From Magic Bullets to Bots: How Diplomats Conceptualize Social Media

Since the late 1930’s communications scholars have investigated the influence of masa media on society. At times, scholars assumed that mass media such as radio and film had an immense impact on individuals and could manipulate their thoughts, beliefs and actions. At other times scholars assumed that the effects of mass media were cumulative and would take years to manifest. Thus media theories evolved throughout the 20th Century with communications scholars adapting to technological innovations, discoveries in the fields of psychology and sociology and even political and social upheavals.

What is quite remarkable is that diplomats’ view of social media seems to follow that of mass media theories throughout the 20th Century. This post explores these similarities.

1940’s-1950’s: The Magic Bullet Years

During the 1940s and 50s, communications scholars assumed that the media were all powerful. This was the age of the masses and, accordingly, mass media were seen as tools that could influence society at large. Scholars who fled Germany prior to World War 2 advanced the theory of the magic bullet according to which media messages had an immediate impact on how people viewed the world and their subsequent behaviors. Thus, media messages were viewed as hyperemic needles that transmitted information directly into the minds of passive viewers. These theories were, in part, a reaction to Nazi propaganda and the assumption that such propaganda led the German people to blindly obey Nazi leaders.

In the early days of digital diplomacy, diplomats viewed social media in a similar manner. Indeed the US State Department first migrated online given the perceived need to disrupt Al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts online. The chosen method was to counter Al Qaeda’s online narrative of Jihad against Western imperialism. Words and online messages were therefore viewed as magic bullets that could alter the perception of America among online Muslim publics. A similar rationale guided the Digital Outreach Team’s attempts to engage online with Muslim publics following Barack Obama’s Cairo Address.

Yet it was the Arab Spring that solidified the view of social media as a magic bullet. News reports depicted social media as a powerful tool that enabled Arab publics to criticize regional dictators, disseminate calls to action against these dictators and organize mass protests with the goal of regime change. Facebook was depicted as a hypodermic needle that easily countered the fear of Arab dictators and their secret police. The speed, and intensity, of the Arab Spring facilitated the view of social media as hyperemic needles that diplomats must adopt. Through it, they could reach critical and sceptic audiences, alter their perceptions and create a receptive environment for their foreign policies.

By 2013, the view of social media as an all-powerful medium led to the mass migration of foreign ministries, embassies and diplomats online.

1950’s: Rise of the Gatekeepers

In the 1950’s communications studies underwent a methodological revolution. Communications scholars adopted scientific tools from the disciplines of psychology and sociology in order to better understand mass media’s influence on society. Early studies showed that mass media did not always influence individuals’ opinions and behaviors. In fact, individuals were often found to be resistant to media messages. However, studies also showed that individuals could be influenced by Gatekeepers who receive media messages and transmit them to others. For instance, an individual may hear about a new film from a close friend and adopts his friend’s interpretation of the film. Thus, media outlets were seen as having a vicarious influence on the masses. But the Gatekeeper theory also had an impact on how communications scholars viewed journalists and new outlets. If journalists were seen as credible, then individuals might accept journalists’ interpretation of issues and events thus transforming news outlets into powerful societal Gatekeepers.  Importantly, the Gatekeeper theory suggested that mass media had a strong, yet vicarious influence on society.

The notion of Gatekeepers played an important role in diplomats’ conceptualization of social media. By 2013, foreign ministries and diplomats regraded social media as a tool for bypassing traditional Gatekeepers. Embassies could directly interact with foreign populations without going through Gatekeepers such as journalists, opinion makers and even other governments. This was the rationale behind the launching of virtual embassies between 2010 and 2015. For instance, the US State Department launched Virtual Embassy Iran as a means of enabling American diplomats to converse with Iranian citizens thus bypassing the Iranian government. Similarly, Israel used Facebook accounts to directly interact with Arab social media users thus bypassing critical news outlets.

As technology developed, and times passed, so did the view of Gatekeepers. By 2014 foreign ministries and embassies learned that direct communication with online publics was time consuming and often led to backlash and negative press coverage. Such was the case when the Israeli Ambassador to the US was heavily criticized by the media for holding a Twitter Q&A session during the 2014 Gaza War. Thus, foreign ministries altered their strategies and attempted to identify connected Gatekeepers who could help diplomats spread messages on social media. Using network analysis, and social media analytics, diplomats could identify online influencers ranging from Instagram trendsetters to popular citizen journalists. These were then recruited by diplomats to increase the reach of their social media content.

Yet within a year, the conceptualization of social media changed again.

