Digital Diplomacy: Between Adoption and Adaptation

The speed of diplomacy’s digitalization has been truly remarkable. In less than a decade, MFAs (foreign ministries) have gone from launching websites and virtual embassies to designing smartphone applications, analyzing big data sets, writing code, creating algorithms and establishing social media empires that span multiple networks. This is all the more remarkable as MFAs were once characterized as archaic institutions with conservative communicative cultures who would fail to adapt to the speed of the digital age.

The majority of digital diplomacy studies have focused on the process of digital adoption– by adoption I refer to using a digital technology as intended with the goal of obtaining a foreign policy goal. There is, for instance, no great difference between the State Department’s use of Facebook and that of an individual. Indeed, individuals may use Facebook to comment on life events, reflect on national debates and create an online persona that is appealing and may thus gather followers. Individual’s may also maintain ties with distant ‘Friends’- a term that refers to high school lovers and local coffee houses. The same is true of the State Department that offers updates on US policies, reflects on national debates and crises and maintains links with distant contacts. The difference lies in the nature of Friends as the State Department hopes to attract a global following by creating an appealing online persona.

Notably, both individuals and MFAs are limited by the platform design. The State Department and the individual can only reach their Friends. So both seek to ‘game’ the Facebook algorithm by using trending hashtags, employing memes, building on humor and adopting increasingly emotionally and possibly polarizing tones. The tools and techniques used by individuals are soon mimicked, to varying degrees, by MFAs. This is part of the process of digital adoption.

The same is true of smartphone applications, which have been launched by the Canadian, Polish and Indian MEA. In the first two cases, there is little difference between the MFAs’ apps and that of Domino’s Pizza. Both offer a limited range of actions, mostly reading travel updates before flying abroad. The Indian application is unique as it offers a breadth of information ranging from bi-lateral agreements to trade negotiations and President Modi’s travels abroad. Yet like most corporate apps, it too is merely an information center, one aimed at an individual with an insatiable desire to learn about Indian diplomacy. The ‘accidental’ digital tourist will find little to connect him to India.

The process of digital adoption usually follows a familiar pattern. The MFA decides to invest in a new technology. This decision may be systematic (i.e., built on the recommendations of the digital unit) or sporadic (i.e., a foreign minister’s affinity for a particular technology). Next, the digital unit experiments with the new technology through a long process of trial and error (e.g., jokes on Twitter can backfire horribly). Next, diplomats are trained in using the new technology following which guidelines are issued to all MFA staffers, departments and Embassies. For instance, every US Embassy now has guidelines on how to use Twitter in the wake of local terror attacks.

However, diplomats and scholars must also turn their attention to the process of digital adaptation. Here, diplomats either employ new technologies of their own initiatives or repurpose existing digital technologies. At times adaptation is the result of crises as invention is the mother of all necessities. Other times, adaptation stems from diplomats’ private lives, and the use of technologies by others such as family members demonstrating that digitalization really is a societal process in which society impacts diplomats’ use of technology.

One notable example is Ambassadors’ growing use of WhatsApp groups to coordinate action in multilateral forums. One Ambassador, who first launched a WhatsApp group, got the idea after his soon coordinated the family holiday through a group. The bewildered Ambassador asked ‘Can I also form these groups? Myself?’. This led to working groups through which resolutions are drafted, majorities are formed and ties between Ambassadors are strengthened.

Another contact told me that WhatsApp groups are an essential tool for UN interns. Here, issue specific groups are formed to obtain a specific goal and then disbanded. Yet some groups are also of a more personal nature. My contact told me that WhatsApp lists determine who knows about certain events and parties at which interns share information that is often crucial to their work. This is where multilateral diplomacy meets Gossip Girl as these interns have introduced technologies they used in their personal life into the diplomatic arena.

Finally, one should note the recent Adaptation of Zoom-like technologies by Ambassadors and world leaders. When asked, a British diplomat told me that these technologies have proved useful during the crisis yet he doubts that they will remain an integral part of diplomacy. He said ‘diplomacy is all about a 5 minute conversation in the hallway’. Another stated the opposite. That Zoom saves time, does away with protocol and actually fosters closer ties as ‘everyone can see into your house’.

Whether Zoom remains or not, it is evident that digitalization is also a bottom-up process where individual diplomats can harness digital technologies in effective ways through Adaptation. These activities warrant further attention.

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