The Evolution of WhatsApp as a Diplomatic Tool

In December of 2014, I conducted a series of interviews with Geneva based Ambassadors hoping to understand how smartphones had influenced the conduct of diplomacy. Through these interviews I learned that  Ambassadors were increasingly using the messaging application WhatsApp to communicate with their peers. Such communication influenced diplomacy in three ways. First, the Ambassadors stated that they were using WhatsApp groups to coordinate initiatives at UN forums. By creating a dedicated WhatsApp group, several Ambassadors could update one another on their respective progress, suggest areas of collaboration, identify possible challenges and even collectively engage in coalition building ahead of votes at the Human Rights Council. One Ambassador even mentioned that his WhatsApp group included the President of the Human Rights Council who was asked via WhatsApp to stall or delay a vote on a resolution as a majority had yet to prevail.  WhatsApp was thus a tool for greater collaboration between Ambassadors and for achieving offline diplomatic goals.

Second, Ambassadors stated that WhatsApp had dramatically increased the speed of diplomatic communication. Using the messaging application, Ambassadors would update their headquarters during UN votes and receive instructions how to vote themselves. In some instances, Ambassadors were told to change their vote at the last minute given a shift in policy or a realization that a majority was about to prevail either for or against a motion. The Ambassadors also told me that they would often receive instructions while sitting in the UN deliberating room awaiting their turn to address various forums. Such instructions included new policy directives, changes to Ambassadors’ statements and, at times, a complete reveals of a country’s stated policy. Other times Ambassadors would message their headquarters with statements made by other delegates enabling headquarters to formulate a response which would then be messaged back to the Ambassador. In this manner, WhatsApp had further increased the speed of diplomacy.

Lastly, interviewees stated that WhatsApp had increased collaborations between Ambassadors and contributed to the formation of more intimate working relations among their peers. As one Ambassador stated

“There is something very time consuming in a phone conversation between two Ambassadors. Even if you are close colleagues there are certain rules of engagement for such conversations. For instance, each side has to inquire as to the other’s health, activity and family. It takes about ten minutes until you can bring up the issue at hand. Then the conversation also ends with another ten minutes of small talk. Text messages, on the other hand, are far more direct. There is no need for niceties in texts and so it is a more efficient means of communication”

Another Ambassador said that his peers were more accessible on WhatsApp, then on land phones, as they would always carry their smartphone with them and could text from within meetings. Yet another Ambassador stated that WhatsApp also increased intimacy among Ambassadors as text messages often included emoji, shortcuts and even jokes such as “stuck in another dreadful briefing get back to you soon”. Other Ambassadors would often include personal information that would then serve as the basis for future conversations such as “son just landed for wedding. Can’t talk”.

Since 2014, WhatsApp has become an even more integral part of diplomacy. This is most evident in two areas: consular and multi-lateral diplomacy.

WhatsApp in Consular Diplomacy

During consular crises (e.g., terror attacks, natural disasters, attempted coups) Embassies are required to continuously gather and validate information from multiple sources, communicate with their citizens, coordinate the provision of aid and assistance to citizens, coordinate responses across several governmental agencies, receive instructions from headquarters and appraise headquarters of events unfolding on the ground. These activities necessitate an Embassy wide response that involves numerous departments and individuals.

As Corneliu Bjola has recently written, WhatsApp can prove a useful tool during consular crises. Embassies can use the messaging application to launch a crisis management cell that includes the Ambassador and heads of relevant departments. This cell consists of a WhatsApp group in which information can easily be shared, evaluated and acted upon in near real time. Moreover, Embassy wide responses can more easily be coordinated as all relevant department heads communicate with, and update one another. This cell, or WhatsApp group, could also include a diplomat from headquarters who could share the latest information and insight gained at the MFA level with the diplomats on the ground. In a recent workshop for consuls in Japan I learned that some Embassies have already integrated messaging apps into their emergency response guidelines. WhatsApp is especially attractive to diplomats given its end-to-end encryption.

Importantly, messaging apps can also aid Embassies in mobilizing Diasporas during crises. Following the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, the Russian Embassy used messaging applications to contact Diaspora leaders so that these would host Russian tourists stranded in Paris. Alternately, diplomats can ask Diaspora members to share Embassy social media content so as to increase the Embassy’s online reach and ability to contact citizens in need of aid.

The utilization of WhatsApp in consular aid does, however, necessitate that messaging apps be integrated into Embassy crises simulations and into MFA crises guidelines. Indeed it would be hard for an Embassy to effectively use WhatsApp without first simulating its applicability. This is because crises are, by nature, rapidly evolving situations in which stress and lack of information prevent the efficient employment of new technologies. Similarly, WhatsApp groups with Diaspora leaders should also be created, and tested in advance.

WhatsApp at Multi-Lateral Forums

On a recent trip to New York I was able to interview two interns at the UN Headquarters. I was also fortunate enough to interview an intern at a UN agency in Rome. All three interns stated that WhatsApp was an incredibly important tool in multi-lateral diplomacy. Specifically, WhatsApp groups were an important factor in one’s ability to socialize with his peers and to keep abreast of developments throughout the organization.

As one intern told me

“It’s not how many WhatsApp groups you belong to, but which. If you are not in the right group, you might as well not exist. You won’t move in the right crowd, attend the right receptions or interact with the right people. This means that you won’t be able to develop contacts in other departments, ask for favours or be able to push your own work up the ladder”.

Another intern told me that WhatsApp was a tool for accessing the latest information and staying “in the know”. An intern’s worth, I was told, is often measured by his ability to gather information on upcoming changes or reforms, the latest decisions made by department heads or gossip. WhatsApp groups can offer access to all such forms of information.

Lastly, one intern told me that managing a WhatsApp group meant that an individual had attained a high status among his peers  This suggests that WhatsApp may have become a new and exclusive diplomatic club through which diplomatic actors manage knowledge production, knowledge circulation and prestige building. It would be fascinating to learn if WhatsApp clubs are now also common among higher ranking diplomats whether these are stationed at multi-lateral organization or a given capital.


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