Facebook’s ventures into brand diplomacy

Former Guardian technology writer, Jack Schofield, shared an intriguing link to a news item in the Silicon Valley Mercury Newsearlier this week.

It intrigued me for two reasons: first, that Facebook had decided to establish a network of 70 international representatives to establish a quasi-diplomatic service in key regions of the world and, second, that Google had already establish as similar operation in 2006.

The Google information was news to me. It’s not unusual for brands to employ corporate communications teams whose role is to maintain positive relations with both state and non-state actors both nationally and globally. It remains to be seen if the nature of the team that Facebook intends to establish veers away from this traditional role.

However, reading between the lines, the focus of the announcement suggests that Facebook is acknowledging a need to insulate its operation from unwanted legal and regulatory intrusion in the future – or an outright ban of its technology altogether – in nations where the nature of its operating model runs counter to prevailing political philosophy.

The story in the Silicon Valley Mercury News ran:

Facebook’s new global policy team will monitor the local political landscape and act as multilingual, TV-friendly communicators in countries and for cultures that, in many cases, have very different values and laws about privacy and personal communications than the U.S. Facebook is confronting its emergence as a global organization whose membership is much larger than the population of most countries, and whose technology can antagonize both Middle Eastern dictators and European democracies fretful about privacy. The international directors of policy, as Facebook calls them, will grapple with those challenges.

Joseph Nye on the future of power

I’m a bit of a sucker for the complimentary programme of public lectures that are staged at the London home of the RSA (that’s the Royal Society of the Arts, Science and Manufactures) which is why I’m sat in the Great Room waiting to listen to Professor Joseph Nye.

Prof Nye is the chap who coined the phrase ‘soft power’; an idea that was popular within the Clinton administration in the 1990s and – despite the hawkish interlude of the George W Bush presidency – has retained favour under Obama’s administration too.

He’s an influential policy thinker who, as well as enjoying a distinguished academic career, has also served as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs in the Clinton Whitehouse (and was tipped to have become John Kerry’s choice for National Security Adviser had the Democrats successfully secured the Presidency in 2004).

So he knows his international relations onions, and he’s been thinking about the future of power and the dynamics that will affect it in the 21st century and beyond. In a 30 minute précis of his latest contribution to the debate, ‘The Future of Power’, Prof Nye talks about two significant trends affecting governmental power in the future: ‘power transition’ and ‘power diffusion’.

Power transition

Power transition, Prof Nye suggests, is historically familiar: the ebb and flow of the power relations between nation states, blocs and empires founded – historically at least – on the back of relative military and technological superiority and, more recently, though the deployment of ‘soft power’ (the degree to which values, culture, policies and institutions are employed to attain the outcomes which nations seek).

While Prof Nye accepts that the emergence of Asian global powers – i.e. China and India – will be a significant feature of the narrative of post-21st century historical analysis, he doesn’t readily subscribe to idea of an ‘absolute decline’ of US power as result. Instead, he sees a relative decline in US power in the face of these emerging powers and relative decline, he argues, does not amount to the same thing as absolute dominance of China.

Power diffusion

Now this idea really interests me because it is already confounding traditional models of international power relations and diplomacy.

Diffused power characterises the way in which individuals and non-governmental organisations can more easily gain access to technology and therefore consume, contribute and influence the global flow of information.

By harnessing access to ever cheaper means of communication – like mobile networks, networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, and media platforms like YouTube – geographically or socially dispersed individuals are able to congregate around ideas and events fomenting movements that acquire global influence and power.

The application of diffused power is diverse; its spectrum encompasses terror networks like Al Qaeda, hackers like Anonymous, freedom of information evangelists like WikiLeaks, activists like The Tea Party and globally networked business corporations.

The Arab Spring, Prof Nye argues, is an example of how near-universal access to communications technology helps transform a flashpoint event into an apparent social and political movement in a region of the World.

And this access, he suggests, has created an additional dimension in international power relations – a fluid, unpredictable and chaotic strata of non-governmental actors whose emerging influence on domestic and international relations is likely to perplex governments in the years to come.

Are brands assuming the mantle of quasi nation states?

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve become fascinated by the apparent parallels between the dynamics of nation state building and statecraft, and the transnational behaviour and attributes of global and networked brands; in particular, the Google v China skirmish and the more recent tensions between the US State Department and Attorney General and WikiLeaks piqued my interest.

Even though Marx warned of the globalising effects of capitalism, something else appears to be going on here because it’s not just economic capital that is transcending geographic borders; it’s ideas and movements too.

Somehow, populations of people – and not just business brands – are emerging as brands too; often their apparent power is unrelated to their scale.

This necessarily means that the nature and governance of brands as global actors, and their relationship and alliances both within and beyond the boundaries of nation states, are of real significance to future global political, social and economic stability.

You’ll have seen from those blog posts at NewTradition’s site that these episodes revived distant memories of my university days; specifically, of the ideas that were dealt with in Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’.

So I re-read Anderson’s book and, once I’d done that, I dug into Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Nations and Nationalism’ and collection of essays on ‘Globalisation, democracy and terrorism’. (To be frank, I’ve read more academic texts in the past year or so than I did throughout my University career.)

And I’m left with the nagging concern that the revolution in communications technology – and it’s worth bearing in mind that Anderson considers the ownership and mechanics of media to have been vital to successful nation building – is creating the conditions in which a new kind of nation state can be conceived: ‘brand nation states’.

Whether there is such a thing as a brandnationstate, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure if brands can genuinely transcend geographic borders and deploy the kind of diplomatic muscle that nation states are able – and, just as often, are unable – to.

I’m not sure if dispersed populations of people, who congregate under the auspices of a brand, really do wield the kind of power and authority that nation states – with their military, legal and governmental instruments of enforcement – do.

I’m just interested to test the ideas. So I’l be digging a bit deeper into the topic.