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date: 19 September 2017

Social Media and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Social media refer to websites and other Internet applications that enable users to create and share content with other users, as well as to react to such content in various ways. As social media have become more accessible, in terms of both Internet access and ease of use, it has become one means by which people, nonstate actors, and governments can share their foreign policy priorities in an effort to receive feedback, engage in diplomacy, educate people, and attempt to influence foreign policy outcomes. Foreign policy practitioners and scholars have rushed to describe and begin to analyze the ways in which social media has become part of the foreign policy process. The social and political upheaval associated with the Arab Spring, some of which has been traced to both foreign and domestic use of social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, created a greater sense of urgency among those who seek a greater understanding of the impact of social media on foreign policy.

Thematically, much of the academic work concerning social media and foreign policy is conducted as part of the broader public diplomacy literature. Public diplomacy, which relates to efforts by international actors to engage with foreign publics in the pursuit of policy goals, can be advanced along a number of paths. However, given their accessibility, low cost, and ease of use, social media has become a critical tool for a wide variety of international actors running the gamut from governments to portions of civil society to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq Syria (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIS based in part on the group’s territorial claims). Social media and foreign policy work can also be found in the political communication literature, in working papers and articles generated by foreign policy think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, and in academic journals dedicated to area studies that often concentrate on specific episodes of social media used to influence foreign policy.

Theoretical development in the area of social media and foreign policy is fragmented across disciplines and approaches. Network theories focus on interactions between parts of a network (in this case a social network); network analysis methods are sometimes employed as part of this theoretical framework. Other theories in this area focus on traditional problems associated with collective action and how these problems can be overcome by removing barriers to communication and lowering the cost of some types of political action. Different theoretical perspectives are often accompanied by different empirical results. Results vary from findings of a profound impact of social media on foreign policy outcomes to skepticism of the role played by social media in the face of other, potentially confounding, factors.

Keywords: social media, foreign policy, Arab Spring, public diplomacy, social network theory, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter


Practitioners of foreign policy, states and nonstate actors alike, have seen the potential (and threat) of social media as an instrument of foreign policy since the inception of the various social media outlets. Scholarly interest, however, dates primarily to two sets of events. The first event was the disputed Iranian presidential election of 2009, in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory came under significant domestic and international scrutiny, resulting in significant protests and a subsequent crackdown by the Iranian government. The election sparked an academic discussion of the role of social media (specifically Twitter) in foreign policy (e.g., see Burns & Eltham, 2009; Shirky, 2011). The second set of events, which sparked much of the literature treating the topic of social media and foreign policy seen today, included the Arab Spring uprisings, revolutions, and counterrevolutions. Beginning in Tunisia in December of 2010, Arab Spring protests spread, with varying levels of intensity, to several North African and Middle Eastern countries. The use of social media services, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to spread messages of support, to overcome collective action difficulties, and, at times, to subvert the uprisings, became the focus of several studies. Beyond the social, economic, and geopolitical impacts of the Arab Spring, the events of 2010 and 2011 coincided with the emergence of a new branch of foreign policy analysis.

The literature on social media and foreign policy can be viewed thematically, theoretically, methodologically, and empirically. Thematically, the locus of much of the literature on this emerging topic can be found within broader scholarship related to public diplomacy. Exceptions to this general trend abound, as might be expected in an area of intense interdisciplinary interest. Theoretically, scholars of communication (especially political communication), social network and network theorists, as well as theories of collective action all speak in somewhat different ways to the questions concerning the use of social media as an instrument of foreign policy. Methodologically, the vast majority of work in this area consists of thick, descriptive case studies, which vary mostly in the degree to which they attempt to isolate potential causal indicators of social media influence on foreign policy outcomes. Network analysis and various forms of content and concept analysis also appear on the methodological spectrum, as might be expected in an interdisciplinary area of study. Empirically, findings vary from those claiming a significant role for social media as an instrument of foreign policy to those much more skeptical of any independent impact. For present purposes, social media refer to websites and other Internet applications that enable users to create and share content with other users, as well as to react to such content in various ways.

