It’s Complicated- The Relationship between Diplomats and Tech Giants

Between the 5th and 7th of December the Israeli Foreign Ministry hosted Israel’s Second Digital Diplomacy Conference. Attended by diplomats and academics from more than thirty countries, the conference explored the practice of diplomacy in the age of algorithms. As such, conference panels dealt with the issues of online propaganda and disinformation campaigns, countering the influence of chat bots and trolls, using algorithms to identify communities of hate and developing MFA algorithmic capabilities.

The themes of Israel’s Second Digital Diplomacy Conference seem far removed from those of Israel’s first conference held in 2017 during which participants discussed MFAs’ use of digital tools to deliver consular aid, approaches to measuring digital diplomacy efficacy and the development of digital literacy skills among diplomats.

The thematic difference between Israel’s First and Second conferences may be indicative of two processes that have occurred over the past 18 months. The first is the rapid advance in the technological and digital capabilities of some foreign ministries. For instance, the Israeli MFA and British FCO now create their own algorithms and write computer code while other MFAs have integrated big data analysis into their diplomatic toolkit.

The second process is the growing fear of digital aggression at the state and societal level. At the state level, actors have used digital tools to interfere in the affairs of other states be it in the form of manipulating public discourse during an election or eroding trust in national institutions. Other actors, such as Daesh, have used digital platforms to recruit terrorists and call for violent attacks on states. At the societal level, digital tools have led to the erosion of the town square and the increased political polarization of the general public. This polarization often leads to offline manifestations of violence.

The two processes are, of course, intertwined. As digital tools are used to propagate violence and interfere in the affairs of states, MFAs increasingly seek to enhance their digital capabilities by developing algorithms that can identify echo chambers or troll farms. The growing use of digital tools for malicious purposes has also seen a growing desire by MFAs to collaborate with tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. However, MFAs often have strenuous relations with such giants.

It’s Complicated

For diplomats and MFAs, tech giants and their platforms constitute a black box. On the one hand, these platforms have at their disposal swarms of information and tools that could be used to identify echo chambers, hate communities and terrorist content. Moreover, tech giants can more easily identify chat bots, track their content and map their real location. On the other hand, tech giants are rarely willing to divulge what kind of information they amass or to elaborate how such information could be used to accurately identify and combat online hate.

Thus, tech giants are black boxes that store valuable information, and withhold valuable information.

In addition, tech giants are rarely willing to engage in discussions with diplomats and MFAs. To date, only few tech giants have participated in digital diplomacy conferences and roundtables whether these have been organized by academic institutions or diplomatic missions. This lack of engagement is detrimental as it prevents MFAs and diplomats from developing joint approaches to tackling online hate, at the state and societal level. As was evident in Israel’s Conference, one cannot create a global network of diplomats fighting online hate without collaborating with tech giants that manage the platforms on which hate is propagated.

But the relationship between diplomats and tech giants is not one sided. Rather it is complicated, to use a Facebook euphemism, given that much of public and crisis diplomacy is now practiced on digital platforms. Moreover, recent years have seen some collaboration between tech giants and MFAs. This usually takes the form of expedited removal protocols in which foreign ministries can report abusive content to tech giants and have their reports dealt with in a quicker and more efficient manner. Moreover, some tech giants have been willing to collaborate with civil society organizations that fight online hate and radicalization. These organizations often work in tandem with diplomats.

The current relationship between MFAs and tech giants will need to change if diplomats are to contend with digital threats at both the state and societal levels. This means that diplomats and MFAs need to practice diplomacy opposite these giants.

Managing Relations of Enmity and Friendship

Corneliu Bjola has argued that diplomacy is the management of relations of enmity and friendship. Friendship is often rewarded by carrots. Enmity is often greeted with sticks. What follows is that diplomats and MFAs need to use sticks and carrots in their relationships with tech giants.

Sticks are leavers that may be used to force another actor’s hand. When it comes to tech giants, the most awesome stick diplomats can wield is the threat of regulation. In nations throughout the world, parliaments and legislators are debating various forms of digital regulation focused primarily on tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Each debate sends a shiver down the spine of tech giants who may soon be forced to screen every Post and Tweet or be held accountable when online hate translates into offline violence. Even more horrid is the threat of advertisement regulation which will impact the financial model of all tech giants. Threat of regulation, at the national or even international level is thus the stick that could bring tech giants to the discussion table.

The carrot may be governments’ projection of a positive public image for tech giants. Indeed as opposed to 2013, in which tech giants were viewed as the harbinger of the Arab Spring, they are now viewed as a menace to society and a threat to the very foundations of democracy. A public relations boost from diplomats and MFAs could help tech giants alter their public perception given that governments can influence public agendas and media frames, at home and abroad.

Some countries have already adopted proactive approaches to practicing diplomacy opposite tech giants. Such is the case with Australia and Denmark who appointed a “digital ambassador” tasked with overseeing bi-lateral ties with the tech industry. Yet getting tech giants to join diplomats’ conversations, conferences and workshops, or open up their black boxes, may require a collaborative approach as diplomats’ strength lies in numbers. This collaborative approach was one of the stated goals of Israel’s Second Digital Diplomacy Conference.

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