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On April 10, an engaged and twittering audience listened to four experts talk about how they use social media to listen to and generate conversations about international law on the internet. Moderator Joanne Neenan of the UK Foreign Office (@joanneneenan) noted the rise of “people-centered” foreign policy and the importance of social media in widening participation – as in the Arab Spring. A large Twitter following is not one of the Montevideo criteria for statehood – but social media channels manifestly affect the political and legal narratives on international law.
Philippe Bolopion, the United Nations Director at Human Rights Watch (@HRW, @Bolopion) said that Twitter has been a “game changer” for HRW. He uses it to receive information: instead of having to be present at UN headquarters to track UN Security Council discussions, he follows the Twitter accounts of key diplomats, journalists and UN officials. He can immediately pick up news of any UNSC meeting and react. Twitter is like a “never-ending cocktail party”, full of current, actionable information. He also tracks events in Yemen, where following 50 people will give you a picture of what news is breaking on the ground (also understanding that Twitter also passes rumors, and news needs to be checked).
HRW also uses Twitter to broadcast its reports and op-eds. @HRW has 1.8 million followers. Philippe uses Twitter as a cost-effective way to reach journalists, diplomats and officials interested in the UN who follow @Bolopion – Twitter is not as intrusive as email.
Finally, HRW uses Twitter as a tool of advocacy. While HRW works through direct diplomacy, Twitter can be a tool “to put policy makers on the spot. Sometimes in a friendly way, not always …”. He has used Twitter to call attention to events and urge that an emergency UNSC meeting be called, or to ask why a draft UNSC resolution hasn’t included a relevant issue. HRW has a campaign to get human rights activists released before the 2015 European Games, and has been tweeting photos of abuses with the government’s promotional hashtag #HelloBaku.
Scott Nolan Smith of Portland Communications, expert on the use of digital diplomacy tools (@ScottNolanSmith) gave tips on how to use Twitter to relate effectively to a target audience. Determine where your audience is and go to the platform they use – Twitter and Facebook -- or VK in Russia or Weibo in China. Advance work on messaging is important. Make your timing right, put the human element in the center and think about a way to engage your audience with stories. Photos are not limited by 140 characters. You can use a hashtag to create a narrative - Kosovo has used #instakosovo to create a positive narrative of Kosovo today. Kosovo has also been recognized on Facebook with its own Facebook page.
Prof. Sarah Joseph (@profsarahj) argued that social media have been a net good for promotion of international law. Social media can promote observance of human rights as a witnessing tool, as discussed in her paper on its use in the Arab Spring, although they can also propagate misinformation and unrealistic expectations. Social media can be used to explain international law without jargon – like a 2011 piece explaining transitional justice through Harry Potter.
Joanne asked whether hashtags are useful or just “slacktivism”. Philippe noted that it is easy to criticize the results of #Kony2012, but people know that mobilizing a mass US audience is not a solution to human rights problems. A hashtag alone won’t produce change, but it can be used with other measures to affect change. Scott said that criticism of #Kony2012 was part of its success in raising awareness – which as Philippe pointed out, led to US aid to Uganda’s army. Hashtags can also start as a personal statement and go viral. Sarah noted the spontaneous rise of #illridewithyou as a reaction against Islamophobia in Australia.
HRW created #Yemencrisis for tweets that call out human rights information on Yemen, said Philippe; as other organizations use it, this hashtag gathers information, helps publicize it and creates a community of people around this issue. Scott underlined the lesson for users of social media: the hashtag builds a network of people who can then talk to each other. But ISIS also uses social media, the group noted – they have built networks of Twitter accounts which repeat ISIS messaging to the listeners.
Comparing channels, Sarah noted that Facebook was more effective than Twitter during the Arab Spring. Philippe mentioned HRW’s Facebook page and that HRW uses a Facebook group to share practical information on field operations among human rights workers in conflict zones. Twitter is less useful in advocacy than a few years ago, because it has become so crowded, and interest in Twitter is limited in conflict zones.
The group urged the imaginative and timely use of social media to call out international law – such as the ICRC’s April 12 Tweet-a-Thon #GoTIHL, on the law of war and violations of IHL in Game of Thrones.
A live Twitter feed was projected during the session and the panel took questions from Twitter and from the audience. For tweets on the session, see #ASILAM15, , @YenisleidySimon, @LyoLouisJacques, @kabitha1430
Amy Porges is Principal in an international trade law firm. She chairs the International Trade Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association (ABILA) and teaches international trade law at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.