Nine years ago, activists in Tunisia, empowered by their ability to effectively organize via new forms of social media, began massive protests for democracy and freedom. New media has inspired global citizens to effectively act together to work toward a fairer society with flourishing civil liberties. Unfortunately, this optimism was short lived. Authoritarian governments and militants throughout the world soon became social media literate themselves, hijacking these platforms to spread misinformation, sew discontent, and inspire and organize militant groups themselves. At the close of this same decade, we can look back at these formative years of the early 2010s and easily recognize both the potential virtue and terror of social media. The proliferation of new media has certainly opened up politics and access to information to a greater number of people than ever before, but by the same token, there are very few ways to control misinformation, and international diplomacy has become incredibly sensationalized and, perhaps, overdramatized. Above all else, it is clear that new media has forever altered how political actors handle domestic and international affairs—for better or worse.
Because digital diplomacy, or e-diplomacy, is a considerably new dimension in international affairs, the online conduct of the most important and powerful world leaders is not codified. Americans especially are keenly aware of this fact. At important international meetings, millions of people on Twitter can have an inside look at the (sometimes too intimate) thoughts and feelings of world leaders discussing sensitive topics. What were once closed-door negotiations now have a massive online audience constantly refreshing for updates. Today, diplomats and important state figureheads have to worry not only about substantive debate and consensus with other countries, but they have to look good doing it, too.
This new development manifested itself this August during the Group of Seven, or G7 meetings. The G7 is an informal bloc of influential industrialized democracies in the world that have met annually since 1975 to collaborate on policies that will affect almost every single global citizen personally: international security, global economic governance, and energy policy. The seven countries—France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, and Canada—have been, at least in recent history, relatively amicable, and the annual event often promotes collaboration and leadership in improving the global economy. Because the group meets informally, and any consensus reached during the meeting is non-binding, there wasn’t, until the rise of social media, a carefully constructed narrative or public dramatics surrounding the event. Any disagreements were discussed amongst leaders and officials, with most of the general public going about their lives without a single thought. If someone were to Google ‘G7 controversy’ today, however, millions of results pop up, with established news outlets churning headlines and think pieces that make a meeting of debatably the most powerful and influential seven leaders of the free world sound like an expose of the Kardashians.
At the close of last year’s summit, President Trump left deliberations early and refused to sign the group’s final statement over criticism of his tariffs policy, which created a tense environment for this year’s deliberations. The Trump administration admonished many of the topics discussed during the summit, including climate change and global inequality as “too niche.” And after difficult deliberations over giving aid to Brazil to help quell the Amazon fires, Brazil’s president, Bolsonaro, refused the twenty million dollars offered over President Macron’s “criticisms” of Bolsonaro’s voting record and mocked the appearance of President Macron’s wife, Brigitte. As this occurred, President Trump tweeted support for Bolsonaro and his efforts containing the fires, and Bolsonaro tweeted, “Thank you, President Trump… The fake news campaign against our sovereignty will not work.” All of this happened in real time for a national audience during a time where these leaders were supposed to be working together.
To most of these leaders’ credit, most are facing substantial domestic problems back home. Boris Johnson, after assuming the role of UK Prime Minister only a year prior, has Brexit, Angela Merkel has to grapple with growing European populism and immigration, and Macron is still dealing with the backlash from the yellow vests movement. However, this does not excuse the lack of civility at such an important international event.
Next year’s G7 summit is slated to take place in the United States, with President Trump suggesting the use of his Miami resort, with many already accusing President Trump of seeking profit. While G7 isn’t the most important diplomatic event these leaders attend, it is emblematic of a larger problem of e-diplomacy and deliberations as a dramatic event displayed before the public that will continue into the new decade. International summits and deliberations are not only unavoidable, but essential to healthy democracies, but the transparency of these events could have negative impacts on the quality of substantive discussion that could occur during these events. Like the Arab Spring, the theatrics of global diplomacy caused by social media may be harmful for our goal for a better world.
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