Social media have changed the way people communicate. This much is obvious. Researchers examine whether text messaging and other modern forms of communication have negatively affected students’ writing. News outlets blast 140-character updates by the minute on Twitter. Critics raise the concern that hiding behind a computer screen encourages teens to post offensive comments they would never say in person. Youth culture especially has embraced social media and therefore embraced the type of communication it propagates – direct, quick, and informal spurts of information.
Does the same hold true for professional interactions? The explosion of social media has changed the way official organizations communicate with the public and each other. Retailers employ customer service representatives who respond to complaints lodged online. When announcing quarterly revenue, CEOs bypass traditional press conferences because a simple post online gets the word out more quickly. Even the White House operates a Twitter account, which it uses mainly to inform the public about official business and events.
These interactions seem normal in our digital age. An online presence makes sense for members of the public and the professional sphere. But recently I saw what I considered a troubling use of social media.
Recently, Taliban militants in Afghanistan launched an attack on the U.S. Embassy and a compound of the International Security Assistance Force, an affiliate of NATO known as (ISAF).
The media have downplayed the insurgency. Journalists are calling the attack propaganda, nothing more than the Taliban flexing its muscles at ISAF. What’s striking about the incident is that it resulted in a back and forth on Twitter, which The New York Times chronicles online, between ISAF and Taliban supporters. NATO collected videos of the attack, including one of an ISAF commander checking on his troops, which ISAF linked to on Twitter.
What stood out the most was the tone of the tweets, which could be classified as informal at best. “Hey @alemarahweb, does your boss do this?” ISAF sneers as it links to the aforementioned video. The dialogue could have very well been between two opponents talking smack during a pick-up basketball game. Not how one imagines NATO to conduct business.
The @ISAFmedia account has more than 11,000 followers and is an official mouthpiece of an organization that aims to foster stability in Afghanistan. As of Thursday, Sept. 15, the tweets had not been deleted and there has been no follow-up message addressing the incident. This could be an oversight, or it could speak to the fact that the protocol for international relations is shifting. Public diplomacy might not technically fall under ISAF’s umbrella. But Twitter is a public forum and any tweet instantly becomes a PR move, whether or not that was the writer’s intention. ISAF represents the entire international effort in Afghanistan.
The internet and social media have made international communication seem effortless. For public diplomacy reasons, however, maybe it shouldn’t be so easy. As quickly as someone can hit send, a message can reach millions of viewers worldwide. For that reason, serious international communications require a bit more consideration. Diplomacy can’t be sacrificed for immediacy.
(The photo is from the official ISAF Flickr account and is by U.S. Navy Petty Officer Aramis X. Ramirez. As the photo is from an international military coalition from a variety of governments, this photo is in the public domain.)