Pull Versus Push in Digital Diplomacy: Which Approach is Better?

The Crimean Crisis has been regarded as a turning point in the relationship between Western Europe and Russia. The Crisis, which burst onto the scene in December of 2013, saw strongly worded tweets followed by troop convoys, financial sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats. In the wake of the Crisis, governments in Western Europe came to regard Russia, and not terrorism, as the greatest threat to national security. The new fault lines drawn around the Crimean Peninsula were soon evident in multi-lateral forums that were plagued by paralysis. A world in which Russia and Western Europe do not collaborate is one in which the Security Council is reduced to a debating society while UN agencies such as the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) are rendered irrelevant.

Yet the Crimean Crisis was not just a diplomatic crisis. It was a digital crisis which forced diplomats and their institutions to re-conceptualize how they use digital technologies. Prior to the Crisis, MFAs throughout the world had experimented with social media so as to obtain “new” public diplomacy goals such as establishing ties with digital publics. While some MFAs focused on foreign populations others sought to interact with digital diasporas while still others targeted opinion makers. Following the Crisis, and Russia’s growing use of social media to disseminate false information, rumours, doctored images and conspiracy theories, diplomats sought to use Twitter and Facebook to negate Russian narratives and correct misleading information. The “new” public diplomacy goal of relationships was supplanted by the traditional public diplomacy goal of influence.

One has to wonder, though, if counter-narratives and counter-information are effective in combating disinformation? The reason being that such activities reduce public diplomacy to struggles over narratives that are hard to win. Indeed, it is the ease with which truth can be manipulated on social media which suggests that counter-narratives are somewhat futile. Moreover, counter-information activities are mostly reactive and thus benefit the digital aggressor who decides which issues should be debated, and when. Engaging in struggles over narratives also suggests that truth is in the eye of the beholder or “Twitterer” and that facts can be debated as if they were opinions. Lastly, counter-narratives push an actor onto the aggressor’s battlefield. Since the Crimean Crisis, numerous MFAs have been pushed onto social media given a desire to influence the opinions and world views of audiences that are susceptible to Russian propaganda. An alternative solution may be to pull digital audiences away from social media and onto diplomats’ platforms.

One MFA which has opted for pulling audiences, rather than being pushed onto social media, is the British FCO. Over the past six years, the FCO has published a host of posts on its blogosphere pertaining to Russia and its global activities. While some posts focus on Russia’s involvement in Syria and its role in protecting the abhorrent Assad regime, other posts deal with Russia’s human rights violations, its persecution of political opposition and its digital activities which aim to undermine Western democracies. Notably, by using its blogosphere to narrate Russia’s image and policies, the FCO is able to prevent digital manipulation. Russian trolls cannot flood the FCO blogosphere with rage and negative emotions, Russian bots cannot fill the blogosphere’s comments section with half-truth and Russian activists cannot drive audiences towards other websites that spin fiction rather than fact.

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Equally important is the fact that the UK blogosphere replaces brevity with insight. Posts written by British diplomats and Ambassadors are not meant to be skimmed. Rather, British officials use posts to explain complex policy dilemmas, to share their personal experiences, to offer in-depth analysis of regional developments and to demonstrate how British policies aim to tackle global challenges. Thus, the blogosphere offers audiences the ability to make sense of a complex world that seems to be in constant flux. This “sense making” can lead to the creation of relationships between digital public and diplomats as the former come to rely on the analysis they are provided with.

The British FCO is not the only diplomatic actor in the UK to pull audiences away from social media. The Japanese Embassy in London has for some time published a web magazine. The magazine, which is published once a month, offers a breadth of information pertaining to cultural events, important news from Japan, Embassy activities and a monthly blog post written by the Ambassador. In these posts the Ambassador reflects on the nature of UK-Japan relations, offers readers analyses of events in Japan and their relevance to the UK, examines the future of UK-Japan relations following Brexit and provides readers with a behind the scenes look at bi-lateral diplomacy.

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Notably, both the Japanese Embassy and the FCO publish posts written by Ambassadors. The reason for this might be that Ambassadors enjoy a certain degree of prestige. This stems from their perceived role as guardians of peace, their access to confidential information and their interactions with the highest echelons of power. Ambassadors may thus lend credibility to a diplomatic institution’s messages and arguments. Such credibility is crucial when one is attempting to combat disinformation.

Digital diplomacy is by no means a new phenomenon. For more than a decade, diplomats and foreign ministries have sought to leverage digital tools towards diplomatic ends. Yet the practice of digital diplomacy is constantly challenged. At times, digital technologies disrupt diplomacy. Other times, diplomacy is disrupted by the digital activities of a specific actor. When it comes to disinformation, technological affordance and the actions of specific actors converge. The ease with which truth can be manipulated on social media, and Russia’s attempts to misinform digital publics, have all necessitated that European MFAs alter their tactics. But rather than be pushed onto social media, and into competition over narratives, foreign ministries and diplomats can attempt to pull audiences onto their own platforms which are less susceptible to digital manipulation. That is exactly what the FCO and the Japanese Embassy are doing.