1960’s: Agenda Setting

During the 1960’s communications scholars were forced to re-conceptualize mass media’s effects on society. This was a reaction to television’s immense popularity as it surpassed both the radio and newspapers. Television was also becoming a national pastime as families would assemble together in the living room to view their favorite shows. In other words, television was part of the family. Even more important was television’s role in shaping the debate about the Vietnam War, the first war to be broadcast in living rooms. These two processes led communications scholars to focus on mass media’s agenda setting role. According to this theory, mass media controlled the public agenda as issues that came under media attention soon rose to prominence in national debates. Moreover, the range of views expressed in the media were seen as determining the boundaries of public debates. Thus, mass media had a powerful agenda setting influence on society.

During the Crimean Crisis, diplomats and foreign ministries thought that social media could be used as an agenda setting tool. By formulating narratives, and disseminating these narratives online, diplomats hoped to shape the agenda of online discussions and rally support for their policies. For instance, the Russian foreign ministry used Twitter to document instances in which Ukrainian activists desecrated monuments to Russian victories in World War 2. Subsequently, the Russian ministry framed Ukrainian activists as Neo-Nazis and the US as a Nazi sympathizer. Conversely, the US offered a narrative according to which Russia was a consistent violator of international law and had mounted a full scale invasion of Crimea.

The narratives formulated and disseminated during the Crimean Crisis constituted an attempt to control and shape the agenda of online discussions. This was also the case in 2015 when the Israeli foreign ministry narrated the Iran accord as a modern day appeasement policy while the P5+1 narrated it as a triumph of diplomacy over force.

Yet once again, technological advancements led to a shift in how diplomats viewed social media’s role in diplomacy.

1970’s: Cultivation Theory

By the 1970’s and 80’s communications scholars began to take interest in the cumulative effect of mass media. This was due to the fact that the generation of young adult in the 1970’s was the first to grow up on television and to be exposed to its message over a long duration of time. Cultivation theory argued that mass media had a cumulative impact on individuals. For instance, television viewers are nowadays continuously exposed to the depiction of Black criminals. Over time, these depictions take root and shape one’s world view. Thus, mass media have a powerful impact but only in cases of repeated and long term exposure.

The notion of “social media cultivation” took root in diplomats’ world view given growing interest in algorithms. Essentially, algorithms came to be regarded by diplomats as filter bubbles that repeatedly expose social media users to content that adheres with their world view. Crucially, algorithms also prevent social media users from exposure to content that negates their world view or political affiliation. Thus, algorithms create echo chambers that, over time, cultivate and entrench an individual’s beliefs and political views .

The assumption that social media has a cumulative effect is evident in how diplomats view online radicalization. Indeed diplomats now contend that the road to extremism originates in social media as individuals enter eco chambers of hate and radicalization. As the social media content becomes more more violent so does one’s willingness to act violently. This view led numerous diplomats and foreign ministries to engage online with publics that might be susceptible to Daseh messaging and to shut down Daesh related social media accounts.

The final turn in how diplomats view social media took place in 2016 following the use of Bots in diplomacy.

The 1980’s: Encoding/Decoding

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, communications scholars came under the influence of cultural critics such as Roland Barths and adopted a world view which empowered the receiver of mass media content. Following Barths’ the “death of the author”, communications scholars such as Stuart Hall proposed that the producers of mass media code certain messages into their products. However, individuals can decode these messages in a number of ways. Thus, there is no assurance the one’s code will be accurately decoded. This theory led to the assumption that mass media content is open to interpretation and as such is not all powerful.

Presently, diplomats’ view of social media seems to follow the logic of the encoding/decoding theory. First, diplomats and their institutions are increasingly interested in writing code and developing their own software. Second, they are attempting to decode software written by other governments. Here I am referring primarily to Bots, or automated software that flood social media with specific content. Notably, Bots are not used to set the agenda of online discussion but to manipulate public opinion towards a specific goal, be it raising opposition to a certain policy or increasing support of a certain candidate. According to a recent Oxford Internet Institute report numerous world governments now have Bot capabilities.

Third, diplomats now also regard social media content as open to interpretation given the online backlash they sometimes face. Fourth, foreign ministries and diplomats are learning to adapt to a hybrid media ecology in which social media is but one important mass media channel that influences peoples’ world view and actions.  After all, people have yet to fully migrate online and still work and live in the physical world. As such, traditional public diplomacy tools such as lectures, student exchanges, op-eds and even university visits are all staging a comeback in diplomacy.


Social media are now a mass media. As was the case with previous mass media, ranging from radio to television, the influence of social media on society at large is constantly being assed and conceptualized. Like its predecessors, social media is at times seen as a magic bullet and at other times as a cumulative influencer. What is remarkable is the resemblance between diplomats’ conceptualization of social media, and communications scholars’ conceptualization of mass media during the 20th Century.

However, this resemblance may stem from the fact that like film and television, society at large is constantly striving to make sense of social media which are constantly changing due to technological innovations. Given that diplomats are social beings, and that diplomacy is a social institution, societal views and debates influence how diplomats’ view social media. This assumption suggests that the study of digital diplomacy must also focus on the study of the digital society.



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