On November 30th 2012, a debate tackling digital diplomacy was held at the Issam Fares Hall in the American University of Beirut. This debate featured three social media "rock stars": Alec Ross, Senior Innovation Advisor to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; HMA Tom Fletcher, British Ambassador to Lebanon and Jimmy Leach, Senior Associate at Portland Communications. Indeed, the presence of Ross in Lebanon was a great opportunity that the Online Collaborative did not want to miss and thus we decided to confront him with the British Ambassador, whose online presence cannot be neglected.
The debate started with a welcome note by the Chief Collaborator, Mohammad Hijazi, followed by Leach's introduction to the discussion. After that, Ross and Fletcher pointed out the importance of social media in the 21st Century, while stressing on real facts such as the effect of the social media on the political world. They shared their own stories with social media and proved that this phenomenon is a new tool for democracy. Leach ended with a presentation showing statistics and figures that translated the popularity of social media among the different categories of people in the MENA region. For example, Lebanon's top 50 tweeters are 12% activists, 72% journalists and 12% politicians, while worldwide, the numbers are 38% activists 36% journalists only 12% politicians.
The audience engaged with this discussion by updating tweeps on Twitter with the #DigitalDiplomacy hashtag. Between 11am and 1.30pm, 450 tweets were recorded holding the event’s hashtag. The tweets not only reported what the tweeps found funny, interesting or just worth sharing, they asked the diplomats questions as well and commented on the overall of the topic of the event. The top tweet of that evening was @HMATomFletcher’s “Diplomacy is Darwinian. What does Naked Diplomat need? Smartphone, thick skin, open mind. Right kit, right courage. #digitaldiplomacy” retweeted 30 times and favored 6 times.
Then, it was the audience’s turn to ask questions for the speakers. Many subjects were brought up such as online anonymity, the militarization of the Internet, transparency, etc. Some questions handled Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and one of them was “Are you the control freaks that cannot handle WikiLeaks out there?”. Alec Ross responded to that question describing the situation as a house theft where a person cannot but be a control freak. He considered WikiLeaks as an act of theft.
Another question was about how businesses can utilize social media effectively. The answer from Leach was “content is the important, you should be active on social media”. In addition to that, an audience member asked whether cyberspace was the new place for conflict rather than a place to fix things up. Fletcher responded to that question: In fact, at the beginning the social media was described as the fourth warfare ground after terrain, air and water.
As for the question that tackled anonymity, Fletcher responded by stating examples where social media was actually a ground to fix things up like Syrian tweeps’ anonymity to report news, and another example about online trolls. Ross emphasized that the social media is in fact a place for a better world: in 2011 the US gathered forty million dollars for Haiti’s earthquake victims by gathering ten dollars from each person on social media.