Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a conference organized by the European International Studies Association. One of the presentations focused on the Indian government’s new affinity for limiting access to the internet and social media sites under the guise of national security. In recent years, a growing number of nations have limited access to social media under similar pretenses including Belarus, Brazil, Egypt, Eritrea, Turkey and Ukraine (see the image below). An important question is how do such domestic digital policies impact the practice of digital diplomacy?
India serves as an interesting case study for two reasons. First, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) dedicates considerable resources to digital diplomacy. In addition to managing an abundance of social media accounts at the MFA and Embassy level, the MEA uses digital technologies for Diaspora outreach and image management as evident in the promotion of the International Day of Yoga. Moreover, the MEA has developed the most comprehensive smartphone Application that offers users an array of services ranging from consular aid to visa applications. Using the App, users can also review international accords and bi-lateral agreements while accompanying Indian diplomats as they tour the world.
Second, Prime Minister Modi has successfully positioned himself as a popular world leader on social media. The Indian PM routinely tweets images from his visits abroad while also communicating with foreign populations in local languages ahead of state visits. According to the Twiplomacy website, Modi is the second most popular leader on Twitter with an estimated 63 million followers. Early in his tenure, brand Modi had a ‘Halo Effect’ on brand India as a whole. Indeed, Brand Modi stood for the accelerated digitalization of India as well as more open forms of governance. These traits impacted the associations attached to Brand India.
And yet, the Modi government has increasingly moved to restrict access to the internet and social media sites. The question that comes to the fore is how do these domestic policies impact India’s practice of digital diplomacy?
Presently, the Indian MEA has not altered its use of digital technologies and its social media accounts are all active as is its smartphone Application. India thus seems to embrace digital technologies in external communications, while limiting access domestically. This may have serious ramifications for India’s global image as discrepancies between domestic and foreign digital policies may reduce India’s credibility. This, in turn, may limit diplomats’ ability to use digital technologies externally, be it to communicate with foreign populations or with Diaspora groups.
A more familiar case study is China. The Chinese government has long since restricted access to the internet through its Great Firewall. This Firewall not only restricts access to the internet, but also limits the information that Chinese digital publics may access when using popular search engines. The Chinese government also bans most Western social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Finally, the government uses the so-called ‘50 Cents Army’ to monitor and shape domestic, digital conversations.
At the same time, Chinese diplomats have recently migrated to social media networks. A growing number of Chinese Ambassadors are now active on Twitter while using the platform to comment on international crises, including the Covid19 pandemic, and deny allegations of Chinese mistreatment of the Uyghur minority. Chinese Ambassadors have also taken to practicing ‘real-time’ diplomacy publishing tweets ahead of international summits or following important bi-lateral meetings.
Here again there is a strong discrepancy between a state’s domestic and foreign digital policies. While Chinese citizens cannot access Twitter, their diplomats are quite active on this network. This stark contrast may undermine Chinese credibility thus limiting its digital communications. If China is so restrictive of social media domestically, its external communications may be viewed as nothing more than propaganda aimed at negating allegations levied against China be it in the spread of Covid19 or the mistreatment of Uyghurs.
This post therefore postulates that one cannot separate a state’s domestic digital policies from its foreign digital diplomacy activities. A contrast between domestic digital policies, and external digital communications, may reduce the credibility of a state, harm its national image and prevent its diplomats from fully leveraging digital technologies in publics or Diaspora diplomacy activities. Even more fundamentally, such discrepancies may lead digital publics not to put faith in the digital statements of diplomats, ranging from Embassy staff to Ambassadors.
One cannot undermine digital freedom and at the same time use digital tools freely.