Has strategic communications reduced political extremism to an information problem?

In a recent publication I have argued that investigating the employment of digital technologies in diplomacy requires that one regard digitalization as a long term process. The reason for this is that new digital technologies constantly emerge bringing with them new opportunities and challenges. Moreover, digital technologies often necessitate that diplomatic institutions adopt new norms which lead to new working routines. Finally, the impact of digitalization on society permeates into MFAs (foreign ministries) through diplomats further challenging and complementing diplomatic tasks. Indeed, after Ambassadors use WhatsApp groups to coordinate family vacations, they may use WhatsApp groups to coordinate the provision of consular aid.

Recent years have seen a new spectre haunt diplomacy- the spectre of Bots and echo chambers. While scholarly research has yet to determine whether echo chambers do in-fact influence public opinion, let alone exist, societies in Western Europe and North America have become accustomed the viewing the rise of populism, and the decline of democracy, through the prism of online radicalization. While Bots spread disinformation and bombard digital publics with emotionally charged content, echo chambers prevent cross party discussions leading digital publics to adopt increasingly militant opinions.

In the age of online rage, the centre cannot hold.

As fear of political extremism pervaded Western societies, it also permeated into MFAs through diplomats. Subsequently, MFAs throughout the world sought to combat the spectre of Bots and echo chambers. This led to a normative shift in MFAs as the public diplomacy goals of engagement and dialogue were replaced with the mantra of strategic communications.

Presently, strategic communications seems to exist at two levels. At the foreign level, strategic communications seeks to ensure that one’s messages reach intended audiences. Moreover, strategic communications prevents actors from hijacking one’s messages. For instance, American diplomats in Germany may seek to ensure that Russia cannot hijack American digital campaigns or interfere in American discussions with the German population online. In other words, strategic communications at the foreign level hopes to prevent third party interference. At the domestic level, strategic communication seeks to prevent foreign actors, or third parties, from influencing domestic debates and domestic political processes.

Images 1 & 2: Strategic Communications at the Foreign Level

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Images 3 & 4: Strategic Communications at the Domestic Level

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Image 5: Both Levels of Strategic Communications

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To date, various MFAs have taken different digital approaches to strategic communications. Some have created big data units tasked with monitoring, mapping and neutralizing foreign Bots. Other MFAs have created algorithms that interface with social media sites and predict what type of negative or hateful content may “go viral”. The algorithm then automatically reports the content in question to social media sites, In this way, the task of removing toxic content is increasingly automated. Other MFAs have begun to think about employing AI (artificial intelligence) so as to detect and automatically neutralize negative or misleading content.

The eagerness with which MFAs have sought to deal with the problems of disinformation and political radicalization may be tied to their attempts to safe guard their territory within governments. In recent years, more and more government ministries have begun facing the world and collaborating with their peers. Ministries of industry, the environment and health all work closely with their peers so as to jointly tackle global issues. In light of this, MFAs have lost the monopoly over managing all foreign affairs of the state. By taking it upon themselves to help tackle the spectre of Bots MFAs may be hoping to increase their territory within government and, equally important, develop a domestic constituency.

However, the zeal with which digital tools are now used to combat Bots risks reducing the phenomenon of political radicalization to an information problem. As long as Bots can be detected, and as long as algorithms can prevent toxic content from going viral, the problem of radicalization is solved. This of course is far from true as such digital activities do not address the sources of political radicalization whether these are the emergence of a hetero-polar world, the rebuke of globalization or the emergence of nostalgia as a political ideology.

As such, digital strategic communications must include both “offensive” and “defensive” measures. Defensive measures aim to stop Bots from polluting the national discourse. Offensive measures aim to use digital tools to burst echo chambers and interact with hostile foreign online publics. One MFA that has taken just this approach is Israel’s foreign ministry. In recent years, the MFA has taken to mapping echo chambers of anti-Semitism in Europe and attempting to burst these chambers by conversing with members, identifying moderate members who may be willing to challenge assumptions made in echo chambers and even identifying individuals who may help the MFA introduce new information into echo chambers that negates stereotypical view of Jews.

Yet even these measures are limited in effected. Online measures to combat radicalization must be complemented by offline measures and face to face interactions between diplomats and sceptic publics, both at home and abroad. As argued last week on this blog, face to face diplomacy remains an indispensable part of the diplomatic arsenal.

There is a saying in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) that “there is no chemical solution to a spiritual problem”. Similarly, there is no online solution to an offline problem.