Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Smith College hosts social media panel addressing impact of social media on government policies

By Katherine Estin

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(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

Smith College’s Kahn Liberal Arts Institute hosted a panel titled “Social Media and U.S. Foreign Policy,” addressing the impact that the growth of social media has had on the way governments conduct themselves in the world.

The panel featured former Central Intelligence Agency officer, novelist and activist Valerie Plame Wilson, Smith College Associate Professor Brent Durbin and University of Massachusetts Amherst Assistant Professor of Political Science Paul Musgrave. The discussion was moderated by Smith College Associate Professor of Government Mlada Bukovansky and Smith College Associate Professor of History Darcy Buerkle.

Plame Wilson introduced the subject of social media as a “boom” for grassroots movements and activists that quickly became a “double-edged sword.”

“It really can be an effective tool, if well used, but there is a shadow side with unintended consequences because governments are way better at manipulating social media than activists,” said Plame Wilson, referencing government use of social media to track down dissidents or spread misinformation.

Panelists referenced the use of Twitter, in particular in its effect on the Arab Spring revolutions, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and President Donald Trump’s Twitter use in regard to foreign policy.

Musgrave said that it was definitely possible to “overestimate the impact of social media” on foreign policy, but said it is just as dangerous to “underestimate the impact.” Musgrave defined the impact of social media in U.S. foreign policy as “performative and symbolic.”

“You should understand social media’s use as a message in itself,” Musgrave said, referencing the use of Twitter by Trump, “and the use of Twitter to literally be the reaction you want to see in the world.”

Durbin questioned how social media and foreign policy interacted, and how credibility and accountability play a role in this dynamic. Durbin noted how “hashtag diplomacy” has been a major component in the recent tensions between North Korea and the United States.

“Like it or not, social media is here to stay,” Wilson concluded, “This will determine the course of our democracy.”

While the focus of the event was initially social media and foreign policy and nuclear proliferation, a recent controversy involving Plame Wilson’s retweet of an anti-Semitic article garnered attention and conversation.

The event was protested by members of the Smith College Jewish Community who handed out a letter to the audience reading, “We as the Smith College Jewish Community Board wholeheartedly condemn Plame Wilson. We are deeply troubled by the Kahn Institute and the College’s ability to reconcile anti-Semitism with any withstanding attributes.”

Addressing the members of the Smith College Jewish Community, Plame Wilson said that she hoped to continue to support religious freedom in the United States and work to make personal amends for her actions.

Buerkle commented that the difficulty moderators had in answering student questions was because “requiring an answer that has finality is just fiction.”

According to the Smith College calendar, the panel was done in conjunction with the Kahn Institute’s year-long research project looking at war across multiple disciplines.

Katherine Estin can be reached at [email protected]

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