Between Two Digital Divides

Recently, I published a post dealing with the potential use of digital diplomacy among African MFAs. It was my contention that African foreign ministries may use social media to improve their national brand, reach out and strengthen ties with Diasporas and practice network diplomacy. This post was predicated on the assumption that when it comes to digital diplomacy, the digital divide is narrowing. African MFAs are now as active online as their Western peers and some African foreign ministries are at the very centre of online diplomatic networks.

However, while one digital divide may be narrowing, another may be expanding.

On First and Second Order Digital Divides

According to Ester Hargittai, one may distinguish between two forms of digital divides. First order digital divides deal with access to digital infrastructure and online tools. For instance, internet penetration rates in different countries attest to possible divides between richer and poorer nations. However, first order digital divides also deal with access to the internet thus relating to a nation’s technological infrastructure and even the costs associated with going online. Therefore, nations in which internet access is positively correlated with personal wealth also exhibit a first order digital divide.

digital natives

Second order digital divides deal with the development of digital literacy and digital capabilities. Here the focus is on possible gaps in the use of the internet, online tools and digital environments. One example of second order digital divides is the gap in online capabilities of younger and older people. Younger generations, often referred to as digital natives, were born into the digital world and thus find it easier to adopt new technologies and realize their full potential. Older generations, known as digital immigrants, were born to an offline world and have since been forced to migrate online. Thus, they are usually less cable when it comes to embracing new technologies. Digital natives are also more likely to find information online quicker and with greater ease when compared to immigrants.

While second order gaps may seem trivial, they are actually quite important. Online environments enable us to harness the power of crowd souring, to access volumes of information and to collaborate with others on joint projects and initiatives. Yet being able to do so necessitates digital capabilities. Those who are without such capabilities, soon find themselves left out of this public sphere. Moreover, those lacking in digital capabilities may be unable to fully utilize digital tools. Thus, their ability to use social media in order to create networks of influence and gather relevant information is impaired. They may even find it hard to fully analyse what information they find. After all, one requires a set of skills and vocabulary to extract all information lay hidden in a 140 character tweet.

Digital Diplomacy and Digital Divides

It is quite possible that in digital diplomacy, first order digital divides have narrowed. Governments in Africa all have access to the internet and the ability to finance use of digital and social media tools. This may explain recent findings indicating that African MFAs are as active on twitter and Facebook as their peers from other parts of the world.

Image: Social Media Use Among Sample of African MFAs

website twitter and face in africa

However, there may still be second order digital divides between African MFAs and ministries in other countries. For instance, staffers at the UK Foreign Office may have had access to the internet for more than two decades as opposed to staffers in African MFAs. Younger diplomats in Europe or North America may have opened a Hotmail email account while they were in Middle School and may have even used PCs throughout most of their education. This is not necessarily the case with MFA staffers in smaller and poorer African nations. Given that length of familiarity with the online environment may substantially increase one’s digital capabilities and literacy, digital diplomacy may still be characterized by second order digital divides. As a result, African MFAs may find it harder to fully harness the potential of social media and use it as an effective tool for information gathering and policy making.

The plot thickens, I believe, when it comes to analysis of big data. Dr. Stefania Milan explores data divides which are characterized by the ability of people, or institutions, to use and analyse big data.  Within the realm of diplomacy, big data may be used in order to conduct in-depth surveys prior to a nation branding campaign or a public diplomacy initiative. Such data may also be used by a nation to analyse how its policies are received by foreign populations. MFAs may also social media data sets to analyse the manner in which one nation (the US) portrays another (Russia) online or assess their levels of online engagement. Finally, big data may be used to deliver consular aid in real time following disasters or terror attacks.

Yet the ability to collect, analyse and utilize big data also rests on one’s data capabilities. It is possible that richer nations, who have been online for longer durations and whose staff is more familiar with digital environments, will be more capable in analysing bid data than poorer ones. Like all divides, a data divide between African MFAs and their peers may limit African digital diplomacy especially if we assume that big data will grow in importance among diplomats.

Where to From Here

Training may aid in narrowing digital divides. African MFAs may thus find it useful to determine what digital capabilities are required of a 21st century diplomatic institution and a diplomat. They should then analyse their MFA’s capabilities and move to reduce possible gaps through training, online simulations and accompaniment of diplomats now venturing online for the very first time.

Want to keep the convesration going? Join us in March for Israel’s first Digital Diplomacy Conference. More here

conf done 3



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