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Communication tools expand scrutiny of foreign policy and diplomacy, says panel

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The rising use of new communication technology like social media is changing the balance of control and ownership of information among states and individuals, leading to increased monitoring of government diplomacy by individuals and other nations.

In an event hosted by the New America Foundation on March 11, panelists said information communication technologies are putting state actions like governance and foreign policy under the microscope.

Gerald Hyman, senior adviser and president of the Hills Program on Governance at CSIS, said new communication tools can be troubling because they add new complications to information when exposing it. He said "that transparency exposes absolutely everything without favoritism."

Hyman said transparency in diplomacy can cause major concerns when it is made public, such as comments made in some cables published by Wikileaks. Diplomacy, he said, allows for two nations to discuss and debate policies, alternatives and reactions to potential events, and making this public would create "a lot of unfortunate commentary on what is not actual the position of your sovereign," potentially harming all parties involved.

Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow at NAF's Open Technology Institute, said that the United States needs a national security strategy that addresses new and disruptive technologies to avoid perils in state diplomacy while increasing its standing among individuals around the world.

Kelly said the ultimate goal should be to develop a communication strategy that gives U.S. citizens access to the Internet without governmental restrictions and that promotes this type of connectivity in global partners.

Kelly said social media is already giving some this type of access, citing its use in the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and that future diplomacy will include interactions between a government and people on social platforms as well as those between governments through more traditional channels. The key for the United States, she said, is to support individuals across the globe that are making efforts to open up data access in their countries.

However, these technologies that provide individuals greater abilities to organize come with both positive and negative outcomes, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the National Defense University's Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Siegle said the government needs a security plan that addresses both possibilities.

Siegle said they can be potentially harmful, such as when an anti-Muslim film that went viral caused unrest in the Middle East and was cited as a potential cause for the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya. However, these same technologies foster more responsiveness from governments because more information leads to more pressure both nationally and internationally, Siegle said, especially as diplomacy is under more scrutiny.

These technologies cause "greater short-term volatility but long-term, institutionally, there is greater stability in fragile states because of the greater access to information," he said.

For more:
- watch a webcast of the panel discussion

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