By: Julia Wygant
From individuals to marketing strategies, social media dominates our world as we know it. Whether it is a Facebook video, Snapchat photo, Twitter update, or an Instagram story, social media has changed the way we communicate. It has allowed us to connect with people and communities across the country and world. But it has also introduced new challenges in protecting free speech, regulating online content, and reducing the spread of fake news. Today, governments, corporations, businesses and individuals work hard to connect their community through various social media platforms while promoting safe practices.
This was no exception for a group of twelve social media strategists from the Middle East. They represented professional podcasters, journalists, social media marketers, accountability coordinators, and public relations directors from eight different countries including the UAE, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt. These young leaders were recently in Seattle through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange and allows for emerging leaders in a variety of sectors to participate in a three-week exchange to experience the United States firsthand while cultivating lasting relationships with their American counterparts. While in the United States, these IVLP delegates had the opportunity to meet with the U.S. Department of State as well as visit two other U.S. cities before finishing their program in Seattle, Washington.
In Seattle, they met with the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) and Center for Communication and Civic Engagement with the University of Washington, KUOW Public Radio, and Weber Shandwick to observe the role of social media in the Seattle community. Each professional meeting focused on trends, innovation, how to increase community engagement and transparency, as well as how to empower youth to speak up. In their professional meetings with Weber Shandwick, the delegation participated in a half-day workshop focused on communication strategies, managing online reputations, and increasing influencer engagement. After the workshop, members of the delegation led a panel discussion on current social media trends in the Middle East for staff and community members at Weber Shandwick, Starbucks, Meridian International Center, and the U.S. State Department.
At the Weber Shandwick workshop, Brooke Shepard, the Executive Vice President of the North America Insights team, used interactive case studies to illustrate how goals can only be accomplished by defining clear strategies. In the first example, he introduced cabin cure, a marketing strategy to increase nature tourism in Sweden despite their “mundane” landscapes. To compete with the Insta-famous landscapes of Switzerland or Norway, the Swedish tourism industry re-defined their strategy to address stress through a 72-hour retreat in nature. They built glass cabins in the middle of Swedish forests that would not only be “insta-worthy” but would also be a retreat for over-worked and over-stressed travelers. Brooke noted that psychologists confirmed through a study that 72 hours in Swedish nature (or in a glass cabin surrounded by Swedish nature) was enough to relieve stress by 70 percent. By turning their weakness into a strength, nature tourism in Sweden was recast from a destination to a cure.
Following Brooke, Jon Yang, the Senior Vice President in Social Impact, spent time discussing digital trends in the post-truth era. Digital disinformation through fake news, fake influencers, and artificially created avatars confuse the line between reality and the truth. Sometimes understood as the newest form of propaganda, these lies spread ten times faster than the truth because it attracts attention. This creates the impression of a majority rule or wide-spread belief and can change over one third of the audience’s opinion because they feel the need to conform to the majority opinion even though it might be wrong.
This is evident through the avatar Heshmat Alavi. For many years Heshmat Alavi influenced U.S. foreign policy on Iran through his articles in Forbes, posts on Twitter, and emails to editors at prominent newspapers. The White House even quoted him to justify its decision to terminate the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran in 2018. Despite his large following, and online presence, Heshmat Alavi’s persona is a propaganda operation run by an Iranian opposition group called Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). This full-time disinformation campaign run by 4 or 5 influencers from MEK sought to persuade U.S. media to act a certain way towards Iran, and was successful.
Even though learning how to counteract online influences that seek to spread fake news is complicated, Weber Shandwick urged the IVLP delegates to continue to pursue the truth while developing several strategies to counter disinformation.
While this was my first experience accompanying an IVLP delegation in Seattle, and a fascinating one at that, it wasn’t my first experience with the venerated IVLP program. Last fall I had the opportunity to work alongside the IVLP program in the U.S. State Department as an intern for the office of Public Press and Diplomacy for South and Central Asia. While in the department, I worked with IVLP delegations for numerous programs including modernizing civil documents in Bangladesh, increasing police capabilities in regional territories in Pakistan, fresh-water solutions in Nepal, and promoting women’s rights in India and Sri Lanka – just to name a few. Many of the IVLP delegations I worked with last fall came to Seattle as a part of their program.
It is really neat to work on the other side of the exchanges here at the World Affairs Council. And while working in the State Department on IVLP is very different than working at the World Affairs Council, they both achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives while increasing affinity and knowledge about the United States and countries around the world.
As a recent graduate, I hope to pursue a career in public diplomacy through international exchanges. I have learned so much already working on the local side of IVLP with the World Affairs Council, and am excited to continue meeting international delegations, like the group from the Middle East, dedicated to pursuing positive changes in their own countries.
About the author: Julia Wygant is an intern with the International Visitor Program and a recent graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a B.A. in International Relations.