Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Digital Diplomacy Revisited: Why Ministries of Foreign Affairs hit the “digital” glass ceiling and how to break through it


A few days ago I re-watched a video that I was using extensively in my presentations 8-9 years ago to promote the concept of digital diplomacy. The name of the video was “Is social media a fad?” Apparently, since 2009, when this video was produced for the first time, the updated versions of it, under the same title, were produced almost every year. When you watch those videos, the bottom line is obvious: social media is not a fad. It is a new way of communication, much more now  than in 2009 (even though some of the social networks have proven to be a fad). 



But is digital diplomacy a fad? When I asked this same question on this blog 8 years ago, rather rhetorically, I truly believed it was not. Today I think I should correct my opinion, and here is why.

Diplomatic outreach on social networks: numbers that show nothing?

Digital diplomacy came into existence about 10 years ago with the invention of social networks and appearance of a small group of diplomats that wanted to introduce them into diplomacy. This innovative effort has got different fancy names, among them Diplomacy 2.0, ediplomacy, digital diplomacy, and that all sounded like a promise of a better diplomacy, of a new way of conducting international relations and reaching out to new audiences. Back then, in 2008, I was one of those enthusiasts who tried to introduce this concept and encourage diplomats to adapt to a new – digital - world. After returning from a post in California where I had my first experiences with Facebook and My Space, I believed that the social media will open new opportunities for diplomats and at the same time will revolutionize diplomacy itself. Well, whenever you try to revolutionize something, you shouldn’t be surprised that the first reactions to your ideas will be somewhere in the range between skepticism and mockery. Some of my colleagues-diplomats look at the digital diplomacy as a kind of a game that has nothing to do with diplomacy. Since then many of them have changed their view. What was even of greater significance, Ministries of Foreign Affairs of so many countries embraced digital diplomacy in their work. And yet, 10 years into digital diplomacy “revolution”, it’s my turn to express some skepticism about Diplomacy 2.0 and its unfulfilled promise.

To be absolutely frank, my first self-reflection was that this attitude of mine could be one of the first signs of my aging… But when I started to make a research on current status of digital diplomacy, I realized I was not alone in this growing skepticism and the understanding that something went wrong between diplomacy and social media. In fact, this concern is shared by many practitioners and researchers of digital diplomacy. Look, for just one example, what wrote in February Ilan Manor, one of the more prominent researchers of digital diplomacy:

Last week, when participating in a digital diplomacy conference, I felt as if I had encountered the Battered Bastards of social media. The conference, which was organized by the Dutch Foreign Ministry, brought together diplomats and academics from numerous countries. Over the course of two days, the participating diplomats repeatedly expressed their frustration and disillusionment with social media and its possible utilization in diplomatic activities. Understaffed, ill-equipped and facing growing expectations, these diplomats are still active on social media yet without any strategy in mind. They are online simply because one has to be online, they post because everyone else is posting and they are communicating with that familiar, yet unknown entity called “the public”. - https://digdipblog.com/, February 8, 2018

From personal experience I know that if feels really good to use statistics about Facebook page or Twitter handle, especially when it comes to reporting to the headquarters. I know how exciting it is to see one of your posts or tweets going viral. The networks themselves are going out of their way to provide you with accessible statistics about the “influence” of your accounts, how many likes, interactions, impressions you did on this post and on that picture. All those impressions look indeed very impressive. But after 10 years of tweeting, “facebooking” and “instagraming”, how much diplomatic goals where really achieved thanks to digital diplomacy? What are the new audiences that were successfully reached out through social networks and did you succeed to change their attitudes towards the country you represent?  Did you really improve international reputation of your country or its perception in the world with the help of your digital diplomacy projects? And you know what - what about the minimalistic goal of all – were you better-equipped and successful at least in informing the foreign public about your country’s policies using social media presence? On all these accounts, digital diplomacy will get a “Fail” grade, with minor exceptions here and there.

