Last week I published the first in a series of posts dealing with issues that arose in the recent Digital Diplomacy Conference held in Tel Aviv. While last week I blogged about digital diplomacy that is targeted at domestic populations, this week’s post will deal with another issue that arouse at the conference- diplomacy in the age of algorithms.
The Age of Algorithms
When first introduced to websites, algorithms were seen as the ultimate tool for personalization of online content. Algorithms were meant to make our online life easier so as to save us time in the offline world. Instead of wandering in a book store searching for a new bedtime companion, Amazon would recommend a book based on our personal preferences and reading history. Thus algorithms became the quintessential Savile Row tailor.
Nowadays the majority of websites we visit include these digital tailors be it social networks such as Facebook, search engines such as Google or Bing and news sites such as Yahoo news and the New York Times.
Yet a few years into the algorithmic revolution, it is evident that algorithms also have many disadvantages. The most important one is their filtering nature. In an endeavor to offer us an increasingly tailored online experience, algorithms have turned into filters that limit our exposure to the world. Whatever the algorithm deems as not relevant to us-is not shown to us. And this filtering far extends the products we are shown when purchasing online cloths. As news sites and social networks also filter information, they mold our world view and shape our understating of world events.
We are thus living in the age of algorithmic bubbles.
Diplomacy & Algorithms
For diplomats and MFAs (ministries of foreign affairs) practicing digital diplomacy, algorithms are becoming increasingly important. For instance, MFAs using social media to narrate their foreign policy and manage their national Selfie may be only able to reach a fraction of their target population due to algorithmic bubbles. People who have not “Liked” an MFA’s profile on Facebook, or who have not expressed an interest in foreign policy, may never be exposed to an MFA’s social media content.
Moreover, algorithmic filers can shape how people view foreign nations or learn about their policies. As the video below demonstrates, when returning search results Google takes into account a wide array of factors including one’s location. Thus, an American and Israeli searching for news about Egypt will be exposed to completely different content. While one may learn about the Arab spring and Egyptian democratic aspirations, another may learn about hotels in the Sinai desert. This means that MFAs attempting to explain their national policies must first learn what information has been filtered by the algorithm.
The migration of MFAs to social media has also prompted many scholars and diplomats to advocate the use of SNS for online dialogue between ministries and connected publics. At times MFAs do in fact practice such dialogue in the form of online Q&A sessions. Yet invitations to such occasions, and exposure to this dialogue, may again be limited by algorithms. Thus, MFAs seeking to explain their policies, or create relationships with foreign populations, may essentially be blocked by algorithms.
Most importantly, algorithms may further cement the walls of echo chambers ensuring that MFAs only talk to specific audiences with specific interests rather than reaching diverse online publics. Such limited interaction may prevent MFAs from realizing the dialogic potential of social media. Likewise, algorithms may prevent MFAs from listening to diverse audiences on social media and better understating their needs, views and opinions. How can the State Department best understand people’s view on the use of drones if it exists within a bubble?
Digital Diplomacy- Bursting the Algorithmic Bubbles
Given the profound impact algorithms have on our world view and our exposure to information, it may become important for MFAs to better understand algorithms, and burst algorithmic bubbles. This is true for both MFAs and embassies.
In the past, ministries have tried to burst bubbles by asking their twitter followers to re-tweet MFA content such as during the Nepal earthquake (see below). Other MFAs ask followers to share content on Facebook during times of military conflict. However, such techniques may have limited success and may only be used during times of acute crisis. What MFAs truly require is the ability to burst bubbles on a daily basis.
Algorithmic bubbles also impact embassies. For instance, embassies need to know what stories about their country are shared locally on news sites. What does Google News tell American users about Sweden? What do Americans learn about Sweden when visiting Yahoo news- its open policy towards migrants or the future of its royal family? Moreover, embassies need to reach diverse online audiences in order to practice public diplomacy and foster the creation of goal-oriented networks of influence and advocacy. Such audiences may include students, policy makers and local civil society groups each of which exists in their own personalized bubble.
It’s possible that what diplomats and embassies really need to do is “de-personalize” the internet and social media.
In summary, in order to increase the efficacy of their online activity MFAs and embassies now require a new digital skill, bubble bursting, and a more profound understating of how algorithms operate. This may necessitate the recruiting of new digital diplomats, such as computer scientists, the use of new software and additional training for social media managers.
The need to burst algorithmic bubbles also suggests that the digital diplomacy skillset will continue to expand in coming years as MFAs deepen their involvement in the digital world. Similarly, digital diplomacy research must also expand and deepen its understating of the practice of digital diplomacy in the age of algorithms.
Next week I will deal with another form of bubble bursting- MFA public engagement on social media. Until then, find me on twitter.