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Dangers and delights of digital diplomacy

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Amid the explosion of social media and new networking tools, governments and businesses are grappling with balancing their security needs against their wish to join the online conversations. 

A person poses with a cell phone in front of a computer screen to check Barack Obama's tweet on November 7, 2012 in Paris after his re-election as US president. Amid the explosion of social media and new networking tools, governments and businesses are grappling with balancing their security needs against their wish to join the online conversations.

"Communications technology has dramatically democratized the process of gaining a public audience," said journalist and former military analyst Joshua Foust at a Washington forum on digital diplomacy.

"As an individual you can have a public reach that was unimaginable even 10 years ago... and a lot of our institutions whether social or civic or governmental haven't caught up all the way."

The introduction of tools such as Twitter and Instagram has ensured that news and information zooms instantly around the globe in a click, to be viewed by millions of people within seconds.

This leaves no time to check facts, and could be cause for red faces or even potential disaster and lasting damage if a tweet is wrong, or misinterpreted.

"Time can be the enemy," said David Darg, co-founder of the new social news platform RYOT.org, and a long-time filmmaker.

"In diplomatic circles, if there's a crisis happening how quickly do you get a message out to assure people what's happening, while at the same time making sure that your information is correct and what you're tweeting is correct."

The easy access and relative anonymity offered by the unruly Internet also deepens concerns about leaks, highlighted this week as the United States launched a criminal investigation into IT-specialist Edward Snowden for exposing secret surveillance programs.

"These are the kind of issues that are going to be plaguing governments in particular going forward as citizens or privileged insiders decide to go public and expose either secrets or private information," Foust said.

"Secrecy is also an important part of public diplomacy, what you don't say can be be as important as what you do say, and absences can mean just as much as presences."

But with the outreach offered by the web, the US State Department is among many branches of the US government which have embraced social media as a way of engaging with people around the world.

New Secretary of State John Kerry even tweets and Tuesday replied to British counterpart William Hague "looking fwd to seeing you special relationship w/ UK, incredibly valued partner on #Syria and much more. -- JK."

But even his savvy diplomats have run into trouble.

The US embassy in Cairo had to freeze its Twitter account in April after coming under fire from Egyptian leaders for tweeting a link to a show by US comic Jon Stewart mocking Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

"If you're John Kerry you have a very different online personality than if you're Jon Stewart," said Evan Kraus, executive director for digital strategy at communications consultants APCO.

"There's obviously a great desire to be funny, and interesting and clever on social media. But if you're not doing in an authentic way then it falls flat, and it doesn't work."

The nature of social networking is also changing, the forum organized by the Diplomatic Courier magazine heard.

"Maybe five years ago it was about putting your point of view out there in as compelling a way as you could and drag people kicking and screaming to visit your website or blog," Kraus said.

"I think that's over. What's changed is how do you take your content, your expertise, your personality, your story and weave that into those conversations that are already happening."

The new power afforded to ordinary citizens by social networks was however having a powerful impact on governments and politicians who were trying "to really endear themselves in a new way that we've never seen before," Darg said.

"Governments are increasing aware of the viewpoints of their constituents and good governments and good leaders react to what their constituents care about," added Kraus.

And the millennial generation was not content with being a passive bystander, the experts agreed.

"Most leaders are smart and they know the difference between a passive click, and real emotionally charged support. So if you can create that I think you do create real change, no matter what," added Kraus.

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