Beyond this shared feeling – which is so different from the excitement and enthusiasm of the first years of digital diplomacy – there are real concerns, behind the numbers and statistics.  It is important to say that these concerns are coming primarily from diplomats and ministries that were the first-comers into the field and who, till today, uphold the leadership positions in the digital diplomacy world: US, Canada, Australia, Britain, Holland, to name a few. While they are happy to report about growing numbers of the social media accounts of their embassies and consulates there is also an understanding that these numbers are not representing much. (For more explanation on problems with Facebook and Twitter metrics read here: https://www.americansecurityproject.org/ASP%20Reports/Ref%200112%20-%20Challenges%20of%20the%20Internet%20and%20Social%20Media%20in%20PD.pdf). The metrics can show you some general trend about your audiences, but they don’t measure your real influence with them.

Why this does not work?

If you ask any diplomat today what digital diplomacy means in practical terms he or she will tell you this: we should have a Twitter account, a Facebook page and Instagram profile (and the more advanced will add also LinkedIn), and we should post as much as we can and of course keep in mind that we should “target” the right audiences. (It is interesting to analyze why we are using a word from military jargon in this context, but maybe in another article). To sum up this attitude – foreign ministries use 3 to 4 major social networks as a principal and, in most of the cases, the only tool of their digital diplomacy. Is it the essence of the digital diplomacy, really?

We tend to forget that private social networks, such as Facebook, were created for social interaction between people, not governments, some of them for more business-like communication, most of them – for amusement. They suggested a new mode of communication, and gradually started to replace traditional media as a source of information. But as private enterprises they needed a successful business model that will allow them to make money. So, they wanted everybody to enjoy free platform for communication, amusement and information, while providing other businesses with information about us as potential customers for businesses. Governments, that were not the primary targets for the networks expansion, created their own profiles, both institutional and individual, and discovered multiple advantages in their presence on the networks.

With this understanding, suddenly, foreign ministries have fallen in love with digital diplomacy. Opening account on Facebook or Twitter is so easy and - free of charge! Every embassy, consulate, ambassador, every diplomat and international agency should open it! And of course, Instagram – the more the merrier! Some foreign ministries, like in UK, even encouraged their ambassadors to write blogs, which is a much more complex and sophisticated operation than managing FB or Twitter account. And the fact is that this symbiosis between diplomacy and major social networks is coming to its full realization. This is so much so that in the near future we can envisage in some foreign ministries establishment of Facebook departments, Twitter bureaus, or offices for Instagram affairs. After all, governments are bureaucracies that need to institutionalize their own activities. As a result, digital diplomacy is preoccupied today with expanding audience and influence on existing networks, using tools provided by those networks and within the rules set by the networks; therefore, the emphasis is on sustaining presence, on writing more attractive posts or tweets, on streaming more live videos, and on trying to decipher the ever-changing and elusive algorithms of the networks.

The current model of digital diplomacy, namely using major social networks, isn’t working and here is why:
First, the factor of freshness and innovation was important when all this started. Foreign ministries and embassies who were the first to open its pages benefit today from greater numbers of followers and general attention, more than those who joined the club later. Today, the effect of opening new diplomatic page for consulate or embassy will be relatively insignificant among millions of accounts and billions of posts and tweets.

Second, and more important factor was that over the years the governments and foreign ministries began to realize that this new mode of communication was not only about strengthening democratization, expanding transparency, improving public services, about branding and reaching out to new audiences. It was also about hate language and obscenity, about security concerns and threats, about social protests and violence, about reputational blows on the international arena, and lately about fake news and meddling in elections. The major social networks became platforms for spreading false information and are struggling to find mechanisms to deal with defamation, radicalization, hate language, Holocaust denial and recruitment of terrorists. There is no doubt, the major networks’ image and reliability is compromised on too many levels, and, according to my assessment, we are just in the beginning of this process, not in its end.

