Facebook Diplomacy

Barack Obama came to the White House on a wave of Internet support, so it makes sense that he plans to use the same vehicle as a tool of diplomacy. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said as much earlier this month. "There is no doubt in my mind that we've barely scratched the surface as to what we can use to communicate with people around the world," she said at a Feb. 4 meeting in Washington, D.C. "We are, in my view, wasting time, wasting money, wasting opportunities, because we are not prepared to communicate effectively with what is out there in the business world and the private world."

Clinton is right to be enthusiastic about Web 2.0 tools. They offer the promise of promoting democracy in countries that currently give the United States big geopolitical headaches—particularly Iran, China and Russia. But it's not going to be easy. Tehran, Beijing and Moscow already have a presence on the Internet and in recent months have stepped up their campaigns to manipulate public opinion at home.

The kind of outreach that Clinton is emphasizing can have a significant payoff. At the height of the war in Gaza, Israel's Immigrant Absorption Ministry waged a campaign to recruit an "army of bloggers" made up of polyglot Israelis who could counter anti-Israel sentiment on English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French sites. According to reports in Haaretz, after having registered with the ministry, the volunteers were directed to sites that authorities found "problematic." Volunteers could even sign up for automated alerts urging collective action in reaction to specific articles and polls.

If the U.S. government takes a similar path, it's only logical to assume that the nations it targets will take steps to counter the intervention. American leaders may think that the millions of Russians, Chinese and Iranians who have been heading online in recent years are seeking Western points of view, but their governments are by now well practiced at turning this tendency to their advantage.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that his administration is not going to censor the Internet, but that may be because it has found something more effective: spinning it. The Kremlin uses a private firm, New Media Stars, founded by Konstantyn Rykov, a 29-year-old Duma deputy. Rykov's new media empire includes online news sites, a site for supporters of Vladimir Putin (zaputina.ru—"For Putin!"), online games and an Internet TV channel with a pro-Kremlin bent. Navigating these mazes of propaganda and trying to plant effective pro-American messages would be difficult even for a Web-savvy State Department.

In China, both national and local authorities have begun to encourage loose networks of ordinary Netizens to promote government ideology by identifying and countering dissenting opinions on the Web. The practice is so widespread that government-supported commentators are referred to as the "50 cent party" (for the tiny payments some of them receive for their work). Hong Kong's Apple Daily puts the membership of the 50 cent party at 280,000. Under particular pressure are popular Internet portals and news Web sites. According to David Bandurski, a media researcher at the University of Hong Kong, the most important of them are also required to hire their own in-house commentators to counter antigovernment comments that citizens append to articles.

Iran's clerics have also climbed the cyber-learning curve. When the Internet began to catch on earlier this decade, religious teachers tried to supervise the online activities of their young students and promote the use of the Internet mainly for religious study. As access became widespread, this method became untenable. More recently, Iranian cyberspace has begun to mirror the complexity of contemporary Iranian politics, with different factions—religious, paramilitary and secular—competing for influence. To keep up, government and religious institutions have employed armies of bloggers to push their points of view. (The most recent chapter in these information wars is a decision by one of the units of the infamous Iranian Revolutionary Guards to launch 10,000 blogs to counter both secular and competing Shia voices.) The result is a cacophony of warring religious factions. John Kelly, an expert in the Iranian blogosphere at Harvard's Berkman Center, has found that in the last year, the proportion of religious sites among the top 5,000 most-linked Iranian blogs has grown from 16 percent to 31 percent.

What does this mean to the future of Diplomacy 2.0? That so many governments manipulate the Internet to their advantage—all the while still practicing old-fashioned tactics like throwing bloggers in jail—suggests that those who hoped to use cyberspace to promote democracy and American ideals on the cheap may be in for a tough fight. If anything, the Internet may make their jobs harder.