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'Crisis of Clarity' in Public Diplomacy

The biggest challenge to communications and PD practitioners is not just 'fake news' or 'disinformation' alone. While there has been a lot of talk about the world entering the 'post-truth' era, what we don't see being talked about a lot is the looming 'Crisis of Clarity'.

'Accuracy' is one of the cardinal principles of communications. Closely tied with 'accuracy' is the principle of 'objectivity'. Fake news or disinformation campaigns represent an intentional manipulation of facts and data in order to influence audiences, but what about situations where audiences are not able to process information presented with the best of intentions and with the highest levels of integrity?

Such situations are increasingly real now. Thanks to the dizzying pace of communications, the explosion of media channels and delivery platforms there is an overwhelming flow of information that reaches a given audience at any point in time. Add to it the constant updating of information every minute. 'Clickbait' content that aims to deliver information capsules and gets shared extensively is a natural product of this environment. 

This environment makes it increasingly difficult for communications practitioners to ensure that the message is received as intended and doesn't get lost in the flood of information that is out there. In a world of multichannel communications, professionals are no longer in control of the sources of information that their audiences have access to. For audiences, the challenge is to process this information and arrive at a point of view... And sometimes, take a decision. In the process clarity or objectivity on any topic or issue can get potentially compromised. Throw 'disinformation'  and 'negative partisanship' into the mix and you enter George Orwell's 1984! 

There is no easy answer to this conundrum. However, a good start, maybe, practitioners of media, communications and public diplomacy are conscious about this environment and proactively try to mitigate it. The silver lining is that this situation is equally applicable to the peddlers of disinformation!


Media and Autocracies: What we learned from the Jamal Khashoggi episode

                The news of Jamal Khashoggi murder and the developments thereafter continue to generate interest worldwide. This episode was unique as worldwide media played an important role to keep the issue at the top of the news cycle creating relentless pressure on all the parties involved, primarily United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

                          This issue also exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia, and maybe that of autocracies worldwide to the 'always on' news cycle in the digital age. What was also evident was Saudi Arabia's inability to understand the Fourth Estate, how they operate and the impact it can have. Turkey, led by President Erdogan, had their media strategy in place and led the Saudis deeper and deeper into the issue and also made United States change it's stand on the issue multiple times. The perfectly timed drip feed leaks to Turkish media, most of which are state controlled, not only kept the issue alive but also built the narrative that eventually led Saudi Arabia to agree that it was indeed a 'premeditated murder.'

        The learning here is maybe autocracies like Saudi Arabia are increasingly vulnerable as media grows in its sophistication and reach. Their lack of experience in dealing with a free press was evident in the number of times they changed the official narrative and expected to get away with it. The photo opp with Khashoggi's son was a huge PR fiasco that only made it worse for them. There was a complete lack of understanding of the medium and the audience. Turkey, not the best of places for a free media to exist, on the other hand made good use of their government controlled media outlets and proximity to media hubs in Europe to drive the issue the way it wanted. Remember, when it comes to the World Press Freedom Index, both these countries rank really low. Turkey is ranked at 157, while Saudi Arabia at 169.

       Media had a significant role to play in the collapse of Soviet Union and clearly can be a crucial ally in ending autocratic rule worldwide. Autocracies are vulnerable as they do not understand how media works, especially the complexity today and won't be able to manage it. While they can control the press within their own borders, in an increasingly interconnected, conversational and globalized world, borders are meaningless. More so in the world of media. In this context, China had the foresight to create platforms like the Global Times to project the Chinese point of view to the world but we are yet to see how compelling a counter narrative it can create.

What makes China's Public Diplomacy effective

            India made considerable progress in Public Diplomacy in the last decade and we have extensively chronicled that in this blog. Soft power seems to have become a mainstream consideration for the policy wonks of South Block. This is a worldwide trend, a natural consequence of the media revolution that we are witnessing. Even closed countries like China are now trying to reach out to audiences overseas. This is where it gets interesting. How does India public diplomacy compare with the Chinese initiatives?

                Lately Indian soft power has been exerting its influence in China through Bollywood with the success of films like Dangal. This even led to some Chinese commentators to opine that when it comes to Public Diplomacy India has a huge advantage because of Bollywood’s popularity world over. While cultural diplomacy has always been the India’s forte, but we are not sure if it in any way confers a huge strategic advantage to India. 

            This blog has often talked about how it is important for Public Diplomacy to contribute to strategic foreign policy goals – the key question that needs to be answered is “How do we want the influence we generate to serve national priorities?” Looking at Public Diplomacy from this lens China might be miles ahead! There have been lot of initiatives by China which successfully garnered influence for China internationally – the love for Chinese food not included.

Photo by Robert Nyman on Unsplash

               Exchange diplomacy is where China seems to be doing very well. More specifically educational exchange. The Chinese leadership are beginning to view ‘Education’ as a key driving force for the country’s future development. While the number of students and universities have increased, China’s educational sector is now increasingly marketing itself as an attractive destination to students, faculty and researchers abroad. 

                  The number of international students in China have increased manifold and is close to 500,000 now as per China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We need to see this also in the context of the number of students China sends to universities abroad every year. Apart from opening universities to international faculty, China is also introducing English language programs at Tsinghua University and also at Peking University. Coupled with initiatives such as the Yidan Prize, China seems to be on track to make education a strategic component in its soft power arsenal.  

               Prof. Nicolas Cull from the Center of Public Diplomacy in the University of Southern California, in 2009 had correctly highlighted the strength of China’s exchange programs in his testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Educational exchange programs foster relations and build a network of influence that is generational. Closer to home, if one considers the affinity of Indians for United States, a lot of credit would go to American universities and educational exchange programs. This creates a relationship that is very organic and inherently strong as it involves cultural immersion and experiential learning. For the time that you are abroad as a student, you get to become ‘the other.’ As a country that boasts of a formidable intellectual tradition, India can do wonders to become the ‘thought leader’ of the world, like it was for most of human history. But we need to close the gap with China first and, Bollywood cannot accomplish that.

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

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