Third point: social networks encourage a simplistic, superficial and emotional engagement that is beneficial to celebrities, provocateurs and politicians, but is detrimental to diplomats or any other kind of expert community. Diplomats will never be able to outwit on social media those people or groups whose language is not limited by norms and national interests, unless diplomacy will compromise its own goals.

And last point: in the current model of digital diplomacy there is a hidden assumption that the major social networks of today are eternal entities. Do you really think they are here forever? If so, see all those networks that have disappeared in the last ten years. Fashions change, trends reverse: social media is here to stay, but social networks will fade away and give way to new ones. Look for example for a generational change that is taking place today: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jun/01/facebook-teens-leaving-instagram-snapchat-study-user-numbers.

Before we move to the next chapter, I want to make it clear: I am not against the presence of foreign ministries on Facebook or Twitter and I  don’t even want to say anything bad about social networks (I mean, I could, but not now), I just want to say, very diplomatically, that governments in general, and diplomacy in particular, simply cannot limit their embrace of the social media to the major social networks. Their capability to have an impact there is decreasing, and what is even more troublesome in my eyes -  this pursuit after a better tweet and a “cooler” post will have grave consequences and could compromise status of diplomacy as a profession. If we agree about this common denominator between us, let’s have a discussion about new models for digital diplomacy.

Looking through the "digital" glass ceiling

For the reasons stated above, ministries of foreign affairs should carefully revisit their vision of digital diplomacy and its implementation. They should keep their presence there, but not dedicate its dwindling budgets and all of its digital work to the major networks. They should rethink how goals of public diplomacy could be achieved on the existing platforms, and at the same time to think how they could bypass these platforms and bring the digital diplomacy to a broader digitalization, or as Matthew Wallin hinted in his article:

“It may prove that a government’s best use of social media might not be to instigate or create, but rather to guide, facilitate and moderate. While a government may often be unable to generate viral content in a manner consistent with its principles, it can still use its influence to help steer conversation, and it can still help provide the tools or forums that allow conversation to happen.” (https://www.americansecurityproject.org/ASP%20Reports/Ref%200112%20-%20Challenges%20of%20the%20Internet%20and%20Social%20Media%20in%20PD.pdf)

What should be done to increase effectiveness of digital diplomacy?

First, foreign ministries should not use their accounts as bulletin boards while avoiding conversations with the audiences they want to engage (“Australian digital diplomacy developments 2016”, by Danielle Cave). When you look for new audiences you don’t bombard them with your messages. Rather you start listening and respond to their concerns. However, as I already explained, to do so on major social networks is becoming more challenging.

Second, think outside the American networks. Go to WeiBo or VKontakte, but don’t forget you have to be fluent in these languages. Also, search for niche social networks, less-commercialized, more community-oriented. Heard about Diaspora or Letterboxd? Check them out. As PCMag puts it, “The future is in drilling down into niche social networks… Instead of sites that are all things for all people, these networks are happily staying small and serving only the folks who want to be there.” (https://www.pcmag.com/feature/353300/9-niche-social-networks-to-use-instead-of-facebook)

And finally, here is my central suggestion: Ministries of foreign affairs should create their own social networks -  platforms for supporters of their countries around the world. I think all of us will be surprised how much support countries can get from the international audience. Many countries have big diasporas worldwide and this phenomenon keeps growing. This is but one major group of potential supporters for your country, many others you will be able to discover when engaging them through social network dedicated to your country.

Today, all countries are competing for better reputation internationally to attract investments and tourism, but also to explain their policies and positions. Private social networks are not making it easier to implement these goals, quite the opposite. So, instead of working only on major networks that became too monstrously big, attract both supporters and detractors, and above all, set their rules, countries can establish virtual platforms on the international scale, on its own terms, allowing engagement and raising support for their policies.

