A Q &A with University Students- Assessing the Impact of Diplomacy’s Digitalization

This week I was invited to a Q&A session with university students in Chile. Many questions were asked, ranging from the role of Ambassadors in the digital age to the live-streaming of UN deliberations. Below are questions and answers that may prove valuable to scholars and practitioners of digital diplomacy.

Q: Has digitalization led to a shift in diplomatic protocol as diplomats insult one another online? Take for example the numerous cases of Chinese diplomats posting offensive comments on social media platforms?

A: When studying digital diplomacy it is always important to examine the relationship between online and offline diplomacy. States now use digital technologies to obtain concrete foreign policy goals. Examples include Russia’s use of Twitter to legitimize the annexation of Crimea; America’s use of Instagram to indict Iran in terror activities and China’s growing use of social media to frame itself as a strategic competitor of the US.

It is also important to bear in mind that diplomacy is occupied with managing relationships, and not necessarily improving relationships between states. Diplomacy can include offensive measures such as economic sanctions or military incursions.

Insults play an important role in offline diplomacy. They can be used to de-legitimize the activities of adversaries. They may also be used to advance, or derail negotiations. Insults can even help diplomat carry favor with specific audiences, including the national citizenry. In these instances, insults are used by diplomats to convey shared national sentiments. Just as insults can play an important role in offline diplomacy, so they play a role in online diplomacy. For instance, the Russian Embassy to the UK routinely berates and attacks the British government. Insults are used by the Russian Embassy to undermine the credibility of the British government and attract the gaze of digital publics. This is important as the UK government now regards Russia as the number one threat to its security. Through insults, the Russian Embassy hopes to amass more followers and convince them that Russia is not a threat to the UK.

Q: Are there any specific protocols or rules on to what degree, or under what occasions, the media MAY participate in diplomatic negotiations?

A: Diplomats manipulate the ‘media’ (e.g., journalists, newspapers, and bloggers). For instance, diplomats can use the ‘media’ during negotiations to pressure another party. Former US Secretary of State, James Baker, famously let the cameras into the negotiation room of the 1991 Madrid conference in order to publically berate Israeli diplomats that had refused to negotiate seriously opposite Arab diplomats. By ‘shaming’ Israel’s diplomats, Baker sought to pressure Israeli negotiators and end the deadlock in the negotiations.

Nowadays, diplomats also rely on the ‘media’ to spread their narratives of reality. For instance, Western diplomats spread a narrative according to which Russia violated international law when invading Ukraine. Russian diplomats promote a narrative according to which Russia was forced to annex Crimea following the establishment of a neo-Nazi government in Kiev that threatened the lives of Russian minorities.

In the digital age, which celebrates transparency, the ‘media’ is routinely let into the negotiation room while multilateral institutions live-stream deliberations. That said, the media is kept out of sensitive talks as parties need to agree on a shared reality to resolve a crisis. This cannot be done in the presence of the media.

For instance, last week EU Foreign Ministers met to formulate a response to Belarus’s decision to force a plane to land in Minsk. Cameras were located outside the negotiation room. Each Foreign Minister addressed the media, shared his narrative of reality, and then entered a closed session. It was in this closed session that different Ministers, from different countries, defined a shared reality and were able to formulate a shared response.

As was case throughout history, diplomats use the media and manipulate the media to advance their goals.

Q: Can it be argued that the digitalization of diplomacy contributes to political polarization as diplomats create ‘undiplomatic’ personas to attract followers?

A: Yes and no. Social media have a limited impact on our worldviews and beliefs. Notably, we do not live online. The offline world also shapes our opinions and beliefs. We listen to the radio on the way to work, talk with co-workers near water coolers, meet friends and visit other countries. All of these activities shape our understanding of the world and the actors who manage it.

I would argue that digital diplomacy impacts polarization indirectly by fracturing reality. MFAs now portray very different realities on social media. For example, according to some MFAs the city of Aleppo has recently been liberated from terrorists. According to other MFAs, Aleppo has been reduced to rubble. It is a city populated only by the dead.

These conflicting realities contribute to feelings of anxiety which can translate into greater support of populist movements. Populists are responsible for political polarization as they prioritize the state over the international community and rise to power by labeling ‘others’ as a shared enemy (e.g., migrants, foreigners). Indeed, the more digital diplomacy is used to contest reality, the more the world seems unfathomable to its inhabitants. Populists respond to this crisis of reality by summoning a nation’s glorious past to the present. For example, in post-Brexit UK, many politicians referenced the British Empire’s ‘last stand’ in WW2 arguing that Britain was once again willing to chart its own, independent course and protect its independence from Brussels. WW2 was thus used to help some Brits make sense of Brexit.

Q: What is the main challenge that arises from the digitalization of diplomacy?

A: I would say that one, important challenge is the new view of the ‘public’ as a problem that must be managed. Misinformation, disinformation and propaganda can warp public understanding of reality. Thus, diplomats now believe that they must protect their citizens from nefarious digital activities. This leads diplomats to view the public as a problem as the public can accidently help spread disinformation; the public can deliberately create and manage armies of Bots and spread conspiracy theories and the public can be swayed by disinformation. When citizens are viewed as a problem this changes how states act towards their citizens. Here again, digitalization impacts society indirectly.

Q: Has digitalization impacted the role of Ambassadors?

A: Digitalization has increased the profile of Ambassadors. In the 1800s few people knew, or interacted with, the French Ambassador to the UK. In the digital age, Ambassadors enjoy a greater public profile. Second, digitalization enables Ambassadors to bypass traditional media channels and interact directly with large publics. In previous decades, Ambassadors relied on media interviews and the writing of op-eds to reach large audiences. Now Ambassadors can use Twitter to interact with tens of thousands of followers.

Importantly, digitalization has also increased the importance of the Embassy. The telegraph led to the migration of power from the Embassy and the Ambassador to the Foreign Ministry. Using the telegraph, diplomatic headquarters could manage ties with other states in near-real time. In the digital age, power has migrated back to the Embassy and the Ambassador as it is Embassies that can foster ties with foreign citizens and it is Embassies that can tailor diplomatic content to the unique attributes of local audiences.

Interested in the digitalization of diplomacy? Be sure to register for upcoming debate asking if the advent of strategic communications has removed the ‘public’ from public diplomacy? Register in the link below

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