As the events in Iran demonstrated this week, social media is playing a defining role in global public affairs. Although organizing via the Internet is no longer new (MoveOn.org was once revolutionary), today the stakes are much higher and the audiences and tools more sophisticated.
Further this week came a UN Twitter campaign on nuclear disarmament that aimed to influence legislators, as well as a Twitter and Facebook, celebrity-studded campaign for the birthday of imprisoned opposition Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Anyone working in communications on government or international affairs must now consider these platforms not just tools, but strategy. The US State Department seems to have realized as much when it asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance to the site in order to not disrupt the stream of Iranian activism. Though the White House signaled its desire to refrain from “meddling” in Iran's affairs, the Twitter request was clearly a strategic move by the administration.
While it's unlikely the green-clad protestors will prevail in their wish to overturn the election results they view as flawed, they have succeeded in giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pause. Where he initially dismissed the protestors as “dust,” Ahmadinejad's government is now offering to talk with the opposition.
The protestors have done so by rapidly taking their cause to not only the streets but also online, where they are able to galvanize international public opinion. This includes Facebook, where a page for the opposition candidate has amassed thousands of followers, and Twitter, where Twitpic and other real-time updates have kept both Iranian and foreign audiences abreast of their efforts. Besides trending topics like #IranElection, new feeds such as @StopAhmadi were activated.
In handling global issues where public opinion is formed as quickly as a Facebook group, communicators must immerse themselves in these techniques and strategies, and use them not just as a defensive position against protesters, but as a part of their offensive strategy.