The advantages of these networks are obvious, but the opposition to this idea, of course, will be enormous. Some people will say that the governments cannot allow a free dialogue about their own policies, without being suspected of greater surveillance. I beg to differ. The networks of today are already a kind of a Big Brother.  Setting up some norms and rules will not damage but rather help prevent inappropriate behavior that became so common on existing networks. How can you trust the information on the networks that became the very tools of “fake news” and manipulation? On the other hand, democratic governments should put to test their ability to engage public in a transparent and democratic way if we want to preserve the principles of democracy in the age of social media.

By the way, there is nothing new about niche social networks developed for or by public sector. Ten years ago, Govloop and Ozloop were the first great examples of how public employees can engage socially and professionally through the social media platform. Inspired by them I tried to create the social network of the Israeli public sector (what was good 10 years ago still makes sense - Workplace social network platform, that was developed by Facebook, by the way, is now being used by the ministry of social welfare in Israel). Back in 2010 I even had an idea of creating a social network “My Israel” in several foreign languages, having the same model in mind, but I just did not have time to dedicate myself to this project on my own.

This post is already too long, so let me conclude it: I don’t think every ministry of foreign affairs would or could launch international social network, even though technologies are already at hand and the time is ripe. Why? Because such a move will entail a deeper institutional reorganization, which of course will require courage and vision. However, given a slippery road towards superficiality paved by social networks, more courageous and sophisticated digitalization of the foreign ministries could be one of the ways to overcome the ongoing crisis of modern diplomacy.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

What this blog is about

All predictions about the "end of history" or a gradual withering away of the  state so far proved to be wrong. International affairs are there to stay in a foreseeable future. The relations between the states are still crucial for the future of each one of us and all of humankind.

But the ways the states interact have changed. Classic diplomacy is no longer able to satisfy the needs of the states and promote their interests. The impact of international organizations, sub-state players, corporations and even individuals is growing and challenging the whole system of international relations. One of the major reasons behind this change is a mix of technology and a new form of mass media which we call social media.

The last 19 years I was a practitioner of international relations, being a member of the Israel's foreign service and working in Moscow, Los Angeles, Paris and Washington. From the beginning of my diplomtic career I paid a special attention to Internet. At my first assignment in Moscow, between 2000-2003,  as a spokesperson I was working not only with traditional media, but dedicated a lot of time to internet news sites and participated at the internet press-conferences.  One of my best interviews (from my point view) I gave to the website jewish.ru: unlike newspaper, on the website the physical place is not limited and I could answer all the questions without any concern for space (http://jewish.ru/ru/events/israel/181311/).

But invention of social networks was even bigger game changer, even though at that time  it was not so obvious. I consider myself an early adapter and enthusiast of Diplomacy 2.0: I initiated a training program on digital diplomacy that became mandatory for all diplomats within the Israeli Foreign Service, was strongly involved in international initiatives promoting Digital Government like Govloop.com, and was invited to speak at the O’Reilly GOV 2.0 online conference.

In this blog, that I originally created at 2009, I continue to analyze and discuss international relations, central topics of the global diplomatic agenda and the impact of social media on it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

On quasi-periodic crystals and self-confidence


Last week I had an opportunity to learn about the Quasi-periodic crystals. I am sure that like most of you, these words do not mean much, even if you check its definition on Wikipedia. It was the same for me, till last Friday. On that day I was at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris, where I heard the explanation by a person who discovered quasi-crystals – Professor Dan Shechtman from Technion. Even this complicated question could be explained I very simple terms, even I could understand it (Ihope!) But it took to professor Shectman about 10 years to convince the academic community that his discovery was real. And 20 more years to get the Nobel Prize in November 2011…

Professor Shechtman at the Maison de la Chimie

What he discovered in 1982 was that the not all crystals are periodic, meaning that their atoms are ordered in a periodic structure. The community of crystallographers refused to accept his finding that would hatter the scientific “truth” that was hold for 70 years. The explanations of Prof. Shectman were crystal clear, not quasi-clear. However, the most prominent experts preferred for many years to reject his discovery, blaming him for quasi-science. While he was trying for years explain that his discovery was made possible thanks to the new tool he used in his work: electro-magnetic microscope instead of X-rays.

