Prof. Corenliu Bjola of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group recently concluded that the first stage of digital diplomacy has been a resounding success. Although MFAs are risk averse organizations who value discretion and shun from the limelight, they have successfully migrated to social media and adopted new communication practices that centre on information sharing, increased transparency and a willingness to interact with online publics. Even more importantly, diplomats have embraced new metaphors to conceptualize the practice of diplomacy, namely that of the network.
Yet the road to digital diplomacy success was a long and treacherous one. MFAs were late adopters of digital technologies and required several years to reach the proficiency level required to leverage digital tools. Organizational resistance, normative clashes and well entrenched working routines all prolonged the process of digitalization. The question that arises is how can MFAs best prepare for the next stage of digitalization? What skills should MFAs develop if they are to shorten the adoption process of digital technologies?
This blog post suggests 4 strategies for increasing MFA’s ability to adopt new technologies.
From Reactive to Proactive Digital Diplomacy
In the first stage of digital diplomacy MFAs reacted to technological innovations. Diplomats witnessed the emergence of global social media networks and their influence on international politics. This motivated them to migrate online. Some have argued that diplomats adopted online platforms to counter extremist narratives and recruitment efforts. Other have tied the migration online to the Arab Spring. Whatever the motivation, it is evident that MFAs took a reactive stance to technological innovation.
Facilitating the next stage of digitalization could be achieved by taking a proactive approach to technological innovation. A proactive approach begins with understating the future technological landscape and taking measures to adapt to this landscape in terms of working routines, organizational structures and norms.
For instance, it is estimated that by 2025 8 billion human will be connected to the internet. This suggests that an additional 5 billion people will join online conversations and online networks. These individuals will likely use internet connectivity to learn about the world around them and events shaping it. Given their desire to shape how online publics view global affairs, MFAs need to prepare now for a massive growth in audience size. This will require a substantial increase in the budget allocated to digital activities and an increase in the size of digital departments as four staffers cannot communicate effectively with 8 billion people. Moreover, MFAs must analyse which areas will be connected in the near future and develop digital capabilities in departments focusing on those areas. The connection of 5 billion people to the internet should thus inform the budget and structure of MFAs.
It has also been predicted that by 2025 virtual and augmented reality will be a constant feature of human life be it in education, healthcare or entertainment. These technologies could alter diplomatic practices related to branding, tourism, culture and even crisis management. In the near future, MFAs could create augmented environments that enable one to transport himself to a crisis area and “see” for himself the reality on the ground. As seeing is believing, MFAs may be able to win over public support for their policies.
Notably, MFAs are in a unique position to prepare for the future technological landscape. This is because various government ministries and agencies have undergone a similar process be education or health ministries. Moreover, MFAs can interact with the innovators of tomorrow be it by reaching out to local companies or using their global network of Ambassadors to engage with companies in foreign countries.
The digital world is one that is in constant flux. As such, it is often hard to determine which digital platforms will survive the test of time. It is quite possible that three years from now Facebook will still dominate the online world. But is also possible that three years from now Facebook will not exist.
What is certain is that social networking sites that offer constant connectivity and multi-media content will continue to be popular. Moreover, it is fairly certain that people will continue to use these sites to debate political issues and formulate political opinions. This suggests that MFAs should increase their investment in multi-media capabilities. For not only does multi-media drive engagement in social networks, but it also enables one to make claims to truth.
As Susan Sontag writes, images and videos have always served an evidentiary purpose. They are used as exhibits in the courtroom to unravel the truth. In the near future, truth and reality will continue to be disputed as they are today. By investing in multi-media capabilities, MFAs will be able to increase their online reach and win competitions over the truth thereby garnering support for their policies. Multi-media investments should see the creation of advanced in house capabilities to create videos, animations, 3D illustrations and, in the near future, virtual environments.
Notably, by investing in multi-media capabilities MFAs will be able to adapt to future social networks as these are likely to be based on visuals.
The question of influence is currently one that dominates debates about digital diplomacy. Various MFAs and research groups have searched for the parameters and tools necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of digital activities. The question of influence has plagued digital diplomacy as it was first conceptualized as a cost effective way of influencing foreign populations.
To measure effectiveness now and in the future, MFAs will need to incorporate data analysts into their ranks. Data analysts will be able to develop in house capabilities that far exceed the basic analytics offered by social media companies. Analysts could also offer new conceptualizations, tools and parameters for evaluating online influence. But even more fundamentally, data analysts will be able to inform MFAs if they are actually reaching their intended audiences.
Additionally, data analysts could help MFAs leverage the power of networks. Big data and network analyses could help MFAs identify online influencers and force amplifiers who can carry their messages to new constituencies. Analysts could also track the flow of information online and identify how narratives and counter narratives spread among online publics. This would enable MFAs to disrupt the flow of narratives or counter them among specific online communities. Lastly, analysts could help MFAs tailor their communications to the unique attributes, beliefs, world views and opinions of specific online communities. Tailored communication techniques are likely to be far more effective than generic online messaging.
As the amount of connected individuals is only likely to increase, MFAs should invest now in recruiting data analysts who could, over time, be integrated into the daily operations of MFAs.
Recent years have seen MFAs increasingly use social media during times of crises. Whether it is a political crisis, such as Crimea, or a consular crisis, such as terror attacks, online platforms provide diplomats with valuable information on unfolding events. Using online data to inform crisis management is of great importance as crises are, by nature, ill-defined situations in which decision makers are forced to act based on limited insight and amid high stress.
It could be argued that the near future will require effective crisis management. Environmental degradation, political instability and terrorism will all contribute to the proliferation of risk and crises. The near future will also likely see an increase in the amount of data shared online. Thus, MFAs should invest now in their ability to gather mass quantities of data, analyse data in real time and use data to better inform the decision making process. Doing so will require new tools, new capabilities and new diplomats, diplomats who can write code and create programs that are tailored to the needs of their MFAs.
The first stage of digital diplomacy may have been a success. Yet technological innovations will continue to challenge MFAs. Taking a proactive approach to innovation, and developing MFAs’ in house digital capabilities, could help MFAs succeed in the second stage of digital diplomacy.