Narrative Realignment & the Holy Grail of Digital Diplomacy

How to prove the efficacy of digital diplomacy activities? This question has plagued diplomats and scholars for nearly a decade. Diplomats have had to prove the efficacy of digital activities in order to ensure the very existence of digital diplomacy departments. Unlike any other desk or department, diplomats have had to demonstrate that digital diplomacy offers a handsome return on investment given that it was first viewed as a cost effective from of diplomacy.

Scholars have also been engrossed in the task of demonstrating that digital diplomacy can facilitate the attainment of offline diplomatic goals. Otherwise, there would be little value to analysing the barrage of tweets and posts published daily by embassies and diplomats around the world. Moreover, if digital diplomacy does not help one obtain diplomatic goals, then it may simply be a veneer of diplomatic activity, an exercise in public relations rather than public diplomacy which would contribute little to scholars’ understating of how contemporary diplomacy is practiced.

One way to evaluate the efficacy of digital diplomacy activities may lie in the concept of narrative re-alignment. Narratives are tools through which people make sense of the world around them. A narrative can bring order to a chaotic world by answering the questions: what is happening now, what has happened before and what will happen next. Media organizations, journalists and governments routinely invoke narratives to influence how people make sense of important events. For instance, following the 9/11 attacks President George W. Bush addressed the American people saying that radical Islamists had declared war on America, that their crimes would not go unpunished and that America would face additional battles in the immediate future. This narrative explained 9/11 through prism of war, rather than that of terrorism, enabling people to make sense not only of this event but also of America’s future policies which included the invasions of two countries as part of a War on Terror.

Diplomats have long since sought to influence the narratives employed by journalists and media institutions given that these shape public perceptions. Nowadays, press attaches are tasked with cultivating personal relationships with journalists in order to ensure more positive coverage of their country and its policies. At times, press attaches hope to alter the narratives of journalists so that they align with their countries’ narratives. For instance, American diplomats may have sought to re-align the narratives used by British journalists covering the 9/11 attacks so that these would also portray the event as an act of war rather than an act of terrorism.

Similarly, the efficacy of digital diplomacy could be measured by examining diplomats’ ability to use digital tools to re-align the narratives of foreign journalists. Once an MFA has identified a new strategic goal it can also identify a group of influencers in a foreign country who are employing counter-productive narratives. These influencers can then be approached online or become the target audience of a specific social media campaign. The efficacy of the campaign lies in the ability to alter the narratives of these influencers. Narrative re-alignment can thus be used to directly measure the efficacy of digital diplomacy activities.

One example is Israel’s digital activities following the announcement of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Within hours of the agreement being signed, Israeli diplomats and leaders took to social media to criticize the accord, lament the fact that Israel’s security was one again forsaken by the international community and compare the agreement to Britain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938. The narrative employed by the MFA was thus one of appeasement and “capitulation”. Conversely, leading publications and journalists in the US, as well as the Obama administration, employed the narrative of “diplomacy first”. According to this narrative, US diplomacy backed by a credible threat of force had resolved a major crisis and averted another costly ware in the Middle East. In order to measure the efficacy of if its digital activities, and obtain tangible offline diplomatic goals, the Israeli MFA could have launched a campaign targeting select American journalists with the goal of re-aligning their narrative of “diplomacy first” with the Israeli narrative of “capitulation”.

Measuring, or proving the efficacy of digital activities remains the Holy Grail of digital diplomacy. Narrative re-alignment may prove a useful concept for both scholars and practitioners. For diplomats, narrative re-alignment can demonstrate the efficacy of digital activities to the highest echelons in MFAs thus ensuring continued investments in digital activities. For scholars, narrative re-alignment can help conceptualize and investigate the role of digital tools in the conduct of contemporary diplomacy.