The Digital Battle over News Headlines

When exploring digital diplomacy, scholars and practitioners tend to treat diplomacy as an island entire of itself. Some scholars, for instance, examine how digital tools facilitate diplomatic activities. Such is the case with virtual embassies that enable diplomats to foster ties with distant foreign populations. Other times scholars examine how digital tools complicate the practice of diplomacy. Such is the case with the use of trolls and bots to warp public opinion in foreign countries. Yet one cannot decouple diplomacy from society. This is because diplomats are social beings and foreign ministries are social institutions. Diplomats are effected by processes that occur in society and it is through diplomats that such processes affect diplomatic institutions.

One notable example is the shift in public perception of social media platforms. During the Arab Spring, Twitter and Facebook were regarded as positive forces that enabled Egyptians to free themselves from the bondage of tyranny. The positive aura surrounding Twitter and Facebook led diplomats to view these platforms as tools that could foster ties between diplomats and online publics. Nowadays, Twitter and Facebook are viewed as the undoing of democracy and tools for mass manipulation. This had led some diplomats to abandon the goal of relationship building for that of strategic communication in which digital tools are used to influence the word views of online publics.

Thus, if one wishes to understand the practice of digital diplomacy he must first characterize the digital society. Two main characteristics of the digital society are the condensing of time and the rapid production of information. As Philip Seib has argued the digital society is the real-time society as digital publics want to learn about events as they unfold on the ground. Media institutions, bloggers and citizen journalists now all practice a form of real-time reporting in which information is shared online even before it can be verified. The digital society is also the TMI (Too Much Information) society as online publics are bombarded by a daily barrage of blogs, vlogs, status updates, political scandals, celebrity gossip and the musings of protest movements. No digital user can ever hope to read all status updates shared by his friends, all articles recommended by Twitter gurus and all blogs published by citizen journalists. This leads to the practice of skimming in which publics learn about the world through their social media feeds.

The importance of social media feeds has recently been recognized by diplomats. Over the past months, diplomats from various MFAs have dedicated substantial resources to influencing the headlines of news articles shared online. The focus on headlines is important as it is headlines that comprise social media feeds. One notable example is Elad Ratson, the Director of Algorithmic Diplomacy at the Israeli MFA. Ratson, who is stationed in London, often uses Twitter to interact with media institutions and critique their chosen headlines. On the 14th of December, 2018, Ratson published the tweet below criticizing the headline published by the British Guardian newspaper. The headline deals with a terrorist who was killed by security forces after a deadly attack in Strasbourg. Yet as is evident from the headline, the word terrorist is missing and instead the headline insinuates that an innocent man was killed simply for being a Muslim.

On the 13th of December, 2018, Ratson took to Twitter again this time critiquing a headline dealing with the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians. In this case, the Guardian’s headline implied that two Israelis and two Palestinians had died at the same time. According to Ratson, the two Israelis were murdered by terrorists who were then killed by Israeli security forces.

One might wonder if news headlines are as important as Ratson’s efforts imply. The answer lies in the impact of social media feeds. Users exposed to the Guardian’s headline would assume that December 13 was yet another day of senseless violence in the Middle East as two Israelis and two Palestinians died simultaneously. Users exposed to Ratson’s critique might assume that Israel continues to be the victim of terrorist activities. Two different headlines could thus lead to two different assumptions and two different perspectives on world events.

Importantly, Ratson publishes his critique in near-real time thus hoping to impact the world view of digital publics as it takes shape. This is crucial given the condensing of time in the digital society. The longer it takes diplomats to comment on events, the less effective they may be as digital publics rapidly shift their attention to the next celebrity tidbit or the next political scandal.

In summary, Ratosn’s activities, demonstrate the importance of social media feeds. They also demonstrates that diplomats must continuously examine how digital publics access news and how they form their world view. For only then will diplomats be able to influence public perception of global events and actors.