- Real-Time Diplomacy: Politics and Power in the Social Media Era by Philip Sieb
The 2011 Arab uprisings took the US foreign policy establishment by surprise because they were not paying attention to social media and their decision-making processes could not keep pace with the changes taking place. Had they been, it would have revealed deep-seated discontent with the political status quo,1 and diplomats might not have been so far "behind the curve" (p. 2). Seib's Real-Time Diplomacy is an engaging introduction to some of the most memorable developments in the growth of the internet and social media in the Middle East. Although an expert would find many of the examples familiar, anyone interested in learning more about how new media technologies have influenced the practice of Western diplomacy in the modern era will find this book provides a good overview.
The book touches upon several important themes that have redefined the nature and practice of public diplomacy in the contemporary era: the recalibration of time and speed brought on by digital communication networks, the reordering of relationships between policymakers and the public, and the lack of confidentiality. As media have proliferated and journalism accelerated, diplomacy had to keep pace. He highlights the era of diplomacy before it happened in "real time" with a few choice historical examples, ranging from the American Revolution to World War II to the Vietnam War. One of the most interesting examples is the US response when the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall: news footage did not air until for three days later and barely registered during the press briefing the next day, allowing the Kennedy Administration time for a measured response.
Nor is the space of trust afforded by confidentiality. Seib argues that WikiLeaks and the insatiable 24/7 news cycle, the ever-present mobile phone cameras and social media, have punctured traditional diplomacy's "cushion of time" (p. 67). Indeed, his examples underscore that one of the main differences between real-time diplomacy and diplomacy of a prior age is the compression of time and distance, which changes response time and the traditional sender-receiver relationship.
One of his underlying themes is the intractable relationship between media and diplomacy, and thus he focuses on the relationship between "traditional" and "new" media. The thesis of Real-Time Diplomacy, is his encapsulation: "At the heart of the changes in the conduct of foreign policy is not technology per se, but rather the expanded role of a public that can gather more information from more sources than ever before" (p. 105). Thus it is not only the writing but also the reading that matters, as together they create the potential for liberated political speech that can change the world, according to Seib's formulation. This empowerment of previously disengaged citizens is what is fundamentally at the heart of the [End Page 324] practice of public diplomacy and the changes under way in the Middle East (p. 58).
Seib positions the development of social media and online platforms within the continuity of a broader shift in the Arab media ecosystem, triggered by Al Jazeera and the expansion of pan-Arab media, that "undermined government versions of events" and helped set the stage for the 2011 Arab uprisings (p. 44-45). What he calls "the marriage of personal political communication and journalism" (p. 45), or what others have termed "citizen journalism,"2 enabled Arab Spring activists to bypass structural constraints in state-dominated media systems to shape the news agenda and reach a wider "mix of local, national, regional, and global activists and spectators" (p. 50). But Seib largely glosses over the dangers of relying on social media to the exclusion of on-the-ground intelligence, focusing more on the shifts in diplomatic practice brought on by new ICTs rather than the risks, such as increased surveillance and censorship. Statistics about the number of hours of video uploaded to YouTube or the number of tweets sent in a day, however, do little to provide...