Thematic Variation

Scholars of foreign policy analysis tend to focus on theories, processes, and outcomes of foreign policy. Within this framework, scholars of public diplomacy study the ways in which international actors attempt to connect with and influence foreign publics. Scholars such as Hayden, Waisanen, and Osipova (2013) focus on the nation-state influence in the context of U.S. foreign policy. Most public diplomacy scholars focus on a broader definition that includes any attempt by an international actor to advance its foreign policy goals through interaction with foreign publics (Cowan & Cull, 2008). The latter definition allows for the possibility that organized interests such as think tanks, civil society, and even terrorist groups might engage in public diplomacy. This possibility becomes critically important when examining the impact of social media on foreign policy since the various means of social communication and connection make social media an especially attractive means of foreign policy influence by nonstate actors.

A plurality of studies related to the various facets of social media and foreign policy can be found within the literature on public diplomacy, as defined earlier. The connection of these two literatures is straightforward. Social media offer one way, among many, that both state and nonstate actors can attempt to connect with and influence foreign publics in order to advance foreign policy goals. Most scholarly work on social media and foreign policy uses either the actor (state or non-state) as the unit of analysis or focuses on the attempt or attempts at public diplomacy as the unit of analysis. Barghandan (2015), for example, focuses on Iran’s attempt to use social media as part of its public diplomacy effort to counter U.S. narratives concerning Iran’s nuclear program. These attempts include direct interaction with the U.S. public on Twitter. Attias (2012) examines Israel’s use of both conventional public diplomacy and social media-based public diplomacy to counter negative international narratives concerning Israel and to encourage the development of more positive narratives. Gregory (2011) describes U.S. efforts to use social media as part of its public diplomacy efforts, focusing on the lack of agility on the part of the United States as it attempts to engage in the type of decentralized conversations that are thought to make social media more successful as a medium for public diplomacy. Even North Korea, according to a brief review by Altenberger (2014), uses social media to counter and spread foreign policy narratives to an international audience.

Actor-level analysis is not confined to state actors within the public diplomacy literature treating social media and foreign policy. Brachman (2010) examines the use of social media by the terrorist group al-Qaeda as part of its public diplomacy effort. To Brachman, al-Qaeda is mainly an opportunist group when it comes social media and foreign policy, choosing to wait for specific instances where the United States government or an autonomous actor within the United States makes a statement that might be construed as critical to Muslims in general or an instance of civilian deaths in the Muslim world caused by U.S. military intervention. Al-Qaeda then takes to social media to publicize these miscues to its global audience. Melki and Jabado (2016) examine the same phenomenon with respect to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Individual terrorist acts draw attention to ISIS’s social media campaigns, while social media campaigns draw attention to the group’s overall mission. This aids in recruitment and in demoralization of opponents and also helps support the organization’s branding effort.

Other examples of public diplomacy literature that focus on the role of social media and foreign policy examine specific episodes. In one of the oldest (relatively speaking) examples of scholarly work on social media and foreign policy, Burns and Eltham (2009) trace U.S. attempts to use social media to put pressure on Iran to enact reforms after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Specifically, the United States government convinced Twitter not to roll out a service update that would have increased Iran’s ability to prevent users in the country from coordinating on Twitter. Instead, activists in the United States and Iran were able to use Twitter, though with limited success, for mobilization purposes. Allan and Brown (2010), as well as Bayram (2015), focus on contending social media public diplomacy narratives after the Israeli raid on one of the ships attempted to break an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip (the Mavi Marmara or Gaza flotilla raid). The authors argue that, overall, Israel’s social media public diplomacy apparatus, which includes a YouTube channel operated by the Israeli Defense Force, was able to overcome pro-Palestinian groups’ use of unedited YouTube videos and video parody “mashups.” Pinkerton and Benwell (2014) examine the use of social media by Argentina and the United Kingdom to influence global public opinion in their dispute over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas.

Of course, some examples of social media and foreign policy literature fall outside of the traditional boundaries of scholarship on public diplomacy. One such line of inquiry falls within the broader literature treating the domestic sources of foreign policy.

