New Media in Southeast Asia: Lessons from the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Diplomacy and Technology

LAURA JAGLA

On July 24 – 26, the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies partnered with the Aspen Institute to convene leaders from the worlds of foreign policy and communication technology for the Institute’s 2nd Annual Dialogue on Diplomacy and Technology (ADDTech). During the conference, which focused on Southeast Asia, the attendees participated in a role-playing scenario of a diplomacy crisis in Myanmar (created by the Josef Korbel School’s Marc Nathanson Fellows). Taking the roles of diplomats, activists, bloggers, and senior government leadership (American, Chinese, and Myanmarese), participants were tasked with resolving a hypothetical hostage situation Myanmar. During the simulation, participants were presented with posts from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and additional social media sites, which gave participants rapid information with debatable reliability. While ADDTech participants took away different lessons from the simulation, I came up with several themes that pertain to the future of the Southeast Asian landscape and diplomacy:

  1. “Pivot” to Southeast Asia

Recently, the U.S. has focused more on public diplomacy efforts to win the hearts and minds of citizens in Southeast Asian countries, which have emerged worldwide as economic, political, and diplomatic strongholds. The countries of Southeast Asia (SEA) vary in their communication freedoms – from Myanmar with the lowest levels of media freedom worldwide (according to Reporters without Borders) to Indonesia with relatively higher freedoms in the media and speech. The U.S. advises newly emerging democracies, such as Myanmar, on communication freedom, while it expands outreach and communication in other SEA countries through social media, educational exchanges, and a newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN. These public diplomacy efforts will only increase in the future, as millions in the region gain access to the Internet, and SEA increases in geopolitical power.

  1. The U.S. and China: Competition or Cooperation?

Today, the U.S. and China have great interest in Southeast Asia investment, influence, and stability. U.S. efforts in Myanmar, for instance, include focusing on democracy building, investing in energy (gas and oil), and advising the country about communication technology with the recent opening of the information environment and decrease in Internet censorship. China has developed and implemented energy and infrastructure projects worth billions. In fact, many have remarked that the U.S. and China have engaged in a type of push-and-pull struggle to gain influence in the emerging Southeast Asian democracy.

The simulation attempted to move participants away from U.S.-China competition into a situation where both countries would have to cooperate to resolve the hostage crisis. American and Chinese actors found that similar interests in Myanmar’s stability led them to engage in dialogue with each other and citizens in Myanmar to determine what was happening. U.S.-China cooperation in SEA may prove to benefit both countries in terms of economic interest and regional stability.

  1. The New Public Diplomacy: Citizen Diplomacy and Traditional Diplomacy

Social media platforms have increased information flow from citizen-to-citizen and citizens-to-governments allowing citizens to bring attention to issues and events.  Diplomats must now diffuse information sources, determine reliability, and respond to events quickly and appropriately. In the simulation, participants received conflicting information on the number of hostages, actors involved, and scale of the conflict from tweets, blogs, and messages from a variety of actors via the Internet. While various actors (bloggers, activists, citizens) could provide information on the hostage crisis, it was ultimately up to the governments (embassies, foreign ministries, etc.) to provide the official stance on the crisis.  In the information age, diplomatic leadership is still needed to provide reliable information to the public.

  1. Social Innovation Experts

As a hopeful note for future politicos who have a keen knowledge of communications technology, many government departments and agencies are looking for social innovation experts, who can harness the potential of technology to connect governments and citizens. The USG has only begun the process of integrating social media, diplomacy, and state building. For instance, most U.S. embassies have recently created Facebook and Twitter pages to communicate with U.S. citizens and international audiences. As the Department of State has stayed relatively ahead of the game, other USG departments will look towards gaining expertise in tools to communicate with a variety of audiences.

The pivot to Southeast Asia and the emergence of new communication technology calls for a generation of engaged citizens and diplomats who can hold governments accountable to development and communication freedom. Furthermore, governments will seek innovators who can integrate diplomacy and technology is this increasingly connected world.

For last year’s ADDTech report, please visit: http://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/integrating-diplomacy-social-media-report-first-annual-aspen-institute-dialogue.

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