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[WebDebate #18 summary] Digital diplomacy: new actors and technology in diplomacy

Published on 13 December 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

In our December WebDebate, we focused on digital diplomacy. We discussed the following questions: how have ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) adopted social media as part of their public diplomacy efforts? Is digital diplomacy more than simply being on Twitter or Facebook? Should diplomats even be on Twitter or Facebook, or is it time to abandon these as outdated fashion trends? We also explored how digital diplomacy can empower new actors and how they interact with more traditional diplomatic players. Our speakers also addressed how the very environment in which diplomacy is conducted is changing.

Joining us were two accomplished practitioners: Ms Liz Galvez, a former senior diplomat with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and presently a course lecturer with DiploFoundation, specialising in public diplomacy and negotiation skills, and Ambassador Stefano Baldi, a career diplomat in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and currently the ambassador of Italy to Bulgaria. The WebDebate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne, a research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

The changed context in which diplomatic communication is taking place

Galvez pointed out that the explosion of cross-border digital communication has taken agenda setting, out of the hands of governments and even large media corporations. Technical developments have caused the communication between individuals to grow beyond belief, with one third of the population using some form of social media. Information is traveling at a speed that organisations are struggling to keep up with, both in terms of taking it all in and applying it, especially where time-consuming approval procedures for public communication are in place. Governments and MFAs now must reach a broader range of new actors. Non-state actors are using social media to create their own networks, fake news providers have proliferated, fake profiles and cyber-bots have become part of our world. The way and the speed at which propaganda is being disseminated is relatively new. End users of information are now also providers of information, they get caught up in filter bubbles and restrict their sources of information, being more concerned with going viral than spreading accurate information. In a way, the Internet might be closing minds, rather than opening them.

Is it time for MFAs to return to a more focused approach to public diplomacy?

Galvez suggested that there is a lack of clarity in what social media can and cannot do for diplomacy. This is leading many ministries to take a scattergun approach to using social media, which has little effect on public opinion. It has taken a while for diplomats to get to grips with social media, and now diplomatic institutions have all jumped on the social media bandwagon, with 90% of all MFAs being present on social media. However, few of them have the resources to undertake the big data analysis that would give a clear picture of the public opinion in other countries. There is a risk that so much dependence on social media is making MFAs lose sight of who they are trying to influence and why, Galvez pointed out. There is also the risk that we are dumbing down foreign policy, if we are fixated on social media to the point of exclusion of other channels of communication and other tools of public diplomacy. Social media is useful for presenting positions, spreading awareness of a situation and for responding to a particular situation. However, social media does not create long-term relationships. It does not have much to contribute to public diplomacy in terms of engagement and influence, Galvez argues. Thus public diplomats and foreign ministries should go back to more tried and tested ways of public diplomacy. Social media should not be abandoned, but rather kept in its place and used as one strand, not the primary instrument, of public diplomacy. Many comments from participants mirrored Galvez’s cautious position on the use of social media in diplomacy.

Baldi believes that diplomats are not obsessed with social media. Diplomats are actually new to social media, having been using it for the past five years. Few countries have developed the use of social media in digital diplomacy or diplomacy, and many others are trying to emulate them, or trying to find their own way of using social media. Diplomats are still in the early stages of using social media; therefore, there is a lot of creativity and innovation in digital diplomacy that can still be applied. Digital diplomacy is far more than social media, Baldi underlined, but he considers the social media side of public diplomacy fascinating because it will continue evolving and diplomats still have far to go in using it.

Should diplomats engage on social media and to what extent?

Baldi pointed out that a lack of engagement does not mean the improper use of social media, because once the fact that many people can be reached through social media is accepted, so must be the fact that the audience is very diverse. It is not necessary to engage with everyone. There is no way to measure effectiveness on social media, understood as the level of engagement, as the possibility for engagement very much depends on the topic.

Galvez agreed and pointed out that very few MFAs use blogs, which is where diplomats may foster proper engagement. Rarely is engagement found on Twitter or Facebook, unless the objective is to network, like India does with its diaspora.

Is it possible for diplomats to control the content of the message while keeping up with the speed of social media?

Galvez stated that MFAs do not need to control the message because diplomats know what their message is, they know what their government policy is, what the government’s position is and how it should be presented. Other people’s messages cannot be controlled by diplomats, but can be reacted to. Diplomats can frame their own narrative and try to present it in a persuasive way, using the language their audience will relate to, and doing it honestly. In other words, MFAs should not control their diplomats through time-consuming approval procedures, but rather, should trust them.

Baldi agreed with Galvez’s position, pointing out that the speed at which social media works does not allow for a long chain of command for approving communication. In order to be effective in communicating, an MFA must have diplomats ready to communicate. These diplomats should be trained and proactive. Foreign ministries must create an environment where diplomats can act, react, and thus be effective in their communication.

Should diplomats try to consolidate the many different narratives on social media and how can they react to fake news?

Galvez recounted an effort by the EU called EU vs. Disinformation, which is a campaign created to respond to pro-Kremlin disinformation. However, she is not certain whether national administrations have the resources to fight disinformation, considering the trouble that MFAs encounter trying to find the resources to maintain social media accounts. Diplomats should hope that their message is repeated often enough and is endorsed by enough credible non-state actors, which might enable it to eventually filter through.

Baldi believes Galvez’s emphasis on the lack of resources is quite on point. However, if a country or its institution believes that fake news is creating significant damage, they have the responsibility to allocate resources for countering it, Baldi underlines. For example, if incorrect Wikipedia articles are affecting a country’s foreign policy, the country should devote resources to correct the picture. All in all, Galvez and Baldi provided some key considerations and pointed to important skills regarding the use of social media as part of public diplomacy. The picture they painted is cautious but not without optimism.

Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia

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