A comprehensive or even cursory survey of the domestic sources of foreign policy literature lies far beyond the scope of the present narrative. However, it is worth noting that much of this literature owes itself to Kenneth Waltz’s (2001) seminal analysis of the nature of war at the state level (corresponding to his “second image”) and Robert Putnam’s conceptualization of diplomacy as a two-level game (Putnam, 1988). Maslow (2013) and Merke and Pauselli (2015), for example, both examine the role of social media within the broader question of domestic foreign policy think tanks and their impact on foreign policy. To be clear, the use of social media is not posited in either study as the key predictor of foreign policy influence. Rather, Merke and Pauselli examine social media reach (followers) as an indicator of influence, while the Maslowe piece conceptualizes the lack of social media engagement as one reason for the lack of significant foreign policy influence among Japanese think tanks. Rubenzer (2016) examines the use of social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, by ethnic identity groups in the United States that seek to influence U.S. foreign policy, finding that those groups that are already considered the most powerful are also those most likely to use social media to spread their foreign policy narratives.

The single largest area of the social media and foreign policy literature does not fit as cleanly as one might like within a single area of the literature. This is the literature examining the impact of social media on the Arab Spring. Portions of the Arab Spring literature seem to fall within the public diplomacy framework, even if they are not formally categorized as such. Howard and Hussain (2013), for example, describe Egyptian political parties engaging in public diplomacy during the Arab Spring as part of the effort to gain backers and funding for their efforts. Paquin (2012) finds evidence of Canada following the United States in the use of social media in an attempt both to convince Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down and to signal a degree of solidarity with the protestors. Axford (2011), while cautioning against overgeneralizing the social media impact, does point to the spreading of images and videos from Egypt and Tunisia as a source of international and domestic mobilization. Yli-Kaitala (2014) examines foreign social media influence, especially by the United States, on the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt.

Other studies deny, at least partially, a social media/foreign policy connection in the context of the Arab Spring. Ghonim (2012), for example, provides a first-hand account of the Arab Spring in which he focuses on the domestic power of social media to create mobilization, while, for the most part, denying the impact of foreign social media efforts on events in Egypt. Anderson (2011) points out that many of the events of the Arab Spring were set in motion long before the existence of social media. Kirkpatrick (2011) notes that authoritarian regimes can use various censorship techniques as part of the effort to block domestic access to social media. This has foreign policy implications when it makes it more difficult for the public in such countries to have their first-hand accounts of government abuses documented on a readily sharable platform. Overall, while it is difficult to deny the role of social media in the Arab Spring, it is less clear whether social media served as an effective instrument of foreign policy during the Arab Spring.

Theoretical Variation

Theoretical development in the current literature on social media and foreign policy is somewhat sparse. This is less of an indictment of the current literature than it is a statement about two interrelated factors that often combine to curtail theoretical development. First, the research program in this area is relatively new. A majority of the literature treating social media and foreign policy was written either in or after 2011. It is natural, in this context, for the emerging literature to focus on describing a phenomenon before attempting to theorize about it. Second, both social media and most certainly the use of social media as an instrument of foreign policy are comparatively new constructs. Twitter, a medium commonly discussed in the Arab Spring literature, did not go online until 2006. YouTube became operational in 2005, while Facebook, which at first had to cease market share from well-established Myspace, launched in 2004. Social media made few political ripples before Barack Obama successfully used the emerging medium during his successful campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008 and, ultimately, the presidency. It wasn’t until 2010–2011 that the United States began to shift significant resources into social media diplomacy. As a result, it is fair to say that not only is the literature examining social media and foreign policy new, the practice of using social media as an instrument of foreign policy is also new. Given the tendency of basic description and, often later, taxonomy to precede more detailed theory building, the paucity of theoretical work in this area is not a surprise.

Given the nature of social media, it is also not a surprise that much of the theorizing relating to the impact of social media on both foreign and domestic policy follows social network theory. Generally, social network theories examine the connections between social networks from the largest unit (the networks themselves) to the smallest units (the individual actors, which are often called nodes). Depending on the level of analysis, a node could be an individual, an organization, a nonstate actor, or even a government. Crooks et al. (2014) use network theory to examine top-down (government-driven) and bottom-up (citizen-driven via social media) networks in and related to the conflict in Syria. Their results support the idea that activists in Syria drove the external conversation about Syria by networking with potential allies outside the country, which in turn may have an impact on foreign policy narratives. Zhu (2015) argues that countries/territories that are more central (based on income in this case) to the international system are also likely to be more central to social networks concerning their political grievances as these grievances spread through individuals in the international community. Hacker and Mendez (2016) maintain that network theories are superior to traditional mass communication theories in terms of explaining the ability of smaller actors to set a foreign policy agenda by circumventing traditional communication structures.

