TECH

Taylor Swift Might Be America's Best Public Diplomat

Members of the Twitterati might be useful in spreading a new kind of American diplomacy abroad.

"We need to use soft power in hard places," says one of America's top diplomats, and social media is just the way to apply it. 

Richard Stengel -- who was Time magazine's 16th managing editor before he joined the U.S. State Department in 2014 as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs -- doesn't just want America's ambassadors to ramp up their social media outreach to regular people around the world. He's looking to the country's artists, musicians, athletes and citizens abroad to be the engines of discourse, amplified and distributed through the power of the Internet, mobile phones and social networks.

This is the sort of thing that involves smartphones, not smart bombs.

"In an era of the press release, you just put it out there and hope to see if something happens, but with social media technology, all of the new platforms, you can do geotargeting, you can send a message to an individual or you can send it to a billion people," Stengel said Wednesday morning at a forum convened by the University of Southern California's Center for Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.  (Your correspondent was there to speak at a panel on technology and diplomacy later in the day.)

During his time onstage, Stengel -- whose job involves leading conversations with people in other countries, overseeing academic grants, study abroad programs and cultural programming and combatting the ideas behind terrorism -- emphasized the importance of using social networks to connect people over vast distances and divides in culture. 

Stengel also highlighted the importance of empathy in public diplomacy.

When The Huffington Post asked whether using phones and social media, along with associate distractions, might be changing our brains in ways that decrease our feelings of empathy, Stengel argued that the social science he has seen supports the thesis that technology increases and changes our capacity to feel empathy for others. 

In answer to a second question, regarding the U.S. Ambassador to Libya quitting Twitter after harassment and trolling, Stengel acknowledged the negativity diplomats encounter online is real but argued that the benefits of employing modern technology for public diplomacy outweigh the downsides.

"I've been proselytizing our ambassadors, our chiefs of mission, our deputy chiefs of mission, since I've been in the job that that they need to use social media," he said. "There's some reluctance. One of the benefits from coming from a media background is that I don't get alarmed until I have two or three thousand negative tweets piling up. We're very used to it. People have to develop a little bit of a thicker skin about that, because that is the way to communicate."

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