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Peter Millett

Ambassador to Libya, Tripoli

Part of UK in Libya

31st March 2017 Tripoli, Libya

Trolling from Tripoli

Social media is a global phenomenon. 1.8 billion people worldwide are on Facebook; 317 million use Twitter; Youtube has more viewers than most TV stations.

It has become a powerful political tool too. World leaders use social media to broadcast their views. After last week’s terrorist attack in London, Prime Minister Theresa May used Facebook to issue her statement of condolences to the victims. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s video message on Twitter had 32.5 thousand likes.

Social media is also an essential tool for diplomats. “Twiplomacy” is an important part of our tool kit. News appears on Twitter before the news channels. It helps us to listen and understand. But it is also a vital means to convey our own messages about the countries we represent. It has become part of “soft power”: the way we pursue our interests, promote our values and project our engagement.

If we want to “Global Britain” to engage with the world, we have to do so through the channels that are most widely followed. That means social media – as well as print, TV and radio.

This is our approach in Libya. The Embassy’s @UKinLibya Twitter site has 197,000 followers, the largest of any British Embassy round the world. Facebook in particular is widely used in Libya.
But social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can give a voice to marginalised people. But on the other, it is too often used to incite hate, hostility and horror.

Six years ago, social media was regarded as a key driver of the so-called Arab Spring. Journalists from round the world noted that protesters in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi were co-ordinating their campaigns by posting images, videos and messages.
Part of the reason was the lack of trust in the official media. Years of censorship and low quality journalism had turned people off.

In February 2011, Qadhafi’s state-run news was broadcasting patriotic songs while amateur videos uploaded onto Youtube told the real story of the protests and the brutal crackdown by his forces. Graphic images revealed the repression and the direct threat to civilians, not only to other parts of Libya, but also to the outside world.

Mohammad (Mo) Nabbous who set up the Feb-17 media centre in Benghazi which had its own independent internet TV station

The 17 February revolutionaries therefore found common cause through social media. It created a loose coalition of anti-regime forces and helped to galvanise them into action. The bravery of people in Benghazi in confronting regime forces helped to inspire and mobilise people in other parts of the country.

Unfortunately, the innovations that created an unprecedented opportunity for ordinary people to speak out have now become a way for extreme views to create outrage. While much of the content on social media is still positive, there is too much antagonism, fake news, hate speech and threats. What united people during the revolution is now being used to create division.

This makes using social media difficult. For example, social media users might condemn a tweet or a post showing a meeting; people seem to think that meeting a politician or a social leader means that we support him or her. Yet meeting people is part of the normal diplomatic task of reaching out and engaging with anyone who is not a terrorist in an attempt to understand a country.

Responding to hostility and trying to engage in constructive debate also seems to be counter-productive. We have to accept that some people out there will never accept our desire to help and will smell a conspiracy behind every move.

To tweet or not to tweet? That really isn’t the question. As diplomats, we have to be out there on social media. And we have to accept that the trolls will continue to harrumph, whether from Tripoli or elsewhere. The best approach is to ignore them.

About Peter Millett

Peter arrived in Tunis on 23 June 2015 to take up his post as Ambassador to Libya. Previously he was British Ambassador to Jordan from February 2011 to June 2015. He was High Commissioner to…

Peter arrived in Tunis on 23 June 2015 to take up his post as
Ambassador to Libya.
Previously he was British Ambassador to Jordan from February 2011 to June 2015.
He was High Commissioner to Cyprus from 2005 – 2010.
He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British
diplomatic missions overseas.
From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens.
From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO.
From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK
Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing
the UK on all energy and nuclear issues.
From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.
Peter was born in 1955 in London.  He is married to June Millett and
has three daughters, born in 1984, 1987 and 1991.  
His interests include his family, tennis and travel.