Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan, Pakistan was lynched to death by an angry mob on the premises of the university on 13 April 2017. It didn’t take long for the videos of this barbaric act to pop up on various social media sites including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Twenty year ago, this incident may have disappeared into oblivion without such online attention. Social media sites such as YouTube did not exist, and without such an avenue of reaching a global audience, the incident may not have led to the kind of uproar that it did.
There is no denying that with the advent of social media, literally everyone, regardless of motivation has been provided with instant and easy access to the world. This makes it important for the foreign policy makers to carefully consider the complexities of social media as an everyday facet of international relations.
The content uploaded on the social media sites is so huge that, apart from the free speech issues, it is realistically impossible to police it until or after a controversy has arisen. Let’s look at a few statistics in order to put things in perspective; In 2016, Facebook remained the most popular site in the world with 18.65 trillion visits, according to figures from web analyst Similar Web. YouTube came in second with 15.7 trillion visits and Google stood third with 14.9 trillion. And surprisingly, these stats just accounted for desktop visits to the sites, they did not take into account mobile traffic.
A decade or more ago, diplomacy was mostly inter-governmental which meant that diplomats only used to talk to other diplomats. British diplomat Harold Nicolson wrote in his famous book Diplomacy that “it would have been regarded as an act of unthinkable vulgarity to appeal to the common people upon any issue of international policy.” However, today appealing to the “public” has become sine qua non for international relations conduct of states because there are so many sources from which people can get information. States no longer enjoy the hegemonic control over the flow of information that they once did and this has motivated people to seek knowledge independently. With a plethora of information sources, fierce competition for attention and millions of people around the world hooked to social media, governments must adapt their messaging – initiatives and responses – to electronic venues that operate beyond their direct control.
To this end, an important element to consider is the clash of cultures that exists and how it has a direct bearing on the official responses by the governments. For instance, when the anti-Islamic short film titled “Innocence of Muslims” was released in 2012, the response from the West and the Muslim world was dissimilar. While the video was protected under the free speech provisions in the United States Constitution, President Barak Obama called the clip “crude and disgusting.” On the other hand, the video was considered against the law in the Muslim world and sparked widespread demonstrations and violent protests.
In his speech to the United Nations, the then Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi underscored that “Egypt respects freedom of expression but not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.” These differences make the task for public diplomacy all the more difficult. It requires diplomats to be as resolute as the agitators, and to ensure a consistent stream of information that can effectively compete against the messages of the troublemakers.
Today, audiences (especially the younger lot) turn to social media as a substitute for traditional broadcasting venues which should prompt the government to offer timely and carefully designed messages. For example, after the “Innocence of Muslims” video debacle, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs released a two-minute video articulating the American position on the issue. The video was available with subtitles in Arabic, Urdu, Chinese, and other languages. While this most definitely did not resolve the issue sparked by the video, it did push back against the grotesque narrative prompted by the equally grotesque video. Remaining mum on such matters could be the worst reaction a government could give.
Western countries like the United States recognize the imperatives of today’s electronic age and have been making their way toward consistent use of alternative media to articulate their policies and further their image to foreign audiences, Pakistan’s next-door neighbor India has also progressed by leaps and bounds in this domain. India’s Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs was established in May 2006 and has been working closely with other institutions like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to educate and influence global and domestic opinion. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting also supports the public diplomacy initiative with the ministry’s strategic use of the media. Many effective public diplomacy campaigns such ‘Brand India,’ ‘Know India’ and ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Divas’ have been initiated to influence and promote India’s interests all over the world. Pakistan’s public diplomacy efforts, on the other hand, have resorted to cultural exhibitions, traditional fashion shows and concerts which, although a step in the right direction, cannot give the desired results in the long run.
In the end, what is so infuriating about incidents like the brutal murder of Mashal Khan (other than the incident itself) is that a handful of rotten apples can be perceived as the representatives of the country’s citizens. In this case, the reaction of the foreign audiences was the inclination to believe in the very worst of Pakistanis. This would remain the test for those strategizing Pakistan’s public diplomacy, and highlights the challenges that need to be addressed.
Published by International Policy Digest on August 04, 2017
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).