Last month I had the pleasure of reviewing Anne Marie Slaughter’s recent book ‘The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World’. Slaughter’s book encourages academics and policymakers to view the world through two metaphors- that of the chessboard and that of the web. The chessboard metaphor has long since inspired diplomats to view diplomacy as consisting of numerous players all attempting to strategically achieve their foreign policy goals. The web metaphor encourages diplomats to view the world as consisting of a vast infrastructure of global networks that connect individuals, groups and nations. Slaughter argues in her book that diplomats hold not favour one metaphor over the other put employ both in order to achieve their policy goals.
Slaughter has for some time advocated that diplomats and foreign policy makers should strive to become nodes in trans-national networks that stimulate innovative solutions to global challenges. By extension, Slaughter has also argued that a nation’s strength now stems from its “connectedness” and from the quality of networks it belongs to. Notably, Slaughter maintains that diplomacy is networked at all levels. Ambassadors seek to leverage networks of local Diasporas so as to strengthen bi-lateral ties and commerce; Embassies become active members of advocacy networks while cities form networks of municipalities working toward similar goals (e.g., carbon reduction).
Importantly, networks are not a novel phenomenon in diplomacy. As has been argued elsewhere, the Vatican Church operated as a global network of Papal Legates as did Dutch merchants. The Telegraph ushered an area of accelerated networked diplomacy given that a foreign ministry could gather and disseminate information in real-time and across vast distances. Yet the rapid adoption of ICTs by diplomats has made the network structure all the more dominant in diplomacy. This is due to the fact that ICTs enable the formation of trans-national networks at low costs and increase the networking abilities of diplomats and their institutions.
The Logic of Networks
An important component of networked diplomacy is understanding the logic of networks. For instance, Jamie Metzl has stated that networks reward information sharing. Thus, the more a node contributes to the network, the more central it will become. Firestone and Dong have argued that central nodes tend to become more central over time. As such, small nodes may find it difficult to become more central. One way of overcoming this challenge is establishing links to many other nodes. As is the case with Twitter, the more a user follows his peers, the more peers are likely to follow that user in return.
Recently, foreign ministries have begun to employ the logic of networks in their digital diplomacy efforts. The Israeli foreign ministry, for instance, employs large scale network analyses in order to stem the tide of anti-Semitic content online. To do so, the ministry identifies Network Gatekeepers. These Gatekeepers are not the most central nodes in a network nor are they the most connected ones. Rather, these Gatekeepers are nodes that connect different networks together.
In other words, Network Gatekeepers are individuals that sit at the intersection between several networks. It is through these individuals that content passes from one network to another. For instance, in the illustration below, nodes 5 is a Network Gatekeepers.
Illustration 1: A Network Gatekeeper
Once Network Gatekeepers have been identified, one may attempt to communicate with them and encourage them to stop the flow of information from one network to another. That is precisely what the Israeli foreign ministry is doing in order to stop the spread of anti-Semitic content. The ministry first identifies Gatekeepers, then contacts these Gatekeepers and finally makes them aware of the fact that they sit an important junction of hate speech. The ministry then attempt to cultivate a relationships with these Gatekeeper so that they may be willing to refrain from sharing hate content online. By so doing, the ministry can effectively attempt to quarantine hate networks online and prevent their malicious content from reaching other users. Once these networks have been quarantined, a foreign ministry may even attempt to interact with the hate network as a whole with the goals of fostering understating and relationship building.
Illustration 2: How to Quarantine a Hate Network
It is easy to imagine how the Israeli model can be applied to a range of digital activities currently undertaken by foreign ministries including CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), combating radicalization and stopping the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
Network Gatekeepers, however, may also be prove useful in facilitating the transfer of content and information from one network to another. For instance, a Diaspora member may be conceptualized as a Network Gatekeeper that can help a local Embassy reach out to, and engage with, the local population. Similarly, foreign ministries may create relationships with Gatekeepers so as to reach new audiences as part of their public diplomacy and nation branding initiatives. In such cases, diplomats’ goal is no longer to quarantine networks but to connect them. To this end, Network Gatekeepers may be asked to enthusiastically share foreign ministry content.
Network Gatekeepers may also play an important role in attempts overcoming the limitations of traditional diplomacy. For instance, Israeli diplomats may attempt to leverage Network Gatekeepers so as to disseminate information in countries that have yet to recognize Israel. By so doing, Israeli diplomats may be able to converse with the citizens of Saudi Arabia or Dubai. Similarly, the US State Department may attempt to identity Network Gatekeepers who can grant the Department access to Iranian networks.
Illustration 3: Connecting Networks via Network Gatekeepers
The New Logic of Diplomacy
The network metaphor is not a new one in diplomacy. Nor is the network structure. Yet ICTs have influenced the extent to which the network structure can be leveraged to achieve foreign policy goals. Doing so requires that diplomats and foreign ministries grasp the logic of networks. One example of this logic is the interaction with Network Gatekeepers. Yet leveraging the network structure also requires that foreign ministries develop network skills, capabilities and strategies. This is but one more facet of the professionalization of digital diplomacy.