By Oke Epia
"We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet." That was the rather dramatic manner the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States announced its presence on twitter on June 6th, 2014. And within minutes of this post, the handle was buzzing with replies, retweets and follows such that as of time of writing this, there are 738,700 followers hooked up to the account. By launching into the social media realm, the impression is that one of the world's most opaque secret service organizations is set to shed some of its myth and mystique.
What the CIA's entry to twitter confirms is the increasing acceptability of soft power as an instrument of diplomacy and international relations. As an Agency that evokes keen global interest as an instrument of US foreign relations, allowing a peep into its unclassified content via social media is a clear indication of its intention to increase its soft power quotient. It is merely following a growing global trend broadly referred to as Digital Diplomacy. World leaders, diplomats and other international state and non-state actors have now taken to social media in a bid to influence target (and random) publics both in domestic and foreign spheres. No longer are Facebook, Twitter, Instalgram and the likes regarded as the preserve of mostly young persons seeking avenues to socialize and undertake exuberant exchanges. The serious business of influencing, proselytizing and marketing of ideologies, idiosyncrasies, and even inanities is now being conducted in the virtual interconnected world of social media. Even the use of propaganda for war has taken on a new dimension as parties to conflict easily take to twitter as a means of 'one-minute' briefing in telling their side of the story.
To exemplify this, one only needs to take a cursory look at the unfortunate conflagration in Gaza. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority on one hand as well as Israel and Hamas on the other are doing a lot to rev up public support, empathy and sympathy for their individual cause. Amidst the disturbing humanitarian pall draping over the region, there is a huge dose of propaganda oozing from parties to the shelling. Without going into details of the latest confrontation and the accompanying blame game, what is clearly observable are moves by each side to play the victim and portray the other side as the oppressor. This is for instance, why the spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during the week tweeted on updates on the bloody campaign in Gaza using the hashtag #IsrealUnderFire. On the other side, the deadly toll on civilians occasioned by the bombardment is being maximized by embedded social media operatives as a way to draw the attention of the world to what is clearly a humanitarian crisis. While the missiles and rockets fly across Gaza and Israel, the battle for hearts and minds is raging fiercely on social media.
It is same battle for the hearts and minds of Nigerians and observers of events in the country that must have informed the recent social media presence of the Defence Headquarters which now tweets about its ongoing campaign against Boko Haram insurgency. Hitherto and for much longer, Nigeria's security forces took on the reactionary posture of responding to YouTube posts and other messages by the insurgents, an approach which tended to lend an upper hand to the terrorists in the propaganda battle. Now that the Nigerian military has added soft power dimensions to the anti-terror campaign, it is expected that some mileage will be secured in the battle for the public psyche against insurgency.
Though diplomats and world leaders are invariably influenced by the images and messages presented by conventional media, the instantaneous effect of uncensored and unedited posts on blogs, video channels, online news sites and micro-blogging platforms have a more telling impact as to how and when decisions are made. The proliferation of smart phones and other handy devices powered by Internet access has ensured this. The instant transmission of raw images and messages ubiquitously reverberate shock, disbelief, and outrage which help to galvanize the world into some form of intervention often ostensibly towards truce. Unfortunately, it can also have a converse effect by deepening divisions and entrenching enmities in ways that further fuel conflicts. This is the double edged sword of social media as it relates to war which in itself has been described as diplomacy by other means. But it will amount to sheer folly for world leaders and diplomats to shy away from this consuming influence instead of seeking to put some levers on it by at least maintaining a window for interface in this vastly uncontrollable world.
This is the challenge for state and non-state actors in the global arena today. State officials and organizations deliberately try to influence perceptions of themselves, States and Institutions by foreign publics. This is why a growing number of Heads of States and Governments have embraced twitter (a very key variant of digital diplomacy) in a bid to record positive perceptions on the huge followership they have built for themselves. A 2014 study by Twiplomacy conducted by Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations firm and released in June reveals that only two African Heads of States feature in the top 50 most followed leaders in the world. These are Uhuru Kenyatta with 456,209 followers on the 47th position and Paul Kagame of Rwanda with 404,332 on the 48th position. Top on this list is President Barack Obama of the USA with over 43million followers. Next is Pope Francis with over 14million followers. In the top ten bracket, there is Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India (just a little shy of 5million/5th position), President Abdullah Gul of Turkey (over 4million/6th position), Sheik Mohammed, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE (close to 3million/9th position) and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina (with 2.887, 955 followers/10th position). Apart from President Obama, America's holding in the Twiplomacy rating also strongly reflects on this top 50 listing as the White House official twitter account standing at No. 4 has about 5million followers and the US Department of State stands on position No. 29 with almost one million followers. The total number of followers of the US government on this list is way higher than the cumulative total of others listed. Although the Study concedes that the number of followers is not directly proportional to the level of influence by a leader (for example, the Pope with less followers makes more influence with his tweets than President Obama), it is understandable why America as a State maintains a strong showing in soft power impact across the world. However, it is imperative to note that this is hardly only on account of the twitter presence of its top officials and government departments as its foreign outposts and embassies are known for notable use of soft power to garner positive perceptions for the world's most powerful nation. In Nigeria for instance, the US Embassy and the Consulate in Lagos have embarked on programmes and projects of benefit to Nigerian citizens like the 'Dawn in the Creeks' initiative which are vigorously propagated via social media networks. But the usefulness of social media as a veritable vehicle for soft power cannot be gainsaid.