Negative and 'rosier' effects of social media revolution on foreign policy debated

The social media revolution was truly revolutionary, changing “how we receive information, how we produce information, how we produce news,” but all these changes “don’t always have positive effects,” said Cameron Abadi, foreign correspondent and web editor for Foreign Affairs, during a public conversation titled “The Internet, Foreign Reporting, and Foreign Policymaking.”

The Oct. 30 event was co-sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, the Yale International Relations Association, and the Yale Globalist Magazine.

As an example of one negative effect, Abadi told the story of Neda, one of the participants in the political protests that swept through Iran following the results of the 2009 elections. This movement is often referred to as the “Green Revolution” or the “Twitter Revolution” since it was the first international event that was widely covered by social media, noted Abadi.

Neda was one of the many casualties of this revolution, and her death was caught on camera. The video spread around the world seemingly in an instant, said Abadi, demonstrating the new power of media to move people and move governments around the world. Some of those who first shared the video wanted to make Neda’s image a symbol of the revolution, to put it on t-shirts and posters, so they went to her Facebook page and used one of her profile pictures.

There was one problem, though, noted Abadi, the Neda they found on Facebook was not the one who had died. The Facebook Neda was alive and well, a student in college and not involved in the revolution at all. After the movement coopted her image, she suddenly found herself targeted by her government and was forced to flee the country.

Social media eases the access of information, noted the journalist, but it may not be the right information.

Social media has also had other negative impacts, said Abadi. First, there is what he referred to as the “prosaic economic effect.” With most of the traffic to news sites coming from Facebook, subscription and advertising revenue is disappearing, he said. With less money, newspapers can’t afford a large cohort of foreign correspondents, which means that more and more articles are being written by journalists who don’t fully understand the context of the event they are covering, he contended, adding that without this context, journalists’ decision on which event is worth covering is distorted. When an imbedded journalist has been living in the country for years, he or she can sift through things, make an educated decision on what is important and can anticipate events before they occur instead of simply running from crisis to crisis. Abadi told the audience..

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, the other participant in the public conversation, painted a slightly rosier picture of the effect of the Internet on journalism. A former State Department speechwriter and member of the Policy Planning Staff, Kurtz-Phelan now serves as a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. 

Although he had to “spend hours writing emails apologizing for WikiLeaks on behalf of my bosses [at State Department,” he said, he still has a “more utopian perspective.”

“There are more people accessing better information about international affairs. They have more access to sophisticated analysis than they ever had before,” said Kurtz-Phelan. “When you look at the numbers of the traffic to the New York Times website, there is a really large number of people accessing that information who had no way to get it 20 years ago.”

Kurtz-Phelan did admit that there were some less-than positive aspects to the increased use of social media.

Speaking from his experience in the policy sphere at the State Department, he noted that it has always been difficult to mobilize the population behind complex policies. With social media, this problem is exacerbated, he said, “Things come to the fore quickly and disappear just as quickly.” Often, policymakers find themselves having to overstate or simplify a policy for people to pay attention to it, but oversimplification is always dangerous said Kurtz-Phelan, noting that it can oversell the effects of the policy so people expect more of it than is possible and can lose its diplomatic nuances, offending some people. 

In response to said Kurtz-Phelan’s remarks, Abadi said that although people have access to higher quality material, it is unclear whether people are actually accessing it.

“I’m more agnostic about that,” he said.

Noting that most people read news stories their friends post on Facebook, accessed through the “appropriately named newsfeed,” Abadi pointed out to the audience that their friends are then effectively filtering the news for them. 

He also pointed out that although the traffic to the New York Times website is high, so is the traffic to “less sophisticated places with poor, and sometimes harmful content.”

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