A recent event at the United States Institute of Peace featured a discussion on the effects of social media, particularly in the Russian blogosphere. The project was carried out by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet andSociety, and consisted of an analysis of over 11,000 Russian language blogs to understand how and by whom politics is discussed. The study was also designed to look for evidence of social mobilization caused by the blogosphere.
Other studies by the USIP have found that new media—for example blogs, Twitter, and YouTube—have had mixed effects on political organization, and this fact is reflected in the Berkman Center’s project.
For instance, among Russian language blogs discussing politics, people on opposite ends of the political spectrum link to the same sources and to each other more often than bloggers in the U.S. The project’s analysis identifies two distinct clusters within Russian political discourse, which the Berkman Center refers to as the Democratic Opposition cluster and the Nationalist cluster. These clusters exhibit strong political opinions, but tend to use the same sources more often than liberals and conservatives in the U.S. This tendency indicates weaker political polarization among bloggers in Russia than in the United States.
According to Harvard’s Berkman Center, evidence gathered from its project on the Russian blogosphere indicates that blogging does lead to political and social mobilization. Social and environmental activists have had success in rallying people around causes. For example, during the fires outside Moscow that raged this past summer, the number of environmentalist blogs skyrocketed. However, findings like this, and the hope that new media tools can be used to transform authoritarian states into more democratic ones, should not stop us from considering the shortcomings of new media.
Social network services may also be used by hostile regimes to stop those who promote freedom on the Internet—as demonstrated by the Iranian government’s response to the “Green Movement.” New media are easier for hostile regimes to block out, and are still largely used only by elites—the Berkman Center’s study notes that although Russian bloggers more often digest news from international and independent sources, the large majority of the Russian people still use state-controlled federal television channels to get news. Much of the world still acquires news primarily from traditional mediums like radio and television broadcasts and newspapers. Because of these facts, U.S. public diplomacy strategy should not de-emphasize radio broadcasting as it has been doing.
There is a need for the U.S. to engage in Internet communications for public diplomacy efforts; however, strategic use of this medium still needs development. As has been said in previous Heritage reports, the U.S. government needs to continue to develop effective employment of social networking both for public diplomacy and national security. But as Helle Dale, Heritage’s Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy Studies, has written before:
As exciting as public diplomacy 2.0 can be, it is critically important that its weaknesses and limitations are taking into account—in order that other tools of public diplomacy are not neglected. What Hillary Clinton calls this new global “nervous system” is highly sensitive to government interference and state control as the case of China’s dispute with Google demonstrates. And of course, Internet access itself is much scarcer in most of the regions of the world that the U.S. government seeks to reach than it is here in the United States.
Efforts to pursue 21st century statecraft should not eclipse operations that employ traditional media outlets. America’s radio- and television-based public diplomacy efforts need to remain central, as the government builds its familiarity and effectiveness with new media.
Frederick Roth is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm