The Frontiers of Public Diplomacy is officially published! It’s been a pleasure to contribute to this volume, edited by Dr. Colin Alexander, who I’ve known since our MA days at Leeds, and contributed to by a couple of other former Leeds folks, Gary Rawnsley and Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob (none of the 4 of us are at Leeds now, but you can see from this book that there used to be a thriving PD group!).
My chapter tries to be a bit innovative and plays around with theory more than we generally see in exchange diplomacy research. It was definitely an effort to leave my comfort zone and challenge myself (and readers) to think differently about exchanges and where they fit within the larger contexts of public diplomacy, international education, and statecraft more generally.
Looking forward to getting my hard copy and reading the other contributions, especially from the non-Leeds folks whose work I’m less familiar with. This autumn, we’re going to be holding a series of virtual talks on the book, with contributing authors sharing their chapters and answering questions. I’ll be posting more details about those closer to the time.
The Fulbright Program with China and Hong Kong has been suspended, as part of an executive order on 14 July. Tucked away under section 3 (i), he tells heads of relevant agencies to “take steps to terminate the Fulbright exchange program with regard to China and Hong Kong with respect to future exchanges for participants traveling both from and to China or Hong Kong.”
This is not the first time a Fulbright exchange program has been suspended–it’s not even the first time that the US-China program has been suspended–but to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a US president has used an executive order to suspend Fulbright exchanges.
In the past, exchanges have usually been suspended due to war. The Korean War broke out less than two months after an exchange agreement was signed, and the program was suspended before any exchanges had taken place. The Iran Fulbright Program was suspended from 1953-57 due to a lack of funding, rather than a political cause–that came later, in 1979, when the Iran program was suspended due to the Islamic revolution. The first suspension with China also came with a revolution, in 1949. In 1989, China suspended Fulbright exchanges following the Tiananmen Square incident (the former CAO in China at the time, Michael McCarry, wrote about the contrast between that suspension and the current one here on the PDC blog). Trump’s decision to end the US-China Fulbright Program right now doesn’t fit with any of these precedents.
It also doesn’t fit with the apparent mission of this executive order, which was to end preferential treatment of Hong Kong over mainland China (the argument being that it’s no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant that difference in treatment). Other points in the text align with that purpose–revoking license exemptions for exports, for example–but this does not. It simply ends the Fulbright Program for both China and Hong Kong, rather than, for instance, removing special provisions for applicants to/from Hong Kong (if they had existed). It doesn’t fit, which makes it just seem like a knee-jerk reaction–and therefore typical of Trump’s clumsy foreign policy style.
“The latest move by the White House seems to confirm a transactional view toward U.S.-China relations, in which the Trump administration is willing to sacrifice a source of long-term relationship and knowledge building in a bid to punish current Chinese behavior. Such shortsightedness, however, is likely to damage bilateral ties further down the road by politicizing nuanced vehicles of exchange between China and the United States.”
I particularly liked that description–it captures the administration’s short-term, reactionist approach towards this very long-term, slow-moving activity. They don’t understand its nuance, clearly.
During times of strained relations, exchange diplomacy is needed more than ever. Exchanges offer a way for people to get to know and understand the people of another country–even (and especially) when their governments don’t see eye-to-eye. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that exchanges make long-term contributions to participants’ professional and personal lives, and the lives of those around them in both the home and host countries–their colleagues, peers, students, friends and families. When the “official” situation between two countries is tense, for whatever reasons, these unofficial ties between individual citizens of each nation can offer pathways to understanding and resolution. It’s why the Pew Global Attitudes Survey often finds that respondents around the world have favourable views of “the American people”, even when their view of “the United States of America” has soured. People make a distinction between the country and its people, in part because of exchanges and other opportunities they’ve had to meet foreign nationals face-to-face and get to know each other.
Presidents and their foreign policy agendas come and go, but the Fulbright Program endures–next year will mark its 75th anniversary. I’m confident that this suspension (and many other things about the Trump era) will be just a blip, and US-Chinese exchanges can resume and improve in the future.
A few years ago, I noticed gaps in the literature on educational exchanges/PD around race and gender. It seemed odd, because academics always seem to include those two approaches to a subject, and rightly so. It’s a step towards addressing the dominant white Western male voice and perspectives that are so often the default. Including perspectives on race is often done as an afterthought— Anamik Saha pointed out how textbooks usually include “the bit about race” somewhere around chapter ten. I would love to see a study on the Fulbright Program and race. I’m not qualified to undertake it myself, as I don’t want to be a white researcher trying to add a race lens to their work. I would hate to see women’s experiences in the Fulbright Program ‘mansplained,’ so I won’t do that with race in my work. Here are a couple of potential areas to explore…
1) Senator Fulbright had a bad record on race.
As much as we can admire his ant-war stance during Vietnam, and appreciate his promotion of educational and cultural exchanges, we have to acknowledge his record on race.
Fulbright voted against integrating schools. He claimed it was a matter of representing the views of his constituents—if he wanted to stay in Congress, he had to vote the way his constituents wanted him to. He said they didn’t care about his views on foreign policy—he could vote his conscience on those issues, because his constituents didn’t know or care about them. But when it came to integration, they cared because it effected their day to day lives, and they were outspoken in their opposition.
As an interesting aside, when Johnson and Fulbright fell out over Vietnam, Johnson claimed that Fulbright’s opposition to the war was because he was racist—Fulbright ‘didn’t care about brown people’, whereas Johnson believed in helping them. Fulbright rejected that, of course, and questioned how bombing was helping them.
I always wondered whether it really was a matter of political survival or if Fulbright was racist. When I interviewed his biographer, Randall Bennett Woods, he was an elitist rather than a racist, and his views on segregation and race transformed as his political views shifted towards the left throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.
“You know, Fulbright was a segregationist to begin with…But his views changed dramatically. Like so many white middle-class Southerners like my parents, he was radicalized by the civil rights movement. His racism had more to do with class than it did with color. If he was dealing with the elite of Ghana or Kenya or India, skin color didn’t matter. If you were educated and part of the elite, you were acceptable to him, so it wasn’t race prejudice as much as class prejudice. But he even moved away from that.”
28 January 2013 Interview with Randall Bennett Woods
2) Information gaps lead to literature gaps.
The lack of research on race and exchanges might be down to practical challenges for researchers: missing demographic information. Data on race (and gender) hasn’t been collected throughout the program’s history, so it’s difficult to paint a full picture of BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program.
An organization’s decision to collect data on race is complicated, as there are risks involved in both options–acknowledging or ignoring the role of race. National census data collection illustrates this challenge on a large scale. Some countries ask about race/ethnicity, while others do not (this is a very interesting 2017 report about EU countries’ varied practices). France is a well-known example of not asking about race. Race, ethnicity, and religion are all deemed irrelevant to French identity, at least in terms of official statistics. It’s about liberté, égalité, fraternité instead.
But excluding race from data has significant consequences. It can exacerbate inequality, because problems must be seen in order to be addressed. Discrimination can be swept under the rug more easily. In terms of the current fight against COVID-19, for example, France has noted a high number of cases in “poor and multiracial communities,” but because they don’t include race in their COVID-19 data, they haven’t made that connection.
“While the United States and Britain have come to recognize that their racial minorities are dying disproportionately of covid-19, France inhibits itself from making that sort of assessment. Critics say that may limit the country’s ability to identify and protect vulnerable populations, especially in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.”
The U.S. is currently undertaking a census, and as this piece from the Daily Show points out, when people of color don’t participate in a census, their household might be assumed to be white. I was shocked that this was a thing…I assumed that if a household’s demographics are unknown, they would just be counted as “unknown”, not added to the local majority count. That’s crazy.
What do we not know about BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program, due to this missing demographic data? We don’t know of people of color are underrepresented in the program. We don’t know whether they apply at the same rates as their white peers. We don’t know the top destinations of US Fulbright students of color, the top academic fields of Fulbright scholars of color, etc. There’s also the more qualitative side of this information–we don’t know their stories, good or bad: their experiences with discrimination, their achievements and cultural knowledge gains. As I mentioned in the recent post about Nancy Snow’s webinar, when exchange students experience discrimination, it’s going to have a major impact on their views of the host country.
3) Some profiles of BIPOC Fulbrighters:
–Ruth Simmons, first African American woman to head a major college or university (Smith College), and the first African American President of an Ivy League institution (Brown University). Fulbright to France, 1967.
–BIPOC Fulbrighters who have been Heads of State, including two Presidents of Ghana: John Atta Mills (Fulbright 1970) and Kofi Abrefa Busia (Fulbright 1954). (Why haven’t I seen a study on Ghana’s Fulbright Program?!)
–Joy Buolamwini, computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League that tackles algorithmic bias–the failure of facial recognition software to detect the features of people of color. Fulbright to Zambia, 2012.
I’ll close here and publish, as this draft has been dragging on for a month and I never have time to do it justice. I would love reading suggestions re: exchanges and race, or public diplomacy generally and race–I’m familiar with some of the work on jazz diplomacy, but would love to see more. If you have any recommendations, please do get in touch!
At one point in the not-too-distant past, COVID-19 was a relatively minor news item–the virus didn’t even have a name, it just sounded like another SARS, and cases were linked to specific areas. Now, it’s a pandemic and there have been over 1.2 million cases and 60,000 deaths worldwide. Much of the world is now living under social distancing measures, ranging from full lock-down to more voluntary guidelines.
Everything’s changed so quickly–it’s hard to believe that it’s just been a few weeks. In mid-January, our local GP clinic had a little sign up on the door saying not to come in if you had recently travelled to one of the countries on their list and presented the listed symptoms. That clinic is now completely locked-down, with dozens of signs and taped off entrances, and the walk-in clinic and all non-essential appointments have been cancelled. I had to take my son in for his 8-week vaccinations, which thankfully was deemed essential. We had to be triaged on the phone, then they had to unlock the door to let us into the empty waiting room. The nurse who gave him his jabs was in full protective gear, too–I’m grateful for her sake that she had it, when there are so many stories of frontline healthcare staff working without adequate kit.
It’s been a surreal experience, living through this pandemic and its countless impacts. Social media has been a lifeline, enabling interaction with friends and family around the world as we all go through it together, separately. It’s been interesting (and often upsetting) to see how different countries deal with the virus. As an Italophile with friends in and from the country, it’s been particularly heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Italy. This viral video was an excellent example of people-to-people international communication:
When the video was posted on 15 March, we were still living as normal. We were commuting to work, doing the school run, shopping for non-essentials, attending public events, etc. My nephews in Minnesota, as well as family and friends in Washington state, had their schools closed that week, and ours were closed the week after. My friends and family and I are all living under slightly different restrictions and timelines, but we’re all going through this together.
The pandemic is a global experience that truly highlights our common humanity and underscores what really matters–physical and mental health, and interpersonal relationships. This is an opportunity to humanize international relations, not through exchange and face-to-face contact, but through shared experiences on a global scale.
Once again I’m finding news to be very distracting–between Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to focus (I feel like I’ve been saying that since 2016, though…). But I noticed something in the news today that actually is relevant to public diplomacy scholars–British diplomats are leaving Brussels now, before Brexit even happens.
British diplomats will pull out from the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days, under plans being drawn up by Downing Street.
In an attempt to reinforce the message that the UK is leaving the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, the UK will stop attending the day-to-day meetings that inform the bloc’s decision-making.
The move under discussion is said by UK officials to be in line with Boris Johnson’s first statement in the House of Commons, in which he said he would “unshackle” British diplomacy from EU affairs.
Admittedly, I didn’t watch Boris Johnson’s statement, but it’s not surprising and it sounds just like him. It’s a symbolic move, as the article says, and would just end up hurting UK interests in the end because we’re removing ourselves from discussions that impact us. “Do or die” is the most undiplomatic language to describe foreign affairs–but Boris is a very undiplomatic figure, too.
In dealing with this hot mess of foreign policy, one expert was quoted as saying that the UK would need to invest heavily in public diplomacy, including involvement from the private sector:
Paul Adamson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said the UK government would need to build up its embassy in Brussels after Brexit.
He said: “One of the many ironies of Brexit is that the UK government will have to significantly increase its diplomatic presence in Brussels – as well as in key EU capitals – both to find out what is going on in meetings from which it will be excluded but also to try to influence the direction of EU policy making. Brussels decisions will continue to impact the UK.
“[The government] and its agencies will have to invest heavily in public diplomacy to repair alliances and to forge new ones. The private sector, whether its business, civil society, the think-tank world and the like, will very much need to be part of this exercise”.
Although it definitely makes some good points, this statement reminded me of a key takeaway from Phil Taylor’s Masters class in public diplomacy:
No amount of public diplomacy can make up for bad policy.
It is not a solution for the inevitable problems that will arise if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It’s not an alternative form of international relations, or a consolation prize. Public diplomacy works best as an adjunct, supporting traditional diplomatic relations between states by offering additional (not alternative) forms of engagement. It also includes listening, something that the current UK government doesn’t seem interested in, given this premature disengagement in Brussels.
To illustrate the concept of PD not being a cure-all, Phil Taylor used to use the example of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers’ failed efforts in the Middle East during the Iraq War. The “Shared Values” campaign was a particularly memorable disaster–a commercial-length TV program showing Muslim Americans talking about their life in America.
“Actors in the program talked of tolerance and religious freedom in lines including, ‘In my neighborhood all the non-Muslims, I see that they care a lot about family values just as much as I do. I didn’t quite see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11.’ Several countries in the Middle East refused to air the programs entirely.”
