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Some thoughts on public diplomacy, social media, and data

Published on 06 August 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

As someone who has worked in public diplomacy since 2011, I do not remember a time when public diplomacy did not also mean digital diplomacy and, consequently, some manner of data diplomacy. From the beginning, the data we gleaned from social media was heavily dependent on what the social media platforms were willing to provide us with. In terms of data storage and data analytics, institutions need to put a great deal of trust in the data that social media platforms provide. Here are three issues which are crucial for institutions when working with social media and data sets:

How do we archive what we do?

In current discussions, the greatest worry is data retention by companies. The loss of data, however, can be just as much of a problem. There is no guarantee that the social media sites we use as an institution will archive and make accessible all the posts and messages we put online forever. They may go bankrupt and cease operations. They may simply decide their business model is not working and close shop. They could be hacked, and posts could be changed or deleted. They might even change the content of the post themselves. Or, they could decide that a profile or a post are inappropriate and hide them for all but their own programmers. In short, the integrity of the data set is not guaranteed. It is the users’ responsibility to ensure that they keep sufficient records of what they put online and that these records remain accessible to them independently from what the social media provider does. In this day and age, when the manipulation of image, sound and video is easier than ever before, all institutions must keep this in mind and decide how they want to deal with the issue.

What do we do about filter bubbles?

I am not the first to comment that filter bubbles are not an Internet phenomenon. Even the idea of third parties – such as search engines and feed algorithms – that influence which filter bubbles a person may have access to is not wholly new. There have always been in-groups, the bouncer at the entrance to nightclubs, or the hard to define barriers created by class, money, or gender. All these come with their own frames of reference and divide people into those who have been there, and those who have not; those who were told about a rumour and those who were not. For public diplomacy, the challenge is to find ways to interact with as many in-groups or filter bubbles as possible, and to adapt the methods and best practices used in offline communication to serve diplomats in their online communications.

How do we keep track of developments in data analysis and AI technology?

There is an argument to be made against using data and it is not a straightforward matter for a democratic state to navigate, especially since data collection and use are already underway and multiple actors have much to gain, both in terms of funds and information from using data. In this environment, a state cannot afford to remain ignorant of how data is gathered and analysed. Here, public diplomacy could provide a valuable testing ground. By carefully selecting data sets that are publicly available – — open data  – and by engaging with specialists in one-to-one conversations or as a part of a team at a hackathon, institutions can acquire knowledge on how to use data sets, how to work with developers, and gain experience in working with artificial intelligence. This requires institutions to provide the necessary resources their staff needs to keep track of new technologies and developments in the field, as well as avenues through which new insights can be passed on.

What do you think are the central issues for public diplomacy when it comes to navigating the many aspects of digital space and data?


Ursula Wyss graduated from the University of Bern with an MA in English Literature and Medieval History. She has worked for two foreign ministries as a public diplomacy and social media practitioner. The views expressed here are her own.


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