An Act of Digital Disobedience? When U.S. Embassies Raised the Pride Flag

Over the past week, several newspapers have published stories focusing on the activities of U.S. embassies during Pride Month. Specifically, these stories have dealt with the creative ways in which some embassies hoisted the rainbow flag during Pride Month. Unlike the Obama era, the Trump administration has banned the use of the rainbow flag thus preventing U.S. embassies and diplomats from expressing their support for the LGBTQ+ community. Despite the ban, several U.S. embassies hoisted the flag from their rooftops while others used smaller flags to decorate the walls of their embassies. Newspaper articles dedicated to this issue depict the flying of the rainbow flag as an act of disobedience, at best, and an act of open defiance of the President at worst.

While some embassies raised the pride flag , others displayed it on their Facebook profiles. One could argue that an act of physical disobedience is far more important than a digital one. When raising the pride flag on their roofs, and displaying it opposite the American flag, U.S. embassies signaled that America stands with LGBTQs and that the policies of the Trump administration remain those of inclusivity and acceptance of LGTQs. They further asserted that the U.S. remains committed to advancing the rights of LGTQs throughout the world. As such, hoisting the rainbow flag is much more important action than displaying it on an embassy’s Facebook profile.

Yet it could also be argued that in the digital age an embassy’s Facebook profile is as important and indicative of a country’s policies as a physical building. Studies have shown that profile pictures/cover photos on social media sites serve two main functions. The first is the creation of an online identity. Social network users employ their profile picture to construct an identity and to communicate that identity to online users. Secondly, profile pictures enable users to manage their online impression. Individuals can project a well-crafted image through their profile pictures. When it comes to diplomatic institutions, profile pictures do not relate only to an institutions but also to the country that institution represents. As such, embassies can use profile pictures to create an online identity for their nation and communicate that identity to online publics thus managing the nation’s online reputation.

Subsequently, altering an embassy’s Facebook profile picture can be seen as tantamount to flying a flag on an embassy’s rooftop.

A survey of the Facebook profiles of U.S. embassies demonstrates that many changed their profile picture during Pride Month. This was especially true of U.S. embassies in Europe including those in Berlin, Madrid, Vienna and Vilnius (see below).

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Other embassies preferred to publish posts depicting their diplomats marching in local pride parades. Such was the case with the embassy to Warsaw. This might be seen as an original way of circumventing the Trump ban on flying the rainbow flag.

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However, many embassies also chose not to alter their profile pictures as was the case with embassies in Copenhagen, Beirut, Lagos, London, Stockholm and Paris (see below).

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One has to wonder why certain embassies chose to express support for the LGBTQ community while still others adhered to Trump’s ban. One answer may lay in American ambassadors. A high-ranking U.S. diplomat once told me that American ambassadors are treated by the State Department like CEOs. They enjoy a wide birth when determining their embassy’s goals, working procedures and communications. It is therefore possible that some ambassadors decided to prioritize the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights while others did not.

Past studies also suggest that, at times, embassy communications stem from the actions of those charged with managing social media accounts. It is thus possible that in some embassies an overzealous intern changed the profile picture, rather than a high-ranking diplomat. It is also possible that some embassies did not alter their profile pictures given the norms and values of local populations. For instance, the embassy in Poland may have settled for a picture of diplomats marching in a Pride Parade given that LGBTQ rights remain a contentious issue in Poland. Conversely, the embassy in Berlin may have altered its picture given local support for LGBTQ rights. The embassy in Paris may have failed to alter its image as France was busy commemorating D-Day and the landing at Normandy.

Finally, it is possible that some embassies changed their profile pictures as an act of digital disobedience. Being denied the right to express their solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community American diplomats turned to digital networks hoping to make a statement that was as powerful as hoisting a flag on their rooftops. Yet this option seems the most far fetched given that the role of diplomats was, and remains, to advance the policies of their governments- both online and offline.