In November of 2016, Oxford dictionary proclaimed “Post Truth” the 2016 word of the year. The choice was obviously a reflection of two important political campaigns- Brexit and the US Presidential elections. In both campaigns truth became subservient to political gains while the distinction between fact and fiction eroded. Exaggerations, fabrications and lies became an indispensable part of the politicians’ while fake news spread nationally and globally through social media sites warping the public discourse. The result was an erosion of democracy itself- the demos in both the UK and the US casted its vote under false assumptions.
However, Oxford dictionary’s choice was, to a certain extent, a publicity stunt in its own right. As media outlets became obsessed with issue of fake news, the world’s foremost dictionary saw an opportunity to bask in the limelight of publicity. After all, the relationship between truth and politics has always been a strenuous one, especially in the US.
During the 1930’s Americans did not know that their President was confined to a wheelchair. In the 1960’s, the American public was deceived with regard to US involvement in Vietnam and the expected casualty rates a land war in Indo-China. During the 1980’s, President Reagan deliberately misled the American public yet again insisting that the USSR could out-match the US in any conventional and nuclear engagement.
And if one thinks that the current pandemic of fake news is a novel phenomenon, he need only familiarize himself with the journalistic practices of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hurst who during the 19th century not only fabricated news but also fabricated wars.
It is therefore possible that we are in need of a new word of the year. In the field of digital diplomacy, the word post-reality seems most appropriate.
Digital Diplomacy and the Contestation of Reality
The origins of digital diplomacy were both practical and lofty. Rooted in the attempt to counter extremist narratives on the internet, digital diplomacy emerged as a tool for communicating with distant publics in order to convey truth. The notion among many MFAs was that the internet and social media sites could be used to counter propaganda and address misconceptions. The US State department turned to the internet in order to better explain its policies to Muslim netizens. The Polish MFA sought to replace the term “Polish death camps” with “Nazi death camps on occupied Polish territory” while Finland attempted to challenge its image as a cold and dormant land.
Additionally, social media was seen as a medium for contesting opinions and narratives. For instance, during the 2014 War in Gaza the Israeli MFA never denied that Palestinian citizens were killed during aerial bombardment of the Gaza strip. Rather, it sought to explain the high death tool through the frame of “the most moral army in the world”. This frame argued that Israel goes to extreme lengths to safeguard the lives of civilians and that many Palestinian civilians were killed while serving as human shields for the Hamas group. When three Palestinian children were killed by the Israeli army on the beaches of Gaza, Israel again did not dispute their deaths but rather the circumstances.
Similarly, the Obama administration did not deny that the Iranian nuclear accord included concessions. Rather, it sought to use social media in order to frame the accord as the “best possible solution”. Through a dedicated twitter channel (@theIranDeal) the Obama White House confronted the accord’s critics by arguing that it had blocked all Iranian avenues to a nuclear bomb while preserving the military advantage of US allies in the region. In a series of online Questions and Answers, American diplomats and negotiators addressed the concerns of US and global twitter users ranging from Iran’s ability to hide nuclear facilities to the use of unfrozen assets to finance terror groups in the Middle East.
What emerged was an era in which digital diplomacy was used to contest narratives, not reality.
That changed with the 2014 Crimean Crisis. During the first three months of the crisis, the US State Department and Russian MFA did not present different narratives but different realities. The Russian MFA denied time and again that Russian troops had entered Eastern Ukraine. When Russian troops were detained by Ukrainian soldiers, the MFA argued that the Russian troops had mistakenly crossed the border while on vacation. When the US released satellite imagery of Russian troop movement in Crimea, the Russian embassy to the UAE replied with the tweet below.
Thus, social media morphed into a tool for contesting reality, not narratives.
Digital Diplomacy in 2016
What began in 2014 came of age in 2016 as the employment of digital diplomacy to contest reality became increasingly pervasive. Such was the case with the online battle over Syria. Social media users following the Russian MFA, or Russian embassies, were presented with a reality in which Aleppo was liberated from extremist terrorists. This important victory not only brought stability to Syria, but even hope. For the first time in years, citizens in Aleppo celebrated Christmas as depicted in the tweet below.
Yet if social media users were to follow the US State Department, or the British FCO, they would be presented with an entirely different reality. One in which Aleppo serves as a symbol of the brutality unleashed on Syrian civilians by Syrian and Russian military forces. Aleppo was thus not liberated, but pounded and reduced to rubble. It was not the sight of hope, but of despair as it saw the worst War Crimes in this century.
The contestation of reality was not limited to Russia and the US. In the days and weeks following the Turkish coup, many MFAs depicted a reality in which Turkish President Erdogan declared war on what remained of Turkish democracy. Labelled by the Economist as “Erdogan’s Revenge”, this reality was a dystopian one in which school teachers, judges and civil servants were arrested en masse while secret jails were erected to house academics. Conversely, Turkish digital diplomacy channels presented a mirror reality in which Turkey had euphorically rid itself of the tradition of military coups and was reborn by a new sense of togetherness. Such was the case with the tweet below depicting the national parliament coming together in the wake of the coup attempt.
Contestations of reality were also evident following the recent UN Security Council Resolution denouncing Israeli settlements. Israeli diplomats, and leaders, used social media to argue that the US administration was behind the resolution. While US officials adamantly denied these allegations, Israel claimed it has evidence of US involvement in the UN resolution as was made clear in the Tweet below.
Presently we are in the midst of another contestation of reality surrounding allegations of Russian attempts to undermine Western democracies through fake news and online propaganda.
Where to From Here?
The growing use of social media to contest reality, rather than narratives, may hold several implications for the future of diplomacy. From a practical perspective, such contestations may further impede the work of multi-lateral forums. How can the Security Council debate the Syrian Crisis if it cannot even agree if this is still a crisis? Similarly, how can NATO work opposite the Turkish government while it is unclear if this government has renounced democracy and, subsequently, NATO’s core value?
From a societal perspective, the diplomatic contestation of reality contributes to a sense of insecurity now felt throughout the world. No one knows what Brexit means or what a Trump presidency will look like. No one knows just what fake new is and how it spreads and no one knows what is happening in Aleppo. A world governed by insecurity and mired by fiction is a world on the brink of confrontation and a world in which diplomacy will find it difficult to play a constructive role.
From an institutional perspective, the contestation of reality might suggest that the lofty ambitions of digital diplomacy are a thing of the past. No longer will social media be seen as tool for dialogue but, rather, as a tool for propaganda. The parameters for success will focus on spreading lies rather than truth while MFA resources will be allocated to cyber security as opposed to cyber engagement. This worrying trend might culminate with the demise of public diplomacy activities in general and the fragmentation of the global internet to national intra-nets.
Thus, the casualty of post-reality is not just digital diplomacy but diplomacy in its entirety.