Phil used to point out a major flaw in the “Shared Values” strategy: Middle East audiences didn’t want to hear “how good life was for Muslim Americans” while at the same time their country was being invaded by US and coalition troops, homes were being bombed, and innocent civilians were dying. “Good for them,” he’d shrug, “but what about us?”
These international broadcasting and information campaigns weren’t the only efforts–the US also re-established the Iraq Fulbright Program in 2003, and included other exchange initiatives in its public diplomacy efforts. Teresa Brawner Bevis’s book on post-9/11 US-Middle East educational exchange noted a dramatic rise in Americans studying Arabic and Middle East area studies, as well as studying abroad in the region–but this may have been too little, too late:
“The increase in numbers of Americans studying abroad was good news for policy makers, who for decades had lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, a situation that created shortages of expertise in the military, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps.”
The long-standing, systemic problems in US-Middle East relations, combined with the context of the Iraq War, meant that public diplomacy efforts could never repair Middle Eastern audiences’ negative perception of America. US foreign policy would always nullify any amount of public diplomacy.
Boris Johnson doesn’t care about that, of course, but it’s something the British people and officials should take notice of–crashing out of the EU with a “do or die” attitude will be remembered, and it will matter far more to global perceptions of the UK than any version of a British ‘Shared Values’ campaign.
On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. As I did in last year’s post, the program’s anniversary is always an occasion to reflect on the program and what it’s achieved over the years.
Thinking back over its 73 year history, one of the things that stands out most to me is the program’s consistency and stability. The Fulbright Program has shown an amazing ability to survive. It’s outlasted political chaos and economic fluctuations, wars and diplomatic crises, and supportive and critical occupants of the White House.
Recently, I was looking through my old archive photos from University of Arkansas trip, and I came across this gem. The clipping was enclosed in a letter to J.W. Fulbright from Arkansas Gazette editor James O. Powell (Fulbright’s reply letter was dated 9 January 1978). At the time, the Fulbright Program was being shifted from the US State Department to the new, reorganised version of the US Information Agency (USIA), the US International Communication Agency (USICA). This Carter-era bureaucratic shift wasn’t an attempt to turn exchanges into propaganda, as the cartoon suggests. The Carter administration was supportive of exchanges, and it was really more of an effort to shift USIA towards two-way, mutual understanding promotion, instead of its original overseas ‘information’ (propaganda) remit. Despite the fact I disagree with this characterisation of the Carter administration’s USICA, I still like the cartoon, because it perfectly captures the tension between the two conceptualisations of exchange diplomacy–is it about education and culture, or is it about persuasion and national images? Are they mutually exclusive concepts, or is there room for both aspects in exchanges?
Note the “America First” slogan on the eagle, too–Trump didn’t invent the phrase. This attitude is nothing new, and it’s part of a bigger concept of what the US is/does/stands for. I love that it’s opposed to education and culture. That’s appropriate for the current wave of populist politics–cutting public education funding, cutting the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, rejecting climate science and vaccine research, generally anti-expertise attitudes.
Yet, despite all of that, the Fulbright Program carries on, as it has for the past 73 years, quietly bringing students and scholars, professors and researchers into contact with their international colleagues, facilitating the exchange of ideas and promoting mutual understanding. When America’s President is viewed unfavourably around the world, the American people are still regarded in a positive light–and I think it’s thanks, in part, to interpersonal contact.
When you can relate the abstract idea of America to an actual person you know, not just Hollywood, or Coca-Cola, or blue jeans, or Disney, you can get past its leader. This gives some hope for other countries, too–if you know a British person, you’ll know they’re not all like Boris Johnson. My Chinese students are not Xi Jinping, my Brazilian friends are not Bolsonaro, etc. (That said, when you have a leader that’s viewed favourably, it helps!)
May the Fulbright Program continue bringing people together, showing Americans and international participants the realities of life in other countries and cultures, and promoting genuine mutual understanding of international affairs that goes beyond the headlines.
A Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, Lijian Zhao, recently took to Twitter to criticise US race relations, in response to US criticism of China’s mass detentions of the Muslim Uighur population. After receiving a degree of backlash, including being called racist by former US national security adviser Susan Rice, Zhao then added further critiques of American culture, including gun violence, migrant family separation, and sexual assault.
Zhao deleted his original tweet but doubled down on his previous point, going on to describe the “living conditions of African Americans” as “worrisome”, and highlighting the country’s “endless” school shootings, and women “living in fear” of sexual assault. “Truth hurts. I am simply telling the truth,” he wrote.
