Most research on social media as a tool for public diplomacy focuses on its use by recognized international actors to advance their national interest and reputation, deliver foreign policy objectives or promote their global interests. This article highlights the need for paying more attention to non-state diplomacy in conflict situations outside the western world. We examine how rebel groups use new media to enhance their communications, and what the motivations behind this are. Our public diplomacy perspective helps convey the scope of rebel communications with external actors and provides insights for policy-makers seeking to ascertain the nature, intentions, and capacities of myriad rebel groups. Our focus is on the Sahel region, where numerous such groups vying for international attention and support make use of multiple social media channels. We analyze two groups in Mali: the MNLA, a Tuareg secessionist group; and Ansar Dine, a Salafist insurgency with ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Our qualitative analysis of Ansar Dine and MNLA communications on several digital platforms helps identify these African rebel groups' international and local framing activities. Rebel groups use public diplomacy nimbly and pragmatically. The digital age has fundamentally changed which stakeholders such groups can reach, and we suggest that social media increase the power they are able to carve out for themselves on the international stage.
This is an article published in International Affairs, Volume 95, Issue 6, November 2019, Pages 1331–1348, by Jan Melissen, adjunct senior fellow at the Charhar Institute and Michèle Bos. Please click "Download" and read the full article.