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Social Media Musings, Southeast Asian Edition

Foreign policy: Still behind walls or more open to the people? photo: tbSMITH/flickr

As the highly contested treasure trove of the State Department WikiLeak just keeps giving and giving, an interesting and under reported cable came to light earlier this week. It had to do, quite unexpectedly, with the social media strategy of the US State Department and specifically, the US Embassy’s social media efforts in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Jakarta? You ask. Yes, interestingly enough the US mission in the growing Southeast Asian archipelago nation is the most active of all in this ‘new’ and rapidly evolving field of public diplomacy. With more than 300,000 ‘Likers’ on Facebook at present and an impressive presence on Twitter and Youtube, the US  mission in Jakarta was in a push to get a significantly bigger budget for its social media outreach in advance of President Obama’s November 2010 visit, the leaked cable reveals. Although the cable reveals nothing particularly controversial, it gives interesting insights into the growing importance of social media in America’s outreach efforts in highly connected developing countries, particularly in Asia. It also provides insights into the growing, albeit not openly publicized, funding involved in spreading the message about the US, its leadership and about its policies in the region by directly and interactively reaching out to a younger generation, active on Facebook and other social media channels. And the strategy seems to be working- in less than a year, the number of Likers on their Facebook page has grown six-fold, from 50,000 to 300,000 and the number of Twitter followers from 1,000 to more than 16,000, with regular interaction from fans of both services.

This development begs a lot of interesting questions about the future of public diplomacy:

  • Are other diplomatic missions, even just other US missions around the world, taking note of the Jakarta Embassy’s success?
  • Is there something unique and special about the Indonesian environment where social media-focused outreach efforts find particularly fertile ground beyond Obama’s personal connection to the country?
  • Is the ‘soft power’ message that they are getting out uniquely suited to the kind of informal, multisensory interactivity that services such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube represent and do these provide a highly fertile new ground for such ‘persuasive’ activities and the building of soft power across the world?
  • Is social media changing the landscape of public diplomacy drastically and for good and what might its long-term effects be?
  • Does this finally bring foreign relations closer to the people and their concerns or is it simply a veil behind which business-as-usual continues (the highly fortified US embassy in Jakarta, seen above, is a powerful reminder of this metaphorical paradox)?

For more information on this fascinating topic, check out our recent ISN Insights package on E-Diplomacy and look out for an article coming up in February on the specific impact that social media is having on foreign relations.

Call for Applications: Junior Associates Program

The ISN is proud to announce the launch of our Junior Associates Program. The program brings together young professionals from Swiss-based institutions, companies and international organizations , as well as promising young scholars from Swiss universities, in a cooperative project that builds bridges and networks across the Swiss IR community.

Each program cycle will focus on a theme; this year, the topic will be

Europe and Islamic Countries – New Frontiers, Fresh Perspectives

The broad range of issues that may be explored under this thematic umbrella include:

  • Swiss/European policy toward ‘marginal’ Muslim regions, such as North Africa, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia
  • Economic cooperation between Europe and North Africa
  • Population growth in the Arab world and the migration of young Arabs to Europe
  • Muslim perspectives on identity and place in 21st century Europe

Through collaboration, Junior Associates are expected to draft two Junior Associates Special Reports, to be published by the ISN in late 2010 and early 2011.

Junior Associates will also have the opportunity to attend an exclusive ISN Junior Associates event in Zurich in early October of this year. The event will feature high caliber speakers on this year’s topic.

For more information and to request an application form, visit the program’s website. Questions can be addressed to the program manager, Kaisa Schreck, or the program assistant, Jonas Rey, by sending an email to ja[at]sipo.gess.ethz.ch.

The Power of Photography: A Journey through Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Yemen

Screenshot of Foreign Policy photo essay

Screenshot of Foreign Policy photo essay

Not only do pictures say a thousand words, they provide insights to worlds, lives and people behind the headlines, news stories and carefully researched in-depth articles. Words can never quite convey the reality of life in conflict zones or after natural disasters.

I found the following photo essays to provide just such insight. They are beautiful as photographs, but also as pictorial narratives that we as visually wired creatures can appreciate, analyze and use in the formation of a more comprehensive picture of world events and places.

The first one is a harrowing and touching photo essay on the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Southeast Asia, put together by Alan Taylor of the Boston Globe.

The second and third collection provide insights into two of the most talked about conflict zones in the world, Afghanistan and Yemen. These photo essays by Foreign Policy show life behind the headlines, often normal and ordinary; historically rich and sometimes stunningly beautiful.

ISN Weekly Theme: Islam in Southeast Asia

Muslim girls walking to school in Indonesia, photo: Shreyans Bhansali/flickr

Muslim girls walking to school in Indonesia, photo: Shreyans Bhansali/flickr

Islam, Islamic politics and religiously motivated violence are usually issues associated with the wider Middle East region or South Asia.

Less visible, yet no less significant is the presence of Islamic politics, tensions and political expression in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

A region marked by immense historical and religious diversity, by painful historical schisms, and in certain cases by an unrivaled dynamism and ability to marry Islam with modernity, Southeast Asia deserves closer inspection and more contextually sensitive analysis.

This week the ISN publishes a Special Report on the issue with a backgrounder on Islam in the region and a case study of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.

We have a wealth of further information on the topic in our Digital Library and Current Affairs section- check out:

  • In our Links section, check out the website of the National Bureau of Asian Research which analyzes less visible issues related to Islam and Muslim societies in Asia.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Two boys at a cafe, Makassar, Indonesia / photo: Mo Riza, flickr

Two boys at a cafe, Makassar, Indonesia / photo: Mo Riza, flickr

What do you do when you’re number 126 out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption perception list? What do you do when prosecuting mid- and high-level officials for corruption doesn’t seem to be doing enough to curb the corrupt tendencies rampant in society?

Well, if you’re Indonesia, you start with the basics. In an ingenious move aimed at teaching people the value of honesty, Indonesia’s attorney general and his provincial counterparts have kick-started a national campaign that aims to open 10 000 so-called ‘honesty cafes’ all over Indonesia by the end of the year. The idea- intuitive and inventive at once- is that instead of paying a set amount to a cashier (someone who is, in effect, employed to enforce morality in a low-level commercial transaction), customers pay an ‘honest amount’  into a clear, unsupervised  box.

In effect they pay what they think they should pay and pay because they know it is the right thing to do (and because others watch them pay). If I ever saw an interesting social experiment on a society-wide scale, this must be it.

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