Sociologist Erving Goffman separates the realm of social life into two distinct spheres: the front, in which people play certain roles, and the back region or backstage in which their true character lies. It is in the back region where the illusion portrayed onstage is meticulously prepared.
According to Goffman, credibility is key to human performances. Should the audience view one’s role playing as misleading, or disingenuous, they may lose faith in the performer and never trust him again.
Diplomacy has often been regarded as theatre. Like individuals, diplomats toil on orchestrating performances meant to evoke mental images or feelings. A gathering of world leaders following a terror act is meant to convey certainty and leadership in times of turmoil. A financial summit is meant to instil confidence in financial markets and peace summits are meant to offer the glimpse of hope.
Like social settings, one may describe digital diplomacy along the terms offered by Goffman. Social media may be the front, or the stage, where an MFA gives a performance or creates an image meant to frame government action. Indeed it seems that much of digital diplomacy is theatre given the large number of images from global summits published on twitter. Such is the case with the images below taken from a flurry of recent global summits (meeting of OECD leaders, Paris Cop 21, Turkey G20 summit).
However, at times digital diplomacy seems to offer its followers a peak into the backstage where the actual work of international relations takes place. Such is the case with the image below of Secretary Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov meeting on the side-lines of an OSCE summit.
Like the Russian MFA, the US State Department also offers followers entry to the backstage of its diplomatic effort. This was especially true during the negotiations surrounding the Iran nuclear agreement. During the negotiations, social media followers were able to receive updates from Secretaries Kerry and Munitz as is shown in the tweet below.
Once negotiations had ended, social media followers were invited to read the actual accord signed between the p5+1 and Iran and even hear stories from “behind the scenes” of the negotiations.
Some may view such tweets a more transparent from of diplomacy brought about by the migration of MFAs to social media where its “publish or perish”. Yet if we apply Goffman’s theory to social media, we may also consider that such images are but the illusion of transparency meant to maintain credibility.
Like individuals, MFAs require public credibility in order to maintain their position. In and age when “information wants to be free”, and people demand more open covenants of diplomacy, MFAs must share or appear to share information with online audiences.For how much do we really know about whats was said by both the US and Iran within the meeting room? And what do we really know about aspcets of the Iranian deal that remian secure in the backstage of diplomacy, and outside of the draft presented online?
The duality of MFA online content is most evident in the tweet below in which followers are invited to a “behind the scenes look” at the Iran negotiations. Yet the actual content of the tweet is nothing more than diplomatic theatre.
The doubt surrounding the motives of MFAs in sharing information online also impacts one’s ability to use such information as a tool for analysis. For if much of digital diplomacy is theatre, than it may tell us very little about relations between nations, countries’ foreign policies and events shaping our world.