There's much talk about using Web 2.0 for Public Diplomacy nowadays. As I have written in this blog before, I am a bit cynical about its potential right now. It might be a strategic tool for some nations but may not be of use for some at all. There is indeed a digital divide in international relations with possibly interesting consequences.
Let's take the example of India. Internet penetration is low but the number of Internet users are very high. As of September, 2008, India had 45.3 million active internet users. This is according to the I-Cube [Internet in India] Study conducted annually by IMRB International and Internet and Mobile Association of India [IAMAI]. These figures were released in January 2009. The study also found that the number of “claimed” internet users in September 2008 was 57 million - "Claimed Users" being those who have used the internet "sometime" but not in the last one month. This is however, just 1/6th of just the Indian middle class. From the "Web 2.0 public diplomacy" perspective there may not be a mass potential here. I propose this argument keeping in mind one of the core objectives of Public Diplomacy - to influence foreign public opinion to bring about policy, behavourial, attitudinal changes in the 'targeted' nation state. Out of 1.2 billion Indians merely 45 million are active internet users! My guess is that these 45 million are not very active voters as well to be able to enforce policy changes. Voter apathy of Indian middle class is well known. To bring about changes in India, a communications campaign has to look at the vast underclasses, nearly 800-900 million of them, who also 'vote' and thus matter to the political elite.
But if we look at developed economies like US or Europe, internet penetration and usage are high. So, for lesser countries with the capability and knowhow ( I mean India, China & Brazil) it will be a lot easier to influence Europeans or Americans in a focused way with mass out reach. In a way, the strategic advantage actually lie with these countries rather than the developed West when it come to Web 2.0 Public Diplomacy. Being on the wrong side of the digital divide may be beneficial for these states. To illustrate further, we all know about Iran "twittering away" few months ago... but these twitterers are very minuscule and do not form the huge popular support base for conservative Ahmedinejad. (Read my blog post "Public Diplomacy & Social Media" in June, 2009.) For Iran, it is easier to reach and attempt to influence an American audience rather than for US to reach Iranians via Web 2.0. Naturally, the tactics have to be different and a realistic assessment of Web 2.0 potential has to be made for each country.
Web 2.0, nonetheless, can be used by US and the West to influence policy makers, lobbyists, academics & analysts in countries with low internet usage and this is where it can be most useful. I am not discounting the potential of Web 2.0 Public Diplomacy -- This is just an attempt to look critically at it's possible use in the world as it exists now.