Although the theoretical connection is much more indirect, other scholars focus on the ability of social media to help overcome collective action problems within the realm of both foreign and domestic policy. Olson’s famous (1965) work on the logic of collective action focuses on the provision of collective goods and the mobilization advantages that small organized interests can have over larger groups. Tilly (1978) extended the idea of collective action—admittedly one used decades before Olson within sociology—to revolutions. The idea of social movements using social media domestically, or foreign actors using social media in conjunction with domestic actors, to reach “revolutionary thresholds” is at the very least implied in the literature on social media and foreign policy. Kirkpatrick (2011), for example, talks about the possibility of Facebook being used by both foreign and domestic actors to help protestors connect with each other as they appear to have done during the Arab Spring. Dalacoura (2012) posits that social media played a key role in overcoming the collective action problem. Specifically, social media were used to connect the Arab Spring protestors to the outside world, providing support and further mobilization opportunities. Wylie and Glidden (2013) argue, in part, that the population of Cuba is already too socially connected in other ways, as well as too content with the government, to allow Arab Spring-style collective action.

There are some issues associated with the collective action framework as described within the existing literature on social media and foreign policy. First, most of the collective action social movement work focuses domestically and is hence beyond the scope of foreign policy analysis. The fact that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have their headquarters outside of the Middle East does not make these outlets foreign policy actors by definition. Second, the literature that does connect foreign action to domestic outcomes contains linkages that are less than clear. In the case of the Arab Spring, for example, foreign governments, individuals, and organized foreign interests all definitely provided encouragement, and at times discouragement, for the public in places like Tunisia and, especially, Egypt. However, the theoretical connection between encouragement, via video sharing or any other means, is not completely certain. How does international action become part of the formula that mobilizes the masses? The answer is not completely clear.

Howard and Hussain (2013) provide one potential mechanism, as well as a promising linkage between network theories and theories of collective action. Specifically, the authors theorize that social media helped make the Arab Spring possible by connecting smaller groups of activists to networks. These networks helped mobilize others, many of whom were not connected to the Internet. As already mentioned, these activists reached out to the international community for assistance (the foreign policy element) and, at times, received it. At the same time, the impact of social media was limited both by connectivity issues and by governments using social media to trap activists by tricking them into revealing their location to authorities. Aday et al. (2012) find that social media, specifically Twitter, played an insignificant role in internal Arab Spring mobilizations. However, Twitter did play an external role, making those outside of the affected countries aware of the protests and government response. This, in turn, may have played an indirect role in Western foreign policy mobilization in response to government repression.

It is important to recognize, however, that there is no theoretical reason to expect that social media will automatically, or even normally, overcome the collective action problem. As Gladwell (2010) has suggested, while social media have utility, they do not create the type of meaningful personal connections necessary to sustain protests. Social media campaigns also convince people to participate by not requiring much in the way of personal inconvenience. It is against this backdrop that the idea of “slacktivism” has gained some currency in the literature. Slacktivism, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary (2017), consists of “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, for example signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on social media.” The term was coined by Evgeny Morozov (2009a) to describe social media activities with very low marginal cost that produce little to no societal benefit.

As it applies to the literature on social media and foreign policy, the central theoretical argument concerning slacktivism is that social media activity has little impact on foreign policy, and that such activity is often based on incorrect information about the situation “on the ground” in the target country or region, or on the target issue. Wylie and Glidden (2013), for example, invoke alleged slacktivism in the Kony 2012 viral video (concerning the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army Terrorist Group in Uganda) to argue that slacktivists pushing for a “Cuban Spring” do not understand the current political situation in Cuba enough to push for effective change. Morozov (2009b) argues that slacktivism can be even more counterproductive in cases where social media communication between those trying to influence foreign policy and those trying to practice domestic policy endangers peaceful protestors without accomplishing any of the goals of the slacktivists. Overall, however, while they are more heavily discussed in other literature, theoretical perspectives related to slacktivism are only beginning to work their way into the systematic study of social media and foreign policy.