At the end of his lecture at Maison de la Chimie, he shared his own conclusion about the 5 most important things that made possible his discovery: electro-magnetic microscope, professionalism, tenacity, self-confidence and courage.

And I just thought to myself that with the exception of microscope, the four other elements are required in any endeavor…

Needless to say, I was proud to have this picture...

And one last word about Technion, who celebrates 100 years since its establishment in 1912 – Shectman’s Nobel Prize was third for Technion, in the last 7 year. In Technion, they definitely may have something to teach us about tenacity, professionalism and self-confidence!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Digital diplomacy in Paris – workshop and panel


Bernard Valero, Spokesperson
French Foreign Ministry

Last week the embassy of Israel in Paris, France, hosted an international workshop on the digital diplomacy. It was first such experience for us in the Israeli embassy, but what I learnt from our guests during the workshop was that it was also the case for many of them. While diplomats discuss this topic with their counterparts occasionally, the idea of workshop was to create the platform of professional discussion and exchange between diplomats, web-specialists, journalists and bloggers.


Richard Volodarski
web-agency Linkeo
Since I came to Paris year and half ago, I contacted many of my counterparts, spokespeople from different embassies to learn how they use social media in their communication work in France. I discovered that while a few embassies are quite active in this field, like the US and Estonian embassies, others were hesitant, either on the personal level, or because of their headquarters’ lack of encouragement. At the same time, many diplomats expressed their interest to learn from the experience of others.
That’s how I realized there’s a potential for this workshop. My Estonian and US colleagues supported the idea and became partners in this project.



Paul Patin, Spokesperson
US embassy in France
So what did we have on February 8 in our embassy? It was an honor for to host our first speaker, Bernard Valero, the Head of the Communications’ Department and Spokesperson of the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. The Quai d’Orsay is one of the most advanced ministries of Foreign Affaires in the digital diplomacy, I know this firsthand: more than 100.000 twitter followers, internet-conferences for journalists every two days, state of the art website of the Ministry…



Sigrid Kristenprun
Spokesperson, embassy of Estonia
Our second speaker was Richard Volodarski of the Linkeo web-agency. Richard shared with some insights about the social media in France and in general. How many people use social media in France? How we look after target audiences? What is the importance of digital presence for embassies? How make it successful? All these questions were discussed, and even if not answered, the participants were intrigued by some of the dilemmas and perspectives he introduced.





And this is me
After it three presentations were done by the Estonian, US and Israel embassies. We’ve learnt that the Estonian embassy is exploring Facebook, the US embassy is working also on Twitter and is especially pro-active in Youtube, and we are making inroads into the blogosphere. While we could see differences in our approaches, it was clearly the conclusion of all the speakers: we need more independence from HQ and more immediate responses if we want our embassies’ digital presence to be efficient and significant.


I believe it was first, but not the last workshop on digital diplomacy: the best way to learn is by sharing practices and methods. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Diplomacy in the age of social media - My interview to RFI


On Friday I was interviewed to the Radio France International about Digital Diplomacy. The interview is in English.Thank you to my host, Vladimir Smekhov

HomeEnjoy:
http://www.english.rfi.fr/europe/20120205-social-media-and-diplomacy
.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Arab revolutions and its impact on Israel


In January 2012 Tunisia and Egypt marked the first year since the beginning of the civil uprising. Libya is still longing for return to the normal life after civil war. Syrian regime is waging war against its own people, and the outcome is still unclear. Despite the fact that all these developments are still underway, one thing is obvious: Middle East is becoming a different place from what it was. And what is even more important: it becomes different place from how we used to think about it.
 
