Is Digital Diplomacy Really Domestic Diplomacy?

On the 30-31 of March of 2016, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the University of Tel Aviv co-hosted Israel’s first digital diplomacy conference. Alongside representatives from 20 foreign ministries, and leading academics from the fields of communication, international relations and diplomacy, we endeavored to further investigate the term “digital diplomacy”. Over the next few weeks, I plan to publish a series of posts detailing some of the discussions and insights that arouse from the conference. This week’s post will explore the manner in which much of digital diplomacy is really domestic diplomacy.

When MFAs target the domestic population

Traditionally foreign ministries have been characterized as organizations that face the world while turning their back to the nation. When MFAs did attempt to communicate with the domestic population, this was done through the media that acted as a gatekeeper. Moreover, such communication was often part of an attempt to influence how the domestic population viewed foreign events and the nation’s foreign policy. Indeed in times of crisis, MFAs often attempted to rally media support, and in turn public support, for the government’s chosen course of action.

Yet diplomats did not regularly communicate directly with the domestic population. Ambassadors would not meet with groups of concerned citizens, or host public events nor would they create domestic networks of influence. Such activities, collectively referred to as public diplomacy, were reserved for foreign populations.

Yet social media has changed that. Nowadays, MFAs often publish information aimed at their citizens. Such is the case with a US State Department tweet highlighting the manner in which a trade agreement would add millions of jobs to the American market. Similarly, recent months have seen the launch of two social media accounts dedicated to “selling” the war on Daesh to domestic audiences. The first, managed by the State Department, is the Think Again Turn Away Tumblr channel. The second, managed by the UK Foreign Office, is the UK Against Daesh twitter channel. Essentially, both channels are used to ensure citizens that their tax money is hard at work and that the coalition against Daesh is making progress.

Another field in which MFAs communicate with their domestic population is consular aid, specifically in times of crises such as following terror attacks and or natural disasters. At the conference in Tel Aviv the State Department detailed its use of twitter and Facebook to reach, and aid, US citizens located in Paris following the horrific terror attacks of 2015. Similarly, both the Canadian and Israeli MFAs elaborated on their use of social media to locate and communicate with citizens in Nepal following the earthquake that hit the country in 2014. Such communication included publication of emergency contact numbers, email addresses and direct engagement between consular staff and citizens on the ground.

Even in the field of nation branding, domestic audiences seem to be a primary audience for MFAs. In 2015, the Finnish MFA launched its national emoji project in which Finns could download, and use, emojis that captured something unique about Finnish culture and history. The MFA was hoping that its citizens would act as “nation branding intermediates” who would use these emojis and spread them online. Thus, the domestic population was actually recruited by the MFA for a nation branding campaign.

Finland, of course, is not alone in such endeavors as more and more MFAs look to their citizens to spread MFA authored content online. Sometimes this takes the form of a request by the MFA tweeting “Please Re-Tweet”. In other times, MFAs may create social media war-rooms in which citizens spread MFA content among their social networks thus dramatically increasing the reach of digital diplomacy content.

Interestingly, embassies located abroad now also try to reach their domestic population back home be it for the purpose of informing them about MFA and embassy activities or attempting to mobilize communities of expats (i.e., Canadian embassy in Tunisia aims to mobilize Tunisian who migrated to Canada). In fact, in a recent study of mine I found that some MFAs now ask their embassies to use three languages online: the local language where the embassy is located, English for the diplomatic milieu and their national language (i.e. Israeli embassy in Sweden tweets in Hebrew, English and Swedish). Content in the national language is tailored to the interest of the national citizenry.

It therefore seems that much of digital diplomacy is domestic diplomacy. The question that follows is why have MFAs taken such an affinity to communicating with their citizens?

MFAs in a globalized world

The answer may be, in part, related to the impact globalization has had on foreign ministries. As more and more challenges necessitate global action, more and more ministries are facing the world. Ministries of agriculture and environment now routinely collaborate with their peers from other countries in order to overcome shared obstacles. This is also the case with health ministries coordinating action against pandemics, scientific ministries collaborating on shared projects (e.g., EU funded research grants) not to mention ministries of defense or national security.

The result of these changes is that the territory of MFAs within government may be shrinking. In a response, MFAs have begun to use social media in order to develop a national constituency, one that is aware of the MFAs activity abroad, that understands how the MFA promotes national causes and that even aids the MFA in achieving its goals. This transition may have also brought about a conceptual shift among MFA that now see themselves as service providers for their national constituency.

For more on how MFAs target, engage and develop a national constituency, take a look at my most recent research available here.

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