As Melki and Jabado (2016) have noted, much of the existing empirical and theoretical work relating to social media and foreign policy has related to state actors. Melki and Jabado extend the theoretical analysis to “virtual states” such as ISIS, arguing that social media must be viewed in the context of public diplomacy by means of multiple communication techniques. Creating core messages, such as group unity and the battle against Western oppression, ISIS targets complementary messages across both more traditional media and social media outlets, as well as on the ground. In important ways, Melki and Jabado’s work extends the political contest model (Wolfsfeld, 1997) into the realm of social media by explaining how ISIS is able to effectively tailor its message to existing media frames (such as the idea of a war on terror).

Methodological Variation and Development

Currently, the dominant method in the study of social media and foreign policy is the case study. Most existing case studies might be categorized as single-shot descriptive case studies in that they often examine a single episode of social media use at a single point in time. As Lijphart (1971) notes in his work on the comparative method, the scientific status of the single-shot case study is ambiguous. However, case studies, even when they are not purely comparative, do provide the potential building blocks of theoretical development, which is definitely needed within the literature. In addition, single-shot case studies help us develop catalogs of attempts at influence, both successes, and failures, in a way that should be of significant utility as the literature continues to develop.

There are limits to the present classification of methodology within the literature, owing in part to ambiguity as to what constitutes an “observation” within a case study. In the most basic terms, a single-shot case study consists of one observation at a single point in time. Some of the studies included here seem to examine a single incident but include more than one attempt to use social media. Such studies only become “comparative” (1) when the unit of analysis is clearly the attempt to use social media as an instrument of foreign policy rather than an event that brought on the attempt(s) and (2) when the student attempts to systematically examine similarities and differences in each use in order to explain differences in some discrete outcome.

Finally, it should be noted that the author of the current entry is a political scientist. As such, this attempt to impose some order on a very diverse area of study carries with it all of the assumptions and biases of political science, specifically, and the social sciences, more broadly. Several of the scholarly works reviewed for this entry were written by foreign policy practitioners, witnesses to events, scholars of communication and mass media, and area studies specialists from a variety of disciplinary traditions. The methodological classification system used here may, therefore, work less readily in some areas than others.

Single-shot case studies within the literature are drawn largely from the actor-level and event-level themes highlighted in the thematic variation section of this entry. Many examples of single-shot case studies have a single country, or another type of entity, as their primary unit of analysis. Altenberger (2014), for example, examines North Korea’s use of media, especially YouTube, in order to transmit regime-friendly messages concerning conditions in North Korea and North Korean military power. Attias (2012), a scholar and practitioner within the realm of Israeli public diplomacy, describes Israeli use of both social media and word of mouth as an instrument of foreign policy. Barghandan (2015) contributes to the literature by examining the case of Iran’s use of social media in an attempt to change its image in the West. Brachman (2010) examines the use of social media by Al-Qaeda as a single case, while Melki and Jabado (2016) describe the use of social media by ISIS. Gregory (2011) examines the case of U.S. use of social media as part of its foreign policy, noting limits that arise from the type of hierarchical communication structure preferred by the U.S. government. Hallams (2010) focuses on the use of social media by the United States to counter al-Qaeda. What all of these works have in common is the desire to explore the use of social media as a means to further foreign policy goals, in depth, within a single state or nonstate actor.

There are also single-shot case studies within the existing literature that focus on a single event, or a closely related series of events, to examine the use of social media either to frame the event or to advance some other foreign policy goal. These studies fit mostly within the episode-level theme highlighted earlier. It is important to recognize, however, that there is a difference between a thematic focus and a method. Some event-level studies, for example, use statistical or process-tracing methods by expanding the number of cases within a given episode. For the most part, however, most episode-level studies focus on a single attempt to use social media to further a foreign policy goal, or they treat a series of attempts (tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and the like) as a single attempt. Allan and Brown (2010) and Bayram (2015), for example, both examine the Mavi Marmara raid and the use of social media by Israel and pro-Palestinian groups to attempt to influence perceptions of the event. Burns and Eltham (2009) perform the same type of event-level case study analysis with respect to U.S. attempts to prevent Iran from limiting access to Twitter during the disputed election of 2009.

