This month, public diplomacy scholar Bruce Gregory published a new article in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy titled “Mapping Boundaries in Diplomacy’s Public Dimension”. In this article, Gregory explores the need to better define the boundaries between public diplomacy and other forms of diplomatic practice. Gregory makes an important point when asserting that “boundaries are essential in determining what is analytically and pragmatically significant”.
Digital diplomacy represents one area of diplomacy that is in dire need of boundaries. This is due to the fact that the practice, and characteristics, of digital diplomacy are blurring boundaries between pre-existing categories of diplomacy. In this sense, digital diplomacy is disruptive to the study of diplomacy. It is therefore incumbent on scholars of digital diplomacy to better define what digital diplomacy is, what it is not, and how it relates conceptually to pre-existing concepts in the scholarly literature. Indeed, we may find that digital diplomacy has obliterated boundaries between the concepts of public diplomacy and public affairs. Yet we may also find that such boundaries still hold merit.
I view this undertaking as one of paramount importance as the term digital diplomacy is on the precipice of becoming a “buzzword”, if it has not already become one. For scholars of digital diplomacy this is a dangerous occurrence as the fate of all buzzwords is to pass into history with the same speed and momentum with which they first arrived.
There are four specific boundaries that warrant our attention and which may serve as a basis for a continued research agenda in digital diplomacy.
Between the foreign and the domestic
Traditionally, public diplomacy represented attempts by nations to influence the opinions of foreign populations. In the age of mass media channels, this was achieved through the radio and television. While early 20th century public diplomacy efforts often focused on propaganda activities, later efforts focused on cultural and educational activities. The attempt to influence foreign public opinion was a natural one for MFAs which, according to Daryl Copeland, face the world with their back to the nation. However, like all government institutions, MFAs also attempted to promote their policies and initiatives to domestic audiences in activities that were referred to as public affairs.
Yet with the advent of digital diplomacy, the boundary between public affairs and public diplomacy may have disintegrated. The US State Department’s twitter channel, and the Israeli MFA’s Facebook profile, are followed by both domestic and foreign audiences. Israelis and Americans now monitor their MFA on social media for numerous reasons ranging from a desire to learn about their world to receiving consular assistance.
Consider the manner in which the US State Department announced the breakthrough in the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear weapons program.
Beginning with a press conference by President Obama, the State Department used social media to “sell” the agreement with Iran to the American public while portraying it as a masterstroke of American diplomacy that effectively blocked all Iranian nuclear ambitions. The following day saw a flurry of statements by Secretary Kerry and Secretary Munitz detailing the manner in which the agreement paved the way to a more stable and secure Middle East, thus selling the agreement to America’s allies in the region.
The question that soon follows is, has the boundary between public affairs and public diplomacy been torn down? Perhaps not, for alongside its English social media channels, the State Department is targeting specific foreign publics through its Urdu and Farsi language channels. Moreover, we know very little about the followers of the State Department on social media? Are the majority of these followers from the US or from outside the US? Who is on the other end of the diplomatic line?
Between propaganda and narratives
Recent definitions have sought to clearly distinguish propaganda from other forms of communication. Thus, propaganda may be viewed as more than biased information aimed at promoting a political cause. Rather it is the use of fabricated information or lies. In recent months, many have claimed that Russia employs propaganda when commenting on occurrences in Eastern Ukraine. Such was the case when Russian officials claimed that soldiers apprehended in Crimea were not part of a military incursion but simply soldiers on leave who wandered into Ukrainian territory. Some analysts have also stated that Russia has eagerly integrated social media into its propaganda efforts by operating a “troll army” and spreading disinformation through Russia Today and the newly launched Sputnik news agency.
Thus, it is possible that the advent of digital diplomacy has also seen the resurgence of 20th century style propaganda. Yet where is the boundary between propaganda and narratives? After all, many MFAs now use social media in order to frame their actions and policies through grand narratives. According to the Israeli narrative presently disseminated online, the Hamas movement is an offshoot of ISIS (Daesh). Thus Israel’s struggle against Hamas is part of the world’s struggle against ISIS and fundamentalist terror movements. Yet is this a narrative? Is this a lie? And is digital diplomacy a tool for both? How can we distinguish?
Between public diplomacy and nation branding
Current typologies of diplomacy state that public diplomacy aims to create a positive climate among a foreign population thus facilitating the acceptance of another country’s foreign policy. Nation branding, on the other hand, aims to promote a positive national image which may increase the attractiveness of a national brand. While the goal of public diplomacy is the acceptance of foreign policy, most nation branding activities are financially motivated and aim to increase trade, export and attract Foreign Direct Investments.
However, the use of social media seems to have blurred an already problematic conceptual boundary. Nations now use twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube in order to promote their national Selfie. Such Selfies are often comprised of a set of values. For instance, the Polish foreign ministry has a special twitter channel dedicated to correcting the historical perception of Polish collaboration with Nazi Germany. To this end, polish diplomats throughout the world call attention to such misrepresentations insisting that newspapers use the terms “Nazi concentration camps operated on occupied Polish soil” as opposed to “Polish death camps”. This may be a Polish attempt to promote the image of a nation that celebrates diversity as opposed to one that oppresses ethnic minorities.
But this new Polish image is also intrinsically linked to the financial health of the Polska brand. A country seen as part of the Nazi war machine may find it hard to attract investments while a nation that is branded as the financial gateway to Eastern Europe may be able to increase trade and experience financial growth.
How then may we distinguish between tweets and posts that are meant to brand the nation, and those that are meant to create a receptive environment for a nation’s foreign policy? In digital diplomacy, is every tweet part of a larger branding strategy? And if so, is digital diplomacy just public relations with a Soft Power twist?
Blurring boundaries within the MFA
Digital diplomacy has also blurred boundaries within diplomatic institutions. Communication and press officer departments were once tasked with communicating formally and informally with journalists. Other departments were tasked with gathering and analysing information on foreign countries while consular departments mostly dealt with servicing the domestic population in times of calm and crisis.
But digital diplomacy demands theses boundaries be reassessed and adjusted. This is due to the fact that those operating social media channels now communicate with journalists, gather information on foreign countries through social media and offer consular assistance. Such was the case in 2013 when the Kenyan MFA orchestrated an evacuated of its citizens from South Sudan through twitter. Likewise, during the recent Nepal earthquake British citizens turned to social media in order to ask for assistance. Thus, it is possible that MFAs now require integrated social media teams that include press officers, communication experts, analysts and members of consular departments.
Interestingly, many recent articles on digital diplomacy focus on this blurring within the MFA rather than on the new conceptual difficulties arising from the migration of MFAs online.
Where to from here?
Bruce Gregory has articulated the need to re-chart the conceptual and theoretical boundaries in the diplomacy research literature. I have attempted to do the same with regard to digital diplomacy. It is my belief that further exploration of the boundaries between all forms of diplomacy currently titled “digital diplomacy” will increase our understating of its practice and represent an important contribution to the scholarly field of diplomacy studies. This is both a research agenda and a call for action.
As for myself, I hope to begin this project on the 30th of March 2013 on which Tel Aviv University and the Israeli MFA will co-host Israel’s first digital diplomacy conference. I hope you will join me.