So, this is where we are now…global politics playing out in Twitter rants. As a political communication researcher who’s been looking at politicians’ Twitter accounts for the past several months, I feel like I should have something substantial to say here, but when I saw the phrase “Trump-style Twitter diplomacy,” I was a bit lost for words. It’s bad enough he does it–now others are copying him? Sigh.
The argument “Well, you do it, too!” is a weak one. It only underscores the notion that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur population is indefensible. It’s not the first time they’ve tried to use this argument, either–since 1998, the Chinese government has been publishing an annual report, The Human Rights Record of the United States, as a rebuttal against U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record.
It’s also not the first time America’s history of racial discrimination and segregation has been used by critics on the international stage. During the Cold War, race relations in the U.S. were a common theme of Soviet propaganda. According to this piece from NYU’s Brennan Center, Soviet officials identified African Americans as having “revolutionary potential” as early as 1928. During the years of anti-Jim Crow activism, the Soviet strategy primarily consisted of simply reprinting factual news that was damaging to the U.S. image abroad.
Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrative about American racism were undercut by the fact that Soviet propaganda typically involved the reprinting and distribution of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Soviets showcased American news outlets’ photographs of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963.
Although they misappropriated the civil rights movements’ images for their own purposes, they were right to criticise US race relations. It was true–America did (and does) have problems and picking up on hypocrisy is something that adversaries do best, while allies might turn a blind eye. Zhao is right to say that the US still has problems with race relations, with school shootings, with sexual assault–but America failing in these areas doesn’t justify China’s treatment of the Uighur minority, or any of its other human rights abuses.
And this is the problem with Twitter rant diplomacy. The platform is simplistic, with character limits and re-tweet features that don’t lend themselves well to reasoned deliberation and fact-checking. That’s why Trump and his supporters like it, and that’s why it has such enormous potential for populist leaders who don’t perform as well in more controlled, nuanced media environments. If you don’t like someone, you can block them–and Trump does, frequently, as one of my favorite bloggers found out before he was President.
The whole thing is doubly interesting when you consider the audience for Zhao’s tweets. They’re clearly not for Chinese audiences. Since 2009, Twitter has been blocked in China, because Twitter wouldn’t adhere to the Chinese government’s requirements for censorship and surveillance (their own microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, does have censorship–and self-censorship). Zhao’s tweets were also written in English, which suggests that anglophone global audiences were the target, if not exclusively American audiences. It’s not directed at Pakistan, despite the fact he is based in Islamabad. It’s for the Tweeter-in-Chief and the US administration and its observers to hear.
Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:
It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.
Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.
“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”
Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.
I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.
This week in my media theory class, we looked at theoretical approaches to “new media” (now that it’s not so “new,” many references use the term “digital media”), so I’ve been thinking about how it all applies to exchange diplomacy.
My students this year are so young that they don’t really remember a world without the internet, which blows my mind and instantly makes me feel about 20 years older. There seems to be a real gap in our understanding of the impact of digital technology that spans across the generations–older people don’t fully understand it and younger people take it for granted, so ultimately, nobody’s really giving it due attention!
How has the advent of social media changed the exchange experience? There are so many affordances of social media that can contribute to the exchange experience–the reduction of time/space barriers to communication, ways in which it might help people manage culture shock symptoms, the idea of durable networked connections as a multiplier effect, etc. These all need to be explored, theorised, conceptualised, measured. Digital diplomacy research tends to focus on the ways in which governments/agencies use digital media tools, ignoring the impacts of digital media on cultural and educational exchanges.
In the early days of my PhD research, I considered looking at the exchange participant blogosphere, thinking it would provide some interesting insights into the exchange experience. After looking at a few blogs, I quickly let that idea go–most were neglected and short-lived, with enthusiastic “on arrival” and “settling in” posts followed by silence. Few were sustained, and even fewer included post-sojourn reflections on the experience. Exchange participants aren’t blogging–they’re too busy actually participating in the exchange to reflect on it like that. This impression seems to be backed up by the literature–a 2016 study by Tonkin and du Coudray found that the culture learning aims of exchange programme administrators weren’t met by asking students to blog their experiences, but were attained more naturally in social situations, like drinking with friends.
So if they’re not blogging, how else are they using these digital tools? How do Chinese students use social networking sites that they encounter when they study abroad, beyond the confines of the Great Firewall? Do exchange participants develop lasting networks of global contacts, and how do they use them? Do they actually prolong the culture mediation aspect of the exchange experience? I have a feeling that they could, but social media is such an individualised thing, it would be difficult to actually measure that! Something for a project proposal some day…
This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.
It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.
There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.
Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.
I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.