Other studies make use of the comparative case study approach, which probes similarities and differences between cases in an attempt to isolate factors that may be critical in a given outcome or class of interrelated outcomes. Hayden (2013), for example, compares the use of social media in public diplomacy by the United States and Venezuela in an attempt to explain how domestic actors and narratives shape the use of social media as an instrument of foreign policy. Howard and Hussain (2013) use the case study approach, as well as other methods, to examine the impact of social media, both foreign and domestic, on several countries that experienced varying levels of political upheaval during the events of the Arab Spring. Maslow (2013) examines a single country (Japan) but uses individual think tanks as the unit of analysis, enabling him to gain a degree of comparative leverage. Merke and Pauselli (2015) also undertake a comparative analysis of think tanks and their use of social media, this time in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.

Beyond the case study approach, or in some instances as part of the case study approach, network analysis also finds its way into the methodological toolbox employed by scholars examining the relationship between social media and foreign policy. Network analysis methods, which often accompany social network theory, tend to examine the interactions between and among nodes, which might be individuals, government agencies, nonstate actors, or states, within a given system. Heemsbergen and Lindgren (2014), for example, use network analysis as a way of process tracing as they attempt to isolate narratives and counternarratives by the Israeli Defense force (IDF) and Hamas. Howard and Hussain (2013) similarly employ network analysis to examine the use of social media as an instrument of foreign and domestic policy on the part of the Egyptian government and elements of civil society. Park and Lim (2014) use network analysis to uncover differences between social media usage in public diplomacy in Japan and South Korea.

More quantitative techniques are rare within this field of research. Groshek (2010), in a work that is only tangentially related to social media in foreign policy (as one potential factor in explaining the potential relationship between Internet diffusion and democracy in an individual country), uses a time-series technique, specifically an autoregressive, integrated, moving average (ARIMA) model. Rubenzer (2016) employs a mixture of ordinary least squares (OLS) and logistic regression to identify predictors of social media use and influence among ethnic identity groups in the United States that seek to influence U.S. foreign policy toward other countries.

Overall, it appears that methodology in this area of the foreign policy literature is determined both by the nature of different research questions that scholars are asking and by the diversity of disciplinary approaches. In the case research questions, a majority of existing studies seek to describe a process or a set of interrelated processes related to how different state and nonstate actors use social media. The appropriate method to pursue this line of inquiry is often a single-shot case study. Scholars wishing to isolate factors that determine either the type, structure, or impact of social media usage are more likely to employ comparative case studies. In the case of disciplinary traditions, scholars of communications and/or media studies appear to be more likely to use network analysis. Political scientists appear somewhat more likely to use quantitative methods and associated statistical techniques.

Diversity in Empirical Findings Within the Existing Literature

As is true in any line of inquiry, findings are determined largely by what the search is about. In this sense, scholars who seek mainly to describe the process by which one party or another uses social media in an attempt to influence foreign policy outcomes have findings that give more information about a process than about the result of that process. The results of these studies often defy classification because they are designed to make classification possible, rather than to be classified. Other types of studies have findings that are more prone to classification. Specifically, studies that attempt to determine the impact of social media use in furtherance of foreign policy goals are easier to group by results. Such studies, which are the focus of this section, can be grouped in terms of the degree to which they find a significant role, a middling role, or no role (or virtually no role) for social media in altering, shaping, or determining discrete foreign policy outcomes.

In terms of scholars finding that social media have a significant impact on foreign policy, Hallams (2010) finds that al-Qaeda is highly successful at using social media as a foreign policy/recruitment tool. The United States is less successful in this use, in part because its actions in the global war on terror counter its own attempted social media narratives. Melki and Jabado (2016) also find a significant social media impact, this time in the case of ISIS. These authors find that ISIS is able to use social media synergistically with acts of terror to spread narratives concerning group strength and unity of purpose. Cross (2010) shows that, while the Green Revolution in Iran failed for other reasons, the use of social media did lead to an increased number of antiregime protestors. Using a two-stage model, Cross was able to provide partial refutation of the slacktivism hypothesis in that online activity and in-person activity seemed to be casually related to each other, even if they did not succeed. Yli-Kaitala (2014) finds that social media played a significant role in the promotion of regime change and democracy during the Arab Spring, though it had to compete with a large number of other factors.