In Israel we were and still are quite concerned with these developments. After all, it's our neighborhood. So, where do we stand today regarding the impact of the Arab spring on us in Israel?

I remember that in the first months after the events in Tahrir square, some experts were talking about the silence of Israeli officials in the face of the democratic revolutions taking place throughout the Middle East. Some of them even accused Israel of being insensitive to the democratic aspirations of the Arab people and of preferring the pseudo-stability of autocratic regimes. Many diplomats, especially in Europe, were saying to us that Israel better adapt to the new reality, solve quickly the conflict with the Palestinians and embrace the democratic aspirations of its neighbors.

Well, actually we did it. President Peres, PM Netanyahu and other officials welcomed the spirit of openness and democracy that characterized the first months of these movements. However, our declarations were not heard, and instead the media highlighted the fears of the Israelis and presented Israel as lagging behind the developments.

And where do we stand now? After the impressive victories of the Islamic parties in Tunisia, then in Egypt, many people started to raise their concerns. It's not that the Arab countries cannot become democracies. Today it’s obvious that this process could take much more time, may be decades, and that the elections are only the beginning of the process, not the final stage.

After the violent takeover of the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the calls "Death to the Jews!" greeting the arrival of Hamas leader to Tunisia, we definitely are reminded that in the new Middle East the old hatred of Israel and the Jews did not disappear. Old habits are the most difficult to get rid of. Arabs were educated and brainwashed for 60 years that there is only one source for all their problems: it's Israel. The same regimes that were ready to have "cold peace" with Israel, allowed internally the anti-Semitic propaganda against Israel in order to release the social and economic pressure.

And at this point we can realize the major breakthrough in this vicious circle of the Middle-eastern politics: Arab revolutions symbolize the first departure from the totalitarian logic of the scapegoat. It's this realization of the Arab people that the source of their plight is not external, but internal. It's the autocratic regimes, their corruption and complete lack of sound social and economic policy that are to be blamed, and not a small country of 7 million people that struggles for its survival.

The second positive change was that the forces that try to utilize the Israel-Palestinian conflict for their domination today are coerced to deal with the real problems of the Middle East. Hezbollah has retreated into the shelters; Syrian regime is struggling with unprecedented protest from within and isolation in the Arab league from outside. And Iran is afraid to loose its last Arab ally. Hamas who was smart to dissociate itself from Assad's regime, is looking for new sponsors, between Egypt and Qatar, and in a meantime, prefers to keep quite.

Of course, the situation is far from ideal. The instability in Egypt and Libya has created zones that are not fully controlled by the authorities, which led to the smuggling of weapons and the terrorist acts from Sinai Peninsula. The collapse of Syrian regime could result in transfer of unconventional weapons and missiles to Hezbollah. And Iran, despite the sanctions and the threat to loose an ally, is coming closer to the nuclear ability. All these considerations lead us to the same conclusion we made a year ago: we need patience and prudence. To make dramatic steps during the regional turmoil, before we could see the light in the end of tunnel, is irresponsible.

The chances to make miscalculation during this period are higher. Wrong decisions based on bad estimation could lead to another crisis in this vulnerable situation. An example for this kind of miscalculation is the decision of the PA to not negotiate with Israel, in the hope that in the future they can get better bargaining position. Why? Arab countries are going to deal with their social and economic condition and political stabilization which they consider their first priority.

However, the unilateral strategy of PA is seduced its leaders to make multilateral diplomacy instead of bringing the independence to their people. Well, maybe they feel they can allow this little privilege, since the socio-economic conditions of Palestinians are much better than that of their brothers in the neighboring countries. After all, the only place where people did not have any incentive to go to streets and protest is the West Bank. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

No conditions, no taboos - Let's just sit down and talk

Yigal Palmor, spokesperson of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, uses Youtube to explain why Palestinian unilateral bid for statehood is wrong and leas nowhere.