Abu Dhabi: The use of public diplomacy and social media can both be powerful tools in sharing ideas and messages that counter extremism and properly convey the cultures and ideas of countries, a senior US government official said at Zayed University on Wednesday.

Richard Stengel, US Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was speaking to an audience of Emirati university students and future prospective diplomats, and emphasised the use of soft power as a means of spreading a country’s influence.

“Public diplomacy is about soft power. Hard power is the thing we all understand, which is using the military. Soft power is [about] a country’s culture and ideas,” he said.

“When you’re a country based on ideas, you have to keep telling those ideas to each other. As a public diplomat one of the things I do is talk about those ideas and ideals [of America],” he added.

When asked if public diplomacy was merely another word for propaganda, Stengel noted that there was a difference between the two.

“Public diplomacy is about facts based on information and communication, propaganda is about trying to persuade people based on false information,” he said.

And with the rise of social media, the lines of communication for public diplomacy have become more effective than ever before, according to Stengel.

“Public diplomacy is aided by the most remarkable tool which is social media … how we use social media and for what purpose can have a benefit for society … I have been an advocate of every ambassador and every person in the US diplomatic corps being on social media,” he said.

“Social media makes everyone a public diplomat [and] it’s a two-way tool for governments … [It allows governments] to have a conversation with people. One of the things I say about American policy is that there are many reasons people don’t like American policy, but I would like to have a conversation with someone about why they don’t like it and why we have this policy, so let’s talk about it,” he added.

Stengel also said that social media gives everyone the opportunity to express themselves which leads to critical thinking, a concept groups such as Daesh are opposed to.

“It’s the democratisation of self-expression, everyone can do it and everyone can find an audience, and I think that’s transformational. [This] will help sustain the diversity of society, and help this idea of critical thinking that every society needs to value.

“If we look at violent extremists like Daesh, the one thing they’re against is critical thinking, they are against any kind of choice, to them there is one truth and reality and if someone does not agree then they are an apostate.”

Stengel also praised the UAE for representing a successful progressive Arab and Muslim state.

“I feel the UAE represents the most positive dynamic values of the Middle East. Star Wars was filmed here [in Abu Dhabi] because they wanted to find a place where the future is already present,” he said.