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date: 22 November 2017

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

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