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.

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