Over the past year, a growing number of scholars, diplomats and journalists have reflected on the growing importance of algorithms to the conduct of diplomacy. Some MFAs now employ algorithms to analyze online discourse in foreign countries in an attempt to anticipate civil unrest. Likewise, algorithms are used to identify relevant audiences for public diplomacy activities and to tailor social media content to the unique characteristics of these audiences. Some MFAs, such as the Israeli ministry, have even developed their own algorithms that may be used to detect, and combat, narratives spread online by terrorist groups.
Scholarly attention has also been paid to the use of Bots, or automated computer programs that mimic human beings online. Such Bots are currently employed by states to warp online discussions and influence public opinion. Bots may also be used to dramatically increase the reach of one’s online content. Such is the case with algorithms employed by Daesh.
Finally, algorithms have also become central to the delivery of consular aid. MFAs looking to contact citizens affected by a natural disaster or terrorist attack must identify trending hashtags on social media (e.g., #NepalQuake) so as to increase the virility of their content. Failure to do so may prevent the MFA from reaching citizens online.
However, algorithms have also had an immense impact on political discourse at the national level. In this post I evaluate how changes in political discourse may influence the practice of diplomacy.
The Age of Extremity
Some diplomats tend to view social media as a magic bullet. According to the State Department, a teen exposed to just a few Daesh tweets may soon board a plane to Aleppo. While social media is not exactly a magic bullet, it is a magic prism that filters opinions and viewpoints. This is a result of the workings of social media algorithms that are tasked with identifying a user’s preference, opinions and political ideologies and tailoring content to these preferences. The result is that social media users soon find themselves existing in a narrow and like-minded public sphere.
Take for instance a US Facebook user who is also a moderate Republican. Once this user begins to read articles praising Donald trump, and “Liking” content published by Trump supporters, he will find himself bombarded with pro-Trump content. Yet even more importantly, this moderate Republican is unlikely to be exposed to content criticizing Trump or newspaper articles focusing on Trump’s inaccuracies. Likewise, the user in question is unlikely to interact with, or view content, published by Clinton supporters.
And so our moderate Republican will soon exist in an online filter bubble or echo chamber.
Echo chambers have long since existed in other mediums and have been shown to bring about a passionate devotion to one world view and harsh opposition to another. As such, echo chambers lead to political extremity. Those existing within echo chambers soon lose their tolerance for other viewpoints and may even come to oppose them violently. Echo chambers may therefore be understood as a threat to political dialogue, political compromise, political tolerance and respect for democratic processes. They are, in effect, an erosion of the public sphere or town square.
The impact of social media algorithms on political discourse has been felt in nations the world over. In the UK, the Brexit referendum was accompanied by violent and divisive online narratives. In Israel, social media has become a tool for political and religious radicalization often resulting in offline violence. In the US, political supporters of Donald Trump have turned social media into a bigot’s paradise spreading racial slurs and anti-Semitic content.
This is not the age of post-truth politics, as the Economist has argued. It is the age of political extremity.
Digital Diplomacy in the Age of Extremity
How will the rise of political extremity influence the practice of digital diplomacy?
Many MFAs now utilize social media in order to converse with foreign populations in attempt to facilitate the acceptance of their foreign policy. Such public diplomacy activities may become increasingly difficult if social media users come to prefer screaming to listening. Moreover, the use of digital diplomacy to converse with populations that oppose a nation’s policy may become all but impossible. US diplomats looking to converse online with critical audiences in the Middle East may find themselves violently opposed at every turn. Consequently, diplomats may find themselves limited to interacting with sympathetic audiences and “preaching to the choir”.
Additionally, political extremity may manifest itself in increased hostility towards digital diplomats. Verbal abuse and symbolic violence towards online diplomats is already an occurring phenomenon. Yet as social media users become more extreme, so might their engagement with diplomats. Hate speech, violent imagery and curse words may soon replace questions and comments on embassy social media profiles. The Naked Diplomat may thus become the Abused Diplomat.
Political extremity also leads to political polarization. In many countries, the political center is losing ground to the extreme left and right. Such polarization may inhibit MFAs’ ability to create trans-national networks that facilitate innovation, advocacy and policy. Networks are built on diverse groups coming together to achieve a shared goal. Yet as groups become more polarized, and radical, they may become unwilling to compromise and collaborate with others. Similarly, rivalry among networks may soon become a recurring feature further eroding the digital public sphere.
Finally, political extremity favors narratives and opinions over facts and figures. For diplomats, this may signal a transition towards post-truth diplomacy in which facts become irrelevant. The fact that Russia has soldiers stationed in Eastern Ukraine becomes marginal if social media users accept Russia’s claim that Neo-Nazis have taken over Ukraine. Thus, we should expect the resurgence of propaganda in diplomacy.
Diplomacy is all about finding the middle ground. But how can diplomats operate in a world that is losing the middle ground?
There are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this post. The first is that MFAs must realize the dangers political extremity poses to the conduct of diplomacy. The second is that MFAs and diplomats must commit resources towards educational programs that re-invigorate and re-democratize the digital public sphere. Third, MFAs need to employ new communication techniques that integrate facts and figures into narratives that are tailored to the history, values and beliefs of foreign populations. Finally, MFAs will need to train their diplomats in engaging with hostile online publics. This will require developing guidelines and best practices for naked diplomats venturing online.