Algorithms as Audiences

Diplomacy’s digitalization has advanced at a remarkable speed. MFAS, once defined as archaic institutions who lack the communicative culture to adapt to new technologies, have launched virtual Embassies, created smartphone applications, built blog sites, established big data units and have taken to writing their own algorithms. While not all digital initiatives have ended in a resounding success, MFAs have proven that they are willing to experiment with digital tools, accept failures and adopt a ‘trial and error’ mentality through which the potential of new technologies is explored. Although MFAs now employ various digital technologies, their focus remains on social media.

While diplomats’ migration to social media first occurred following the Arab Spring, and was motivated by a desire to converse with foreign populations, many now view Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as tools for strategic communications. It is through such tools that nations may promote specific policies, narrate a national character, justify the use of force and rally domestic and foreign support for state action. One notable example is the Coalition Against Daesh that uses Twitter to depict its activities as humanitarian ones- allowing refugees to return home and rebuild their life. The emphasis is thus not on the military activity against Daesh but on the positive, civilian outcomes.

Diplomats also use social media to shape users’ perceptions of the world. Even more so, MFAs and diplomats use social media to help followers make sense of a chaotic world that seems to transition from one crisis to the next. Why is China’s suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong important to the average citizen in France? What exactly are the ramifications of America’s retreat from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and is America about to go to war with Iran? Does Iran have military control over areas in Syria and Lebanon and will it go to war with Israel? Why did NATO not respond with force to Russia’s annexation of Crimea? And what on earth is a super-sonic missile? All these questions are now addressed online by diplomats. Here we find that new technologies serve an ancient purpose- shaping people’s world views and gathering support for state policies, at home and abroad.

Algorithms are now part of the lingua franca of diplomacy. Just as diplomats are familiar with the term démarche or draft resolution, they are familiar with the term algorithms. While most might not know what algorithms are, or exactly how they function, MFAs and diplomats know that social media sites are operated by algorithms. Some use the metaphor of algorithms as gatekeepers. Indeed, it is algorithms who determine whether one’s tweets see the light of day. Tweets that receive attention from other users are distributed widely; tweets that fall on deaf ears never see the light of day. So, diplomats add hashtags to their tweets, images and even a certain tone. Some tweets may be accompanied by levity, others by stern warnings.

Other diplomats view algorithms as castle walls. Indeed, one’s tweet can, initially, only reach his followers. If a UK embassy has only 50,000 Twitter followers, it is algorithmically limited and cannot reach the millions of Twitter users active in the UK. The question that follows is how does one breach his algorithmic confines? Some embassies rely on avid followers to help spread the tweet. Others gain access to personal Twitter accounts and tweet embassy messages on their behalf. Many tag influential users. A re-tweet and comment from a popular reporter, blogger, or social media personality may carry a tweet far and wide.

Notably, there is a reason MFAs, Embassies and diplomats are so familiar with algorithms. For without attracting the public, one cannot shape public perceptions.

In a recent talk at a seminar organized by the Ben Gurion University’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum, Dr. Lior Zalmanson suggested that one may regard algorithms as audiences. After all, much of the content published by diplomats is targeted at algorithms, and aims to please them. This metaphor holds several benefits. First, it removes the hyperbole regarding the sinister nature of algorithms. Certainly, algorithms are biased as they are created by social media companies and only disseminate content that will grab users’ attention and ensure that users stay on platforms longer thus viewing more ads. Algorithms also include the bias of their designers, such as what content is labeled ‘interesting’ and what content is labeled as ‘dreary’. Yet treating algorithms as audiences suggests that one need not ‘hack’ an algorithm, he needs to understand the taste of algorithms. They are, according to this metaphor, food or theatre critics without whom no show or restaurant may enjoy a successful run.   

Second, by treating algorithms as audiences, diplomats may change their modus operandi. Rather than defeat the algorithm, diplomats may mingle with this audience and win it over, much as they do during events with their peers. To do so, diplomats should capitalize on the abundance of academic research that has evaluated the ‘taste’ of these critics. Indeed, the social media algorithms of all major platforms have been studied extensively. This is one area where diplomats may truly benefit from collaborating with academic research groups.

Finally, by treating algorithms as audiences, the important role that algorithms play in contemporary international relations may be brought to light. Algorithms will no longer be shadow less figures whose operations are far beyond the grasp of the 60-year-old Ambassador. This means that MFAs can a) integrate algorithms into their training programs in a more approachable way b) consider the ways in which algorithms may hinder, or contribute, to online communications and c) take a more active role in debates surrounding the implications of algorithms on free speech. What this, simple, metaphor offers is the de-mystification of algorithms and a better understanding of their nature.    

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