Overall, the finding of significant, but highly contextualized, influence is not uncommon. Rubenzer (2016), for example, finds that those ethnic identity groups that are already thought to be the most powerful are more likely to have a greater presence on social media. Allan and Brown (2010) state that social media had an impact on perceptions of the Mavi Marmara raid, but that the more conventionally powerful group (Israel) is more powerful on social media than the less powerful, pro-Palestinian groups. Bayram (2015) came to a similar conclusion after examining Western responses to the Mavi Marmara incident in light of social media posts on both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian sides of the dispute. Hence, social media are an important tool, but they don’t necessarily level the playing field between groups of different levels of more traditional clout, as once thought.

In terms of studies with midrange findings, Attias (2012) reports that while individuals can be effective agents in the public diplomacy process on behalf of states, states themselves have difficulty finding influence on social media because of the perception of bias. Axford (2011) argues that the degree to which social media had an impact on foreign and domestic policy during the Arab Spring depended, in part, on how much capacity governments had to target domestic social activists as well as how much domestic censorship of traditional media occurred. Howard and Hussain (2013) conclude that the social media helped to fuel the Arab Spring but that they were not a causal mechanism. This is in part because governments were able to use social media either to counter protestor narratives or to capture protestors and shut down protest networks. Shirky (2011) argues that, while social media can be used to further foreign policy, foreign governments, such as Iran, can counterpressure by strategically cracking down on dissidents. Anderson (2011) argues that social media did play a role in the Arab Spring but that the overall process was more contextually dependent on country characteristics than it was on the power of social media (in a foreign policy or domestic context).

Finally, some scholars have doubts either as to the ability of particular actors to leverage social media or as to the power of social media in general as a means of furthering foreign policy goals. Gregory (2011), for example, argues that the United States cannot effectively leverage social media as part of its public diplomacy effort in part because of the lack of local flexibility at the embassy and embassy staff level. Groshek (2010) states that Internet diffusion is not positively associated with democratization processes. Morozov (2009b) finds that slacktivists in Iran were not able to use Twitter to combat an authoritarian regime with its own sophisticated means of leveraging the power of the Internet. While this study only indirectly relates to the broader topic of social media and foreign policy, the findings do call into question the notion that social media can be a factor in pro-democracy movements. Wylie and Glidden (2013) are skeptical that the events of the Arab Spring can be generalized to other locations, in this case Cuba, as a result of existing levels of satisfaction with government as well as social networks in Cuba that exist in spite of the lack of Internet access among large portions of the population. Part of this skepticism relates to the argument from the slacktivist literature that those seeking to foment a Cuban Spring are not close enough to events in Cuba to have an impact on domestic policy.

Overall, three main trends in the literature emerge. First, most scholars believe that social media had some impact on the Arab Spring but that this impact was less significant than the initial proclamations of “revolution 2.0” suggested. Instead, especially in the realm of foreign policy, the impact of social media was mixed and heavily driven by context. Second, state-level actors, especially the United States, appear to be hamstrung in their efforts to use social media as a foreign policy tool by a combination of factors, including hierarchical lines of communication and the difficulty in holding true conversations (as opposed to simply posting messages or videos). Put another way, bureaucracy appears to be an enemy of effective social media usage. A partial exception may be the government of Israel, which invested early and heavily in public diplomacy efforts, including those involving social media. Even in the Israeli case, however, influence is limited by perceptions of government bias. Third, nonstate actors, be they classic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or terrorist groups, have some advantages in the realm of social media and foreign policy. Specifically, these groups are generally better suited to holding conversations rather than simply making posts. However, the level of influence these groups achieve is limited by factors such as counternarratives and interdiction by state actors.

Directions for Future Research

Significant progress has already been made, in a relatively short period of time, on questions related to the use of social media, by various types of actors, as an instrument of foreign policy. The fact that study in this area is occurring simultaneously in a variety of disciplines is one critical reason for these advancements. Dozens of case studies, at the attempt and actor level, are now available that systematically examine the impact of social media on foreign policy outcomes and processes. There are also several promising theoretical developments ranging from network theories of social media interaction to theories concerning public diplomacy to theories related to collective action. There are also encouraging signs of unity between theory in practice, both in the existence of academic studies conducted by foreign policy practitioners and by studies that point directly to characteristics of social media use that are more or less likely to be successful parts of comprehensive public diplomacy efforts.

