Can social media gauge public opinion on emerging issues? Have they become the key platform for dialogue? Digitization has huge potential for European foreign and security policy. Richard Youngs of the international think tank Carnegie Europe reflects on questions regarding the theme of the 2015 Global Media Forum.
Are we on our way toward a European media democracy?
Digital media is a double-edged sword: it empowers groups who have a cosmopolitan, international outlook, but also those who have very inward-looking chauvinistic agendas. As we saw in the EP elections, it does not necessarily lead to a closer sense of European community. It may make this possible, but it depends what we as citizens do with it. It facilitates communication across borders, but where major substantive differences drive states apart digital communication is not a solution.
Social media have increased the number of parties involved in debate and the number of discussions and opinions, especially from civil society groups. Now it’s all about speed, interactivity and emotionality. Is the political realm prepared for that?
Digital media is, of course, already affecting foreign policy. In a positive sense, it helps provide quick, inside information from the ground. No-one can say they are ignorant today when a tragedy like Gaza or Ukraine happens. This gives governments a stronger understanding upon which to base their actions, even as it increases public pressure on them to react to crises. Again, while this is a largely positive development, there are dangers too. There is the challenge of verifying information from the ground; the social media can become a battleground for different advocacy campaigns and people with singular agendas, rather than encouraging balanced, well-grounded analysis. And it may push governments into a 'We must do something' kind of foreign policy: good in one way, but one must recall that most foreign policy crises still need long-term and balanced solutions.
E-democracy, e-government and e-campaigning are key terms in the discourse about the Internet’s significance. They promise to make political activities more transparent. Will conventional diplomacy soon be obsolete?
I am not sure government-led foreign policy will disappear. Indeed, governments are trying to use e-based ICT groups in other countries to help carry forward projects on democracy and human rights, for example. The danger is perhaps that we come to expect too much of digital communications technology: events in many countries have shown that ICT helps mobilize people but regimes can also use it skilfully, and normal politics is still required to really change the quality of democracy.
You say the EU should do more to promote international democracy and rely more heavily on civil society. In that case, shouldn’t the EU’s new head of foreign policy be well-versed in the whole repertoire of digital communications?
Absolutely correct, and very well put: ideally the new High Rep should be someone aware of the importance of this kind of new diplomacy which goes beyond state-to-state relations. The EU is doing many interesting things in this area, supporting activists around the world on digital projects; again it is important not to oversell what this can achieve but also to make sure that the EU's high security policies do not cut across such approaches.