2017: A Year of Digital Uncertainty

In many respects, 2017 was a year of digital uncertainty. It was a year in which digital platforms were used to weaponize uncertainty. It was a year in which the societal role of digital platforms became uncertain. It was a year in which the relationship between states and tech gaits became uncertain. And it was a year in which users of digital platforms migrated to other media in search of certainty. As digital diplomacy enters 2018, there is a need to reflect on the uncertainty of 2017 and assess how it may influence the future of digital diplomacy.

Weaponizing Uncertainty

During the 2014 Gaza War, an Israeli missile hit the beaches of Gaza. Once the smoke had cleared it became apparent that four young children, playing on the beach, were killed from the blast. The event lead to a whirlwind of headlines and condemnations of Israel’s military operation in Gaza.  When commenting on the tragic loss of life, Israeli digital diplomats did not contest the facts of the event. Rather, Israeli digital diplomacy channels lamented the loss of life while offering an explanation for the tragedy- the four children were playing in the vicinity of the Hamas’ Naval Headquarters. As such, digital diplomacy was used to contest the narrative of the event, but not its facts.

In 2017, digital diplomacy entered a new phase as digital channels were used to contest facts, rather than narratives. What emerged was a digital environment in which reality itself was contested. According to certain digital diplomacy accounts, 2017 saw the liberation of Syria from terrorists. According to other accounts, 2017 saw the worst war crimes in Syria since the beginning of its civil war. According to some digital channels, the republic of Crimea flourished during 2017. According to others it does not exist- it has no borders, no government and no legal status.

The growing use of digital diplomacy to contest reality leads to a situation in which diplomats have no agreed upon reality through which events are understood or framed. Consequently, diplomats may be unable to contend with pressing issues or negotiate their way out of crises. For how can the UK and Russia discuss the Syrian crisis if they cannot even agree that a crisis exists?

2017 was also a year in which states weaponized uncertainty by spreading rumours, misinformation, lies and conspiracy theories. The effect of weaponized uncertainty on societies is still somewhat unknown. Some argue that social media conspiracy theories have pulled nations apart, led to political fragmentation and have further eroded the town square. Others have argued that digital uncertainty has a limited impact on societies as individuals gather their information from a plethora of sources ranging from social media to friends, co-workers and radio.

What is certain is that spreading uncertainty through digital platforms has become a foreign policy tool used by some nations to impact the affairs of others. This in itself is a disturbing trend as it may lead nations to safeguard their digital environments by erecting their own forms of fire-walls and creating national intra-nets. In other words, weaponized uncertainty means that the future of the internet itself became uncertain in 2017.

The Uncertain Role of Social Media

2017 also a shift in the public perception of social media. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook morphed from the harbingers of the Arab Spring to societal threats. Words such as echo chambers and algorithms came to the foray and digital platforms were perceived as breeding violence, discord and a polarized online public.

On the one hand, one cannot deny that social media are now a powerful societal actor. One might even argue that Twitter and Facebook constitute the fifth estate. On the other hand, every technological medium has been met with excitement, fear and talk of societal dangers. In the 1950’s, television was viewed as having a morally corrupting influence on viewers. In the 1960’s, comic books were regarded as a threat to public safety. The social media scare that took shape in 2017 may thus be identical to the comic book scare and the television scare. However, the more social media is viewed as having a negative influence on society, the more diplomats may fear using it. This could lead to a slow exodus of foreign ministries and governments from social media.

The Uncertain Relationship between Governments and Tech Giants

The changing view of social media in 2017 led many to call for reforms in the relationship between states and tech giants. Some argued that social media companies must be held accountable for all content posted on their platforms- including hate speech, racist content and calls for violence. Others urged governments to demand greater transparency from tech giants, including algorithmic transparency by which echo chambers may be more easily identified and burst. Still others called on governments to ensure the safety of users’ online data and to determine what data can be gathered by tech giants.

There currently exists great uncertainty with respect to the future relationship between governments and tech giants. Some nations have already moved to check the power of digital platforms. Others are still formulating a policy response. The challenge that might arise is that each country, or political block, will seek its own special relationship with the tech industry. This will further fragment the internet and social media platforms. A more collaborative response may see diplomats using multi-lateral organizations to formulate a shared vision for the relationship between states and tech giants.

Fighting Uncertainty

2017 also saw an attempt to limit the role of digital uncertainty in one’s life. According to recent data, millennials throughout the world are flocking to traditional media sites and even purchasing subscriptions to traditional news sources. The past year has seen the largest increase in newspaper subscriptions in the US in decades. This trend suggests that the growing digital uncertainty of 2017 has motivated people to manage their access to information.

This trend will also have an impact on digital diplomacy. To be effective online, diplomats and foreign ministries will need to be perceived as credible sources. This will mean, among other, a need to increase the authenticity and accuracy of information posted online by digital diplomats. While this might necessitate an increase in digital resources, it may also provide diplomats with a unique opportunity- attracting individuals seeking to better understand their world and events shaping it.

Towards 2018

The future of digital diplomacy in 2018 remains uncertain. On the one hand, the negative societal view of social media, the weaponizing of uncertainty and millennials’ loss of faith in social media may lead to a slow, yet steady, exodus of foreign ministries from digital platforms. Additionally, states’ attempts to limit foreign meddling may see the emergence of a fragmented online sphere consisting of many intra-nets as opposed to one internet.

On the other hand, diplomatic actors may choose to collaborate so as to create new relationships with tech giants, to place checks and balances on their power and to find new ways of working with digital platforms toward combating hate speech, violence and echo chambers.