these tools by the Egyptian government, the role of social media in the release of Iraq war documents on Wikileaks, and much more.
Opinions were also quite diverse. Several individuals asked pointed questions about U.S. government control of the media. As the recent mid-term elections and the ever-shifting popularity of American policies demonstrate, we operate in a very challenging media landscape in which we often have little power to control the message. As I noted in the discussion, if the U.S. government is so good at this, they wouldn’t need me!
Conversely, the Wikileaks questions often focused on how the U.S. government is quite powerless to control even its own information. Unfortunately, since this isn’t an area I focus on I feel I wasn’t able to sufficiently address the questions. If you’re interested in the Wikileaks Iraq documents story the New York Times has a great special feature on the subject.
In addition to the challenging discussion, I was also very impressed with how Egyptians are using social media to improve their society. One project is using social media and online maps to combat sexual harassment. Another campaign uses these tools to help keep Alexandria clean, an effort that has gotten widespread media attention and compelled the local government to act. Others are using social media to create connections between ordinary Americans and Egyptians to correct stereotypes and improve relations.
The past three weeks have been a whirlwind of activity: events, interviews, chats over tea, seeing astonishing landscapes, experiencing remarkable history, and so much more. However, it is the friendships that were started that I find most important. And, naturally, we’ll be continuing these friendships over social media until my return!