Washington — To be truly effective in the modern world, public diplomacy needs social media, says Tara Sonenshine, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
“If we don’t join that vibrant arena, we will become irrelevant,” Sonenshine said October 15 in prepared remarks to the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “More importantly, we will lose the chance to help more citizens become empowered and to support their most positive, productive — and, yes, peaceful — aspirations.”
“By harnessing social media,” she said, “we can deepen the impact and quality of our public diplomacy everywhere. But we can also reach the people who need it most. I am talking about those who are hampered by geographic challenges or political constraints."
“There are just too many people out there yearning for interaction,” Sonenshine said. “But there is no way we can have direct contact with even a small fraction of them. Virtual technology gives us the capability to significantly scale up our engagement opportunities.”
Sonenshine was one of the featured speakers at the Institute’s conference titled “Exchange 2.0: The Science of Impact, the Imperative of Implementation.” The event brought together policymakers, researchers, educators and program implementers for “Exchange 2.0” — that is, technology-enabled programs embedded in curricula for use in international educational exchanges.
But Sonenshine, who years ago worked in “old school” journalism, made it clear that social media and new communications technology will not replace traditional, face-to-face interaction.
“No matter how evolved our technology becomes, there is no substitute for a visiting student to sit across the dinner table with a family abroad. There is no substitute for the give-and-take of real encounters between people,” she said.
Not all students in the world, Sonenshine said, can avail themselves of online connectivity and virtual exchange. “There is room for both — virtual and physical exchanges — and they can leverage one another in a powerful way. We need both, and we need to invest in both,” she said.
Exchange 2.0 works as an extension of U.S. public diplomacy because it can help maintain relationships initially built with on-the-ground, face-to-face exchange programs, she said.
Sonenshine announced the launch of the Virtual Exchanges Unit at the State Department, designed to open channels between American youth and young people worldwide. In November, it host a virtual college fair over a 24-hour cycle that will allow representatives of some 200 colleges and universities to present information about their institutions to potential students who wish to study in the United States.
She also noted that the State Department recently began a series of Youth TechCamps to teach young people around the world digital literacy skills. The first, held in Washington in August, involved young adults, aged 18–23, from Egypt, Indonesia, India, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mozambique, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand and Turkey. Two more were held for youth in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“The more we engage people to become productive, and realize their aspirations, the better the chances they will pursue shared futures of peace and prosperity,” Sonenshine said.