How MFAs Celebrated International Women’s Day Online

Comment: This post about International Women’s Day was written from a man’s perspective. It is thus highly likely that the analysis in this post would benefit from the insight of women. I encourage women readers to comment on this post and offer their own analysis of the tweets analyzed below. This insight will be integrated into the post’s final online draft. Ilan Manor

Introduction: International celebrations of societal groups represent important opportunities for those practicing digital diplomacy. Scholars have noted that social media users are engulfed in algorithmic filter bubbles as they are more likely to view information that corresponds to their worldviews, political affiliation and trusted sources of information (e.g., BBC World or Fox News). This filtering is conducted by social media algorithms whose primary task is to keep social media users engaged with platforms. The more time a Facebook user spends online, the more he can be studied by Facebook’s algorithm and the greater Facebook’s ability to tailor advertisements to his unique personality traits. This role of algorithms has led The Economist magazine to claim that data is the new oil. The more data social media companies collect on users, the better their ability to tailor advertisements and the greater their revenue.

However, MFAs, Embassies and diplomats are also engulfed in algorithmic bubbles. When an MFA tweets, or an Embassy Posts, its messages will only be viewed by their followers or individuals who have expressed an interest in international affairs, diplomacy or ties between two states. Effectively, algorithmic filter bubbles prevent Embassies from reaching the majority of social media users. Yet online celebrations alter this dynamic. By partaking in such celebrations, MFAs, Embassies and diplomats can ‘burst’ their algorithmic filter bubbles as social media users are more likely to Share and Retweet Embassy content that partakes in online celebrations and digital culture. Notably, online celebrations are accompanied by trending hashtags, and Embassies can join the trend again increasing their potential reach. This is because Twitter users often search for online information through hashtags (e.g., #Covid19, #vaccinations). Indeed, social media are both platforms for interactions and search engines.

This past week saw the online celebration of International Women’s Day. This online celebration was marked by MFAs, Embassies and diplomats throughout the world. A review of tweets published by different diplomatic organizations suggests that these adopted five different strategies to denote International Women’s Day. These are explored next.

Strategy #1: Women at the Forefront

A large and diverse group of diplomatic institutions chose to celebrate International Women’s Day by highlighting the important roles that women play in the diplomatic corps. Such tweets tended to focus on women who had scaled the ladder of diplomatic institutions and serve in influential positions such as Ambassadors, department heads and even foreign ministers. These tweets may have suggested that MFAs themselves are committed to narrowing the gender gap both in the world at large and within their own confines. Such tweets may have also been used to suggest that in some MFAs, the famous glass ceiling has been cracked, and with good reason. Professional accomplishments and merit determine promotion in such institutions, not gender. Examples of such tweets may be seen below.

While such tweets may have demonstrated that gender diversity does exist in MFAs, one has to wonder if such women were not treated as trophies, or public relations assets that can be deployed once a year to better the image of diplomatic institutions. Indeed, in the examples shown above little data was provided. For instance, what percentage of the diplomatic corps is made up of women? What percentage of Ambassadors are women? And how many departments are headed by women out of the total number of MFA departments? Interestingly, such data was provided by digital channels operated by security organizations.  

Strategy #2: Women in the Trenches

Data on women’s role in diplomatic, or international institutions, was mostly provided by security organizations. For instance, a number of NATO Embassies analyzed the percentage of women that make up NATO forces or that are members of national armed services. The same was true of security accounts such as the Munich Security Conference that provided data on women’s overall presence in security organizations. It should be mentioned that some security organizations chose to emphasize women’s integration in armed forces as a value whereby militaries are now also committed to narrowing gender gaps. One notable example was the Israeli IDF’s Twitter channel which suggested that women can perform any security task conducted by a man. While such tweets may have been used to denote, once again, that the glass ceiling is falling, they also served an important public relations function given that armed forces are traditionally associated with male dominance, chauvinism and sexual misconduct.

Another type of digital diplomacy content focused on the role that women have played in contending with the Covid19 outbreak. Here, once again women are in the trenches yet instead of preparing for the invasion of Russia, they are saving lives the world over.

 Strategy #3: Storytelling

Several diplomatic institutions chose to denote International Women’s Day by telling the stories of inspirational women, be they activists, leaders of NGOs or heads of state. One notable tweet in this category was shared by the two women now leading the EU- Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission and Christine Lagarde, current president of the European Central Bank. In a video shared extensively by EU channels, the two women reflect on the hardship of climbing the ladder of diplomatic advancement while also reflecting on the unique benefits that women bring to leadership roles.

Storytelling is an effective means of delivering diplomatic messages for three reasons. First, they put a human face on an international issue, in this case the global gender gap. Second, stories manifest social realities and make them more relatable. While the gender gap is a real, it is also an abstract term. Two women leaders who discuss this gap make it more comprehendible. Third, stories engage social media users as humans are, by nature, storytellers who use oral stories to pass norms, values and histories (or her-stories) from one generation to the next.

Strategy #4:  Policy Implications

Some MFAs choose to focus their digital messaging on actual policies that are implemented to narrow the gender gap across the world. From a commitment to educate women, to national investments in foreign gender programs, such MFAs chose to focus on their activities “in the field”. Such tweets are important as they demonstrate to social media users how national values and ideals can inform the foreign policy formulation process. Moreover, they demonstrate action. So while some MFAs promote women, other MFAs are creating a new world where women will enjoy the same opportunities and privileges as men. Some MFAs chose to integrate International Women’s Day into their policy priorities, as was the case with the Lithuanian MFA that linked women’s rights with the rights of all Belarussians to determine their future.

It should be noted that some MFAs chose to remind followers that their countries have celebrated women, and promoted women long before International Women’s Day was announced. Such is the case with the Russian MFA whose tweets demonstrated Russia’s historic commitment to the advancement of women in all sectors of society be it politics, finance or space exploration. In other words, these MFAs signaled that they were committed to narrowing the gender gap long before this term existed. By doing so, such MFAs may have sought to create a dichotomy whereby some countries celebrate women once a year, while other countries celebrate women every day.

Strategy #5: Calls for Action

This strategy was the least employed by diplomatic organizations. One relevant example originated from the UN Women twitter account which called on women to stake their claim and their role in society. Such tweets amount to calls for action and seek to mobilize women and to assert women’s roles in society. It is worth noting that this was the least used strategy possible due to a potential discrepancy where men in positions in power tell women to stake their claim. In other words, it’s possible that such a message would only be credible if it was authored by women themselves, as is the case with the UN Women Twitter account.

In summary, this post demonstrates that diplomatic institutions eagerly took to social media to celebrate International Women’s Day. Though they chose different strategies, and while each strategy includes both drawbacks and benefits, by denoting International Women’s Day diplomats may have been able to burst their algorithmic filter bubbles, reach large numbers of social media users and accumulate a new following while noting the amazing roles that women play, and should play, in our societies. 

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