I joined three events in the last week on power in the digital age.
The first was with online activists and entrepreneurs, with @AUB_OC at the American University #SMCL2. I had first met them shortly after arriving in Beirut in 2011, and talked about riding the digital tiger, and tips for twiplomats. Two years on, it was clearer to me that power is moving in the direction of these digital natives. The good news for them is that this is a trend that will accelerate as many states, ideas and businesses are put out of business by technological disruption: the opportunities will be on their watch. The bad news is that we are still working out what will replace these ideas, states and businesses: the uncertainties and risks will be on their watch.
Surprisingly therefore, most of our debate was about their sense of powerlessness. Many challenged my glib assertion that the smartphone in their pocket was a superpower. I had argued that one way they could use it was to drive for the Presidential debate in Lebanon to be about vision, strategy and a programme, not alliances, deals and the status quo. We could make this the first social media election in Lebanon, to try to shake up the debate on Lebanon’s future. New tools allowed people not just to be observers – often cynical or apathetic – but actors. Many were willing to take up this challenge, but sceptical that it could influence the real political agenda. There is still a justified concern that the next President will be chosen by oligarchs not citizens, and his agenda defined not on smartphones but in smoke filled rooms. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the euphoric wave of early social media activism has been replaced by a sense that we are in for a long haul. The most powerful weapon in the region may still turn out to be the internet, but those in control of more conventional weapons are fighting back hard.
I then went to speak to Lebanon’s ambassadors, who had gathered as a group in Beirut for the first time. Whereas the online community can see that they are gaining power but unsure how to use it, diplomats can see that they are losing power but are unsure how to stop that. I was making the case for digital engagement as part of, though not the only, answer. The DNA of our business is changing, and we have to see new forms of engagement as a means not just to harvest or exchange information, but to influence on an unprecedented scale. If power is no longer with traditional elites and courtiers, we have to track where it is going and shift our influence there. Lebanon’s diplomats have a great brand to promote, and the diaspora networks to help them do it.
The third event, in Barcelona (only virtually for me, unfortunately) was with international diplomats, on collaborative engagement in diplomacy. Two years ago, I also suggested that successful digital diplomacy was about authenticity, engagement and purpose. I stand by that, but can now see more clearly the perils of only doing two out of the three.
Authenticity and engagement without purpose equals eyecatching but meaningless stunts and slogans. It often means oversharing. You can strip on the tube and get people’s attention. But they won’t necessarily listen to what you have to say afterwards. Much cute cat social media does not need purpose, and it would be killjoy to suggest it does. But if we’re doing it on a business or government account, it needs to add up to something. I worry that an increasing amount of hashtag diplomacy also falls into this category. It is a great way to get attention for an issue or campaign. But tweeting has to be a way of marshalling action, not a replacement for it. #BringBackOurGirls will only be a success if we bring back the girls. #TimeToAct will have worked if we act. #WithSyria was powerful but did it make lives better for Syrians?
Authenticity and purpose without engagement equals Sending Out Stuff, transmitting without listening. Much political and business communication still falls into this trap. Digital diplomacy will also fail where all it means is putting hashtags in front of what you were already going to say. The trend in marketing is away from direct advertising towards telling brand stories in a more engaging way. It has to be a two-way street, and people want to talk to a person not an institution.
Engagement and purpose without authenticity equals insincerity. I’ve often said that while we all make mistakes on social media, the biggest mistake is not to be on it. Sometimes I think it is even worse to be on it but faking. Being too risk-averse is a risk. If you don’t really care about football, you should not pretend that you do as a means of seeming more approachable.
Power is becoming less like a traditional British banquet and more like a Lebanese mezze. An increasing amount now lies with the connectors, multipliers and curators, and those who can do crossover between different disciplines and fields.
I asked the international diplomats to help statecraft keep pace. I asked the Lebanese diplomats to sell shares in Lebanon 2020. I asked the activists to justify that optimism. All that takes more than just cute cats and hashtags.