Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
Social Media: A Significant Change to Inter-State Relations?
While social media might have been invented to bring friends closer together, it now can act as a force that can push nation-states apart. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have already completely revolutionized how individuals interact within states, but also more and more affect the way representatives and heads of state interact with each other.
In some ways, social media has yet to fundamentally change the ways states interact internationally. Nations still largely rely on their diplomatic corps and embassies to communicate important messages to other nations. The United Nations offers another avenue through which to address states’ grievances with one another. In the United States, for example, while Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani take to social media platforms such as Twitter to convey some messages, the vast majority of policy is implemented and communicated through official means, whether by the State Department, the Department of Defense, or other government bodies.
On the other hand, social media has completely transformed the way governments interact with citizens, which has profound effects on international relations. Social media has undoubtedly quickened the speed through which people can communicate and interact. One consequence of this accelerating effect on interaction is that people can now react very quickly to a policy decision en masse via social media. What’s more, citizens can also organize quickly, whether virtually or in the streets. Everywhere its used, social media naturally has a democratizing effect on media, threatening authoritarian leaders around the world. In the past year in Algeria, Lebanon, Chile, and Hong Kong, social media provided the key tool to communicate anti-government messages and subsequently mobilize protesters to take to the streets.
To combat social media’s volatile potential to mobilize a state’s citizenry, authoritarian powers must invest resources to control, censor, and redirect criticisms of the government that arise out of the internet platforms. In China, a sophisticated online apparatus masterfully shapes online narratives to conform to the point of view that best suits Beijing. But just as Beijing restricts online speech, it also uses social media as a forum to collect critiques and feedback for decisions being made and policies being implemented by the state, including China’s foreign policy. Social media is not necessarily a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party, but instead acts as a useful way to keep tabs on what people want, while still maintaining control over important narratives.
Finally, social media can eliminate checks on the top executive powers in a country. In the United States, President Trump has direct access to social media at all times, allowing him to communicate directly to the American public whenever he sees fit without any consultation with his advisors and staff. According to a November 2nd New York Times article, President Trump has tweeted over 11,000 times since the beginning of his presidency, and currently tweets with three times as much frequency today than in 2016. While one could argue both for and against the merits of his easy access to the American people, it is undeniable that the President’s usage of social media is completely new and unique to this administration. In the past, when a president wanted to change a policy or issue a statement to the public, he would need to go through his staff and his communications team. While the president could always issue a statement to the public or change a policy, his staff and advisors could try to shape or alter the president’s message or policy in a way that they see fit. Today, the Trump administration lacks the process of revising and refining policy because the President conveys himself directly to the public with little to no delay between his thoughts and his tweet. With social media, President Trump’s first reaction is often what he tweets out, setting in motion major American policy changes and communicates messages to other countries that may or may not be consistent with American policy, or may or may not be misleading.
It is difficult to measure the effect of social media on the bilateral relations between the United States and China. Chinese diplomats have heeded Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s urging to adopt a “fighting spirit” on social media, where many have taken to criticizing the United States and trying to control the narrative around China. But while significant, I remain skeptical of China’s ability to project its voice to Americans through social media. A cursory look at the Twitter accounts of some of China’s most famous and outspoken diplomats, including Ambassador Cui Tiankai and Zhao Lijian, reveal that their followers mostly consist of non-American twitter accounts. China’s top diplomats have comparatively low follower counts, further limiting their reach to the American public. Zhao Lijian has by far the most of the accounts I looked at, but the vast majority of his followers are not American citizens. It seems as though the most important facets of the U.S.-China relationship, at least for now, will continue to be managed by the traditional channels.
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