There are, however, theoretical, methodological, and empirical gaps in the existing literature. At the theoretical level, for example, network theories of social media and foreign policy appear to be better developed than theories of collective action. Olson’s (1965) work on collective action, for example, suggests that there is more to successful group formation than simply lowering barriers to membership (which might be partially accomplished by social media). The value of selective benefits, as well as the probability that individual efforts will have an impact on the collective effort, must be higher than the costs of participation. The literature on social media and foreign policy would do well to examine potential theoretical linkages between social media use and individual perceptions of solidary and purposive benefits, two types of selective benefits (benefits that do not accrue to the individual unless he or she participates in a collective effort). In this regard, scholars of political psychology, political sociology, and even domestic and international political economy have for the most part not weighed in on the broader issue.

Also at the theoretical level, it can be stated that the literature would benefit from the integration of theoretical perspectives from the domestic sources of foreign policy literature. At this point, much of social media literature focuses on either domestic policy processes and outcomes or, as examined here, foreign policy processes and outcomes. A few authors, such as those mentioned in this narrative, have examined the use of social media by domestic think tanks to influence foreign policy outcomes within their home governments. However, there currently exists little theoretical development in this regard. It is known, for example, that, in the United States, there are good reasons for foreign policy entrepreneurs in Congress to stake out strong foreign policy positions (e.g., see Carter & Scott, 2009). It is also known that foreign policy interest groups in the United States are capable of strongly impacting foreign policy outcomes (e.g., see Haney & Vanderbush, 2005; Paul & Paul, 2008; Rubenzer, 2008). Theoretically, linking these two related areas of study may well increase our overall knowledge of the impact of domestic actors on foreign policy outcomes via social media.

Methodologically, the literature would benefit from an increased number of comparative case studies. Single-shot case studies are currently cataloging and taxonomizing efforts by a large number of actors to use social media as an instrument of foreign policy. This effort should continue. However, more studies that rigorously probe the similarities and differences between cases in order to provide predictive and explanatory clues would be a boon to the literature. At this point, it probably matters little whether these comparative studies use large-N or more qualitative techniques (comparative case studies certainly don’t have to use the comparative method as narrowly defined by Lijphart). What matters is the ability to determine whether and under what conditions divergent groups use social media differently (and other different circumstances) and whether these different types of uses lead to measurably different foreign policy outcomes. The ability to establish a greater degree of control (experimental, statistical, or logical) will likely add to what we know, as well as suggest additional questions to ask.

Empirically, the diversity of disciplinary traditions employed in the social media and foreign policy line of inquiry makes it very difficult to create even the most basic list of empirical findings. Some studies search for empirical regularity, and some do not. The issue is that speaking from within specific disciplines, it can be difficult to tell which studies are which. This issue might be addressed, in part, by increased cooperation across the many disciplines that possess an interest in the general topic. This type of cooperation may result in a more unified expression of results. Current research has also grown voluminous enough that it may benefit from a meta-analysis of empirical findings. There is significant diversity in the unit of analysis (the group, the state, the individual, the revolution) involved in the study of social media and foreign policy. Meta-analysis, if done correctly, may help draw some generalizable results from a series of disparate studies.

There is a certain amount of danger of losing some of the momentum behind the research surrounding social media and foreign policy. The Arab Spring provided the impetus for a great deal of research in this area. Indeed, it is the single most studied series event in the current literature. Initial optimism behind the Arab Spring likely led many scholars to examine the impact of social media (domestic and foreign) on events in the Middle East and North Africa in order to determine if democracy might spread via social media. As this optimism gave way to disappointment, it became more important to examine the limits of social media as an instrument of foreign policy. As 2011 grows more distant, the number of studies of social media and foreign policy may decrease. The issue this presents is that the Arab Spring is certainly not the last instance of a set of interrelated (though with significant variation) social movements that may have been influenced by domestic and foreign use of social media. The Arab Spring was also not the end of using social media as an instrument of public diplomacy. In this context, redoubling current efforts to study the process and impact of social media on foreign policy is vital to academics, practitioners, and anyone seeking to understand foreign policy in an interconnected world.


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