U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) has co-sponsored a resolution condemning the kidnapping of some 300 girls in Nigeria. Last month she traveled to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to meet with the girls’ advocates, who gather each day to demand their release.
But the act that drew the most attention was Wilson’s July 16 call in the House of Representatives for mass tweeting on the girls’ behalf. “Every morning between 9 and 12, tweet ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ with a hashtag – #bringbackourgirls,” she urged.
“Tweet, tweet, tweet. Keep tweeting until we bring back our girls.” What has become known as “hashtag diplomacy” was practiced most famously by first lady Michelle Obama in her Mother’s Day tweet from the White House, which included a photo of her holding a sign reading “#Bring Back Our Girls.”
While the Twitter campaign has not convinced Boko Haram terrorists to give up its young hostages, it has garnered worldwide attention, a constant reminder to the Nigerian government that it has not rescued the girls, Wilson said.
And the 9 a.m. to noon tweeting coincides with the time the demonstrators in Abuja gather each day. “It’s a lifeline for the girls,” she added. “More than 5 million people have seen the tweet and have tweeted.”
Hashtag diplomacy, part of the social media revolution, involves more than individual players and their causes. In the Middle East, Israel and Hamas are battling each other over the narrative of the conflict with tweets and videos.
The United States and Russia are doing the same over Ukraine. And while there is little hard data on the effects of hashtag diplomacy, it’s clear that everyone feels a need to be in the game. “I’m not sure if governments have a handle on how to use it effectively, but they feel they need to use it,” said Craig Hayden, an assistant professor at American University, who studies the impact of global media on international relations.
Data, rumors and mockery
For governments and their diplomats, one of the biggest challenges in the info wars is the ever-increasing public access to information flows, an area in which governments used to have near total control, said William Youmans, assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.“A public that is able to communicate counter-arguments, data, rumors and mockery has completely altered the environment diplomats work in. It explains a lot of failure” in their use of social media.
In Ukraine, the United States and Russia are experiencing their biggest diplomatic standoff since the end of the Cold War. The two sides are keeping their powder dry, but in the digital realm, they’ve taken their gloves off. In the spring, for example, American diplomats began using the hashtag #UnitedforUkraine in their posts, to show support for the Ukrainian government. When the hashtag gained popularity, Russian diplomats began using it in their posts.
This led U.S. State Department spokesman Jennifer Psak to tweet: “Let’s hope that the #Kremlin & @mfa [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] Russia will live by the promise of hashtag,” drawing numerous sarcastic comments. Like the United States, Russia employs its foreign service in its hashtag diplomacy, as well as automated bots and people “paid to scour the Internet” for mentions of Russia and Ukraine, Hayden said.
In the conflict between Israel and Hamas, each side is using social media to demoralize and influence the other, Hayden said. “On a strategic level, Israel is trying to legitimize its narrative,” he said. “What’s less obvious is whether Israel has succeeded in influencing Western countries.” While Israel’s use of social media has improved since its last round against Hamas in 2012, Twitter and other platforms have been a boon to the Palestinians, whose access to Western media has been more limited, Youmans said. Now, “the Palestinians have a direct access to audiences in the West.”
By contrast, the Israeli government, with its familiarity with mass media and spokespeople without accents, “are laggards in social media,” he said. “Their messaging doesn’t have an organic feel because it’s centralized. And Israel’s supporters don’t have the numbers to engage in social media.”
How helpful is it?
Do all of the tweets, the Facebook likes and Instagram follows actually change the facts on the ground?
In the case of tweets on either side of the Israel-Palestinian divide, America does feel pressure, Youmans said. “But it’s hard to see that this is being manifested policy wise.” State Department employees receive social media training, Philip Seib, director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, said in an interview last year.
“They also provide … tech workshops around the world as part of U.S. public diplomacy. So not only were U.S. diplomats being trained, but also people elsewhere in the world knowing that even if they don’t have pervasive U.S. technology at the moment, they will be getting there soon. It has been … pretty fully integrated within the U.S. Foreign Service operation,” he said.
Social media tools “can be important to respond to a crisis – so you can get some sort of statement out quickly,” Hayden said. “It’s an important listening tool for tracking sentiment in different countries or different populations.” And while it can be used for a long-term objective, such as building credibility, using it incorrectly can have the opposite effect.
Such may be the case of #Bring Back Our Girls in Nigeria. “If it’s just a hashtag, it draws attention to a crisis [and the lack] of a policy response,” Hayden said. “Hashtags need to be linked to policies.” And there’s always the chance that a Twitter campaign will backfire. “With a campaign, there can be a counter-campaign,” Youmans said.
In Syria and Bahrain, protestors harnessed social media to build popular support. Then the government launched its own blitz, aided by government loyalists, effectively neutralizing the protesters.
Other times, a government will launch a hashtag campaign and “you think you’re going to get all your supporters – but that’s kind of naïve if the hashtag is incongruent with what is happening.”
Such was the case of the New York Police Department’s April #myNYPD campaign. It asked New Yorkers to post feel-good photos of themselves with police officers, but was quickly inundated with pictures which posters said depicted police brutality.
The NYPD, stung with allegations of spying on Muslims and stop-and-frisk activity leading to charges of racial profiling, should have expected such a reaction from a hashtag glamorizing the department, Youmans said. “Social media should require established figures to have self-awareness.”
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, got a similar reaction to his #AskDermer question-and-answer session on July 17 about Israel’s operation in Gaza. “How many kids did you kill today !?” was one of the least venomous questions he was asked, by pro-Palestinian tweeters.
“One has to ask how he didn’t see that one coming,” Haaretz wrote. Florida’s Rep. Wilson hopes that her efforts and the support of others for the kidnapped children in Nigeria will pay off.
Her belief will be tested on Aug. 1 when African heads of state, including Nigeria’s, will arrive in Washington for the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
“Tweets are powerful enough to put pressure on the international community,” Wilson said. “Millions of people are watching.”
See also: Israel’s Info Wars