Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age

This blog post is an excerpt from a recent special issue of the Hague Journal of Diplomacy dealing with the future of public diplomacy. For the full article click here 

Corneliu Bjola, Jennifer Cassidy and Ilan Manor

The scope, volume and intensity of global data connectivity are expected to explode in the coming years. The disruption produced by this transformation will have far-reaching implications for the way in which individuals, communities and societies define and conduct themselves and for the way in which public diplomacy as a practice of building bridges with foreign publics. Our article seeks to advance our understanding of how digital technologies re-sets the context in which public diplomacy operates by reshaping the medium of public communication, blurring the boundary between foreign and domestic affairs and empowering new actors.

The evolution of the medium of communication is a key factor to affect the conduct of public diplomacy in the digital age. Without communication there can be no diplomacy. Yet the tools through which diplomats communicate are undergoing a revolution and, subsequently, so is the context of public diplomacy. Some of these revolutions are already evident, as is the case with visual enhancements and algorithms, while others such as virtual reality and 3D simulations have yet to reveal themselves. By leveraging new communication tools, diplomats can augment public diplomacy activities and ensure that public diplomacy messages are heard and listened to by relevant audiences. One example of how new communication tools can be leveraged by diplomats towards public diplomacy goals is machine learning.

Given the challenge of information overload and the growing competitiveness of the online space, machine learning will likely become an indispensable tool for studying pattern recognition and making data-driven predictions about the main issues of concern for the target audiences. As the volume of data-driven interactions continues to grow at an exponential rate, one can make oneself heard only by professionally learning how to separate ‘signals’ from the background ‘noise’ and by proactively adjusting one’s message accordingly in a manner that ensures maximal visibility in the online space, in real time. Making oneself listened to would require, by extension, better understanding of the cognitive frames and emotional undertones that enable audiences to connect meaningfully with a particular message. Most importantly, the ongoing transition from a textual to a visual or audio form of communication is likely to accelerate and, consequently, public diplomacy campaigns are expected to become increasingly sophisticated in visual or audio terms. Augmented reality technology is particularly well suited to take advantage of this trend by allowing, for instance, public diplomats to use geolocation-based apps to showcase issues of interest in a tailored and interactive manner. In this way, communication tools will continue to impact the context in which public diplomacy is practiced.

Yet digitalization is also expected to create new audiences for public diplomacy. Citizens’ migration online has created a new reality in which domestic and foreign audiences flock to the same digital platforms thus blurring the lines between the domestic and the foreign.  Consequently, diplomats can now engage with the national citizenry and rally domestic support for foreign policy achievements. Given that some nations have taken to using digital tools towards disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, diplomats may use new digital tools to rally support from the national citizenry and ensure that the citizenry remains well informed. Using virtual reality diplomats could transport their citizens to the scene of an international crisis and demonstrate the effectiveness of their policies. Using new tele-presence capabilities, diplomats will be able to hold town-hall meetings throughout their nations thus narrating national policies while algorithms could be used to identify citizens are exposed to fictitious or malicious information. These citizens can then be engaged with to limit the impact of disinformation campaigns.

Finally, digitalization is likely to empower new diplomatic actors. As digital technologies grow in their agency and impact, two questions come to the fore: who are diplomats and who needs public diplomacy? In terms of diplomats, it is now evident that tech giants and their CEOs have morphed into diplomatic actors who interact with world leaders and with national institutions in order to promote their business interests. Indeed, some tech giants now have resources exceeding those of some sovereign states and can bypass the formal structures of their home nation’s diplomatic bureaucracy. By creating new digital tools tech giants impact the context of public diplomacy while through their diplomatic activities they impact relations between states. Some countries have realized the awesome power that tech giants now hold and have taken measures to engage with such giants.

Such is the case with Denmark that recently appointed a tech Ambassador tasked with managing relations with tech actors in Silicon Valley and China.  When publicly announcing this decision, Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs Anders Samuelsen stated: ‘Companies such as Google, IBM, Apple and Microsoft are now so large that their economic strength and impact on our everyday lives exceeds that of many of the countries where we have more traditional embassie’. Other nations soon followed suite while tasking tech Ambassadors with dealing with a host of issues including digital governance, international negotiations on cybersecurity, and intellectual property issues online. These recent ambassadorial appointments signify not only the important socio-economic and political roles of technology, but also how diplomacy is evolving and adapting to the disruptive changes in our societies. Tech Ambassadors acknowledge that public diplomacy is now being conducted in a new era where material forces or wealth are not the most important trump card, but data and information instead.

While our analysis suggests that diplomats may use new technologies to augment public diplomacy activities, engage with new audiences and manage relations with tech giants, we are aware that these technologies can also be used for to advance the “dark side” of public diplomacy. 3D simulations, algorithmic filtering and the absence of an international consensus on cybersecurity can all be used to strategically spread disinformation, increase mistrust and build walls instead of bridges. Despite these inevitable challenges, the future of public diplomacy in the digital age remains bright, as long as diplomats continue to engage creatively and positively with digital technologies and stay committed to the mission of building bridges between offline and online communities. Digital technologies can play an influential role in how individuals, communities and societies not only interact with each other, but also how they redefine themselves as social and political actors in the digital age.

For more on the digitalization of public diplomacy click here