Facebook and Twitter are impacting even the last bastion of the traditional power establishment, the world of international affairs and diplomacy. This is not simply the wishful thinking of some new media guru a few years ahead of the curve. I'm not dreaming about the future; I'm looking at real numbers today. And no, I don't mean the counts of those who have signed up to ambassador X or Y's stream of fairly dull Tweets. "Followers" is vanity, web stats are sanity.
The specific example I'll use to prove my case comes from the International Crisis Group's recent work on Libya, but really I could use just about anything current, as we've had identical lessons from other cases, ever more so as time goes on. The following represents a trend we've seen building over the last two years.
The scenario itself was very much in tune with Crisis Group's conflict prevention and resolution objective. On 22 February 2011, following credible reports of concerted deadly attacks against civilians committed by Libyan security forces, Crisis Group issued a statement detailing the steps the international community needed to take immediately. We put this statement on our website, sent it by mass email to 140,000 subscribers and posted links to it on Facebook and Twitter (both institutional and personal accounts).
Following the website statistics from that point is revealing. Using our stats package, we tracked where readers were and how they entered our website to read the statement. The data only show the service provider of the reader, so we cannot know everything about who is reading our material, and of course, for the majority of readers, their location just shows up as a generic provider name. But even with those limitations, we know enough to demonstrate how diversified the new information environment is, how organisations like ours need to be on many channels at once, and, most importantly, how vital social media have become, even in the stuffy old world of foreign affairs.
In the first two days, the Libya statement page was accessed 3,399 times from a total of 1,529 different locations via 135 different intermediaries. Those sources, that is, how the readers came to our site, break down as follows:
1) people clicking a direct link in an email: 1,178Other sources provided far fewer page views, and most were only one or two.
2) via Twitter: 768
3) via Facebook: 689
4) via Google (both Google News and search): 299
5) via BigThink.com: 134
6) via NYTimes.com: 83 (Note, the statement was re-tweeted by various well-known journalists, including New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, who also, like other commentators, linked to our recommendations in his column.)
Now, some may see the overall number of about 3400 and think that's not very many readers. But then, what we're trying to do is not increase mass awareness but reach decision makers. So, we need to dig down one step further and find out which institutions came to our statement and how during those critical first days of alarm-bell ringing, particularly in the run up to UN Security Council Resolution 1970, which passed on 26 February and contained many of the elements Crisis Group had called for in our statement.
These included (in no particular order): the US State Department (via Twitter and Hootsuite, a social media dashboard so most likely via Facebook or Twitter, and via NYTimes.com), the French Foreign Ministry (via direct email link), the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (via direct email link), the International Criminal Court (via Facebook), the European Commission (via Twitter), the Council of the European Union (via Google), the Canadian Ministry for International Cooperation (via Facebook), the European Parliament (via Facebook and email), the US House of Representatives (via email), the UK House of Commons (via email), the IMF (via Facebook), the World Bank (via email), the US Department of Defense (via Google), the UK Ministry of Defence (via Twitter), the US Senate (via Google, a couple blogs and Facebook), the Italian Foreign Ministry (via email), the Spanish Foreign Ministry (via email), the German Bundestag (via email and Facebook), and, of course, the UN and its agencies, such as UNHCR, WFP, UNDP and FAO (via NYTimes.com, direct email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs).
These data hold several lessons for us and for everyone in the world of advocacy and international affairs trying to reach decision makers with timely messages. First, email is still king, but its crown is increasingly tarnished. Second, social media taken together are now probably more important than email for bringing core constituencies to your website. Third, the number of news sources has dramatically increased, but five or six big pipes are delivering most of the water. Still, there are a lot of small but important outlets that can bring in key readers in ones and twos. (I'd never even heard of one of the blogs that sent us two visitors on this from the US Senate.) Fourth, disintermediation is a fact -- though I wouldn't go overboard. You can get directly to your target audiences without the traditional news media (and NGOs are playing an increasing role in foreign news reporting in particular), but since your messages are being relayed by other channels as well, it would be foolish to downplay or try to ignore them.
In short, the new information environment is not an evolution from one set of tools to another, but a proliferation of tools. Public advocacy work has not simply shifted; it has expanded. And social media are very much a strong part of the mix, even in stodgy old diplomacy.