On Privacy, Networking and their Meaning for Public Diplomacy
Wave 6, the latest edition of social media research by Universal McCann media agency, highlights an interesting difference in various nations’ attitudes towards privacy in social networking sites.
The general tendency appears to be incompatible with common wisdom. Although there is much concern about “authoritarian” (or at least not fully democratic) governments using social media to trace any oppositional political activity, people in countries such as China, Egypt and Russia seem to put the ability to build social networks prior to the concerns about privacy. On the other hand, western nations rather tend to value privacy more.
Of course, any conclusions based on opinion polls tend to oversimplify the image of reality. However, the study seems to provide additional arguments in favour of two theses. Firstly, social media play an important role in terms of building social capital in countries where other forms of self-expression are limited. However, it shouldn't be understood as the ultimate argument supporting the “cyber-optimistic” way of understanding the internet's impact on politics, emphasising its revolutionary potential to reinvent democracy.
All the dangers identified and described by researchers such as Evgeny Morozov remain in force. What the results of the study show is that “sharing personal data is an accepted risk”. We can speculate whether the risk is conscious or not, but the fact remains. People's will to be connected with the others is strong.
From the policy-making perspective, the above-mentioned tendency confirms that the meaning of social media in terms of building new channels of public diplomacy addressed to these states should not be underestimated. The concepts of digitally-augmented public diplomacy (or e-diplomacy), which are often referred to in this column, are not groundless, although not necessarily easy to implement. One should keep in mind that the will to stay connected does not necessarily go hand in hand with political engagement. It only provides new communication channels, which should be managed adequately.
This leads me to the second conclusion, namely that the genuine impact of social media on political processes can only be measured accurately when the overall political, economic and social background in each particular country is taken into account. On the one hand, we cannot automatically refer to “western” societies' way of understanding the dangers of the web. Perceptions of the balance between opportunities and threats provided by the development of modern information and communication technology seem to be defined by the actual political reality in this or that country.
It is especially important from the perspective of current work over the European Union's Digital Freedom Strategy. Whatever actions due to be taken in order to promote and defend so-called digital freedoms, especially in the neighbourhood of the EU, should be based on better insight into actual perceptions and expectations of the societies of these countries. Commercial institutions understand the importance of understanding their recipients perfectly. It is time for a new field of private-public partnership, in which western diplomatic offices are able to study this experience.
Igor Lyubashenko is an academic teacher, new media enthusiast and international relations analyst. He has a PhD in Political Science from the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin. His professional experience includes the implementation of international projects in Ukraine and Moldova, academic teaching and working in the field of marketing communication. His scholarly interests include external policies of the European Union, the political and economic processes taking place in Central and Eastern Europea (in particular, Ukraine and Moldova), and more recently the influence of information technology on social and political processes.