The advent of digital diplomacy was closely associated with the practice of public diplomacy. The State Department first migrated online to converse with Muslim internet users and establish new ties throughout the Middle East. The Swedish MFA created the world’s first virtual Embassy in order to interact with global computer users while the Israeli foreign ministry sought to leverage social media to converse with users in the Arab world. Even the UK’s Foreign Office launched its blogosphere in an attempt to help digital publics make sense of complex global events, ranging from the Syrian Civil War to Brexit.
Yet the growing use of digital platforms to spread disinformation, misinformation and propaganda saw diplomats abandon the traditional goals of public diplomacy. Concerned with foreign digital interventions, such as the ones that took place during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US elections, diplomats hoped to leverage digital tools towards tracking and disabling fake social media accounts or networks of automated bots that spread false information. Between 2015 and 2021, diplomats focus shifted from interacting and conversing with digital publics, to shaping the eco-system that informs their worldviews and beliefs. The term ‘digital publics’ was soon substituted by the term ‘digital audiences’.
The question now is whether diplomats can return to their original use of digital tools, while placing a renewed emphasis on establishing ties with foreign populations? Even more importantly, can public diplomacy activities contribute to shaping information ecosystems? One answer lies in the growing polarization of online discussions.
The Polar Express
Studies published in recent years suggest that digitalization has contributed to the polarization of online discussions. Some have argued that this is the result of social media ‘echo chambers’. Social media algorithms strive to analyze users’ preferences and expose users to appealing content. Among other, algorithms identify the political orientation of users, and to expose users to information that matches this orientation. As social media logic would have it, liberal users would increasingly see content published by like-minded ‘Friends’, while missing content published by peers with conservative views. While the most recent studies suggest that ‘echo-chambers’ are half-truth, half-myth, there is no doubt that algorithmic filter bubbles exist and that these shape the content users are exposed to.
For instance, one study examined online discussions following a decision to ban beef in a certain part of India. Scholars found that online discussions were polarized as those who supported the initiative interacted with like minded peers, as did those who opposed the initiative. Most startling was the finding that there were few connections between these two, opposing groups. In other words, the digital conversation surrounding the banned beef was highly polarized, as shown below.
Increased polarization has also been found in studies focusing on political discussions. For instance, an analysis of online debates surrounding Brexit, and the 2010 US midterm elections, found that digital publics formed segregated networks. In 2015, there were two opposing networks, one which supported Brexit, and the second which opposed it. As was the case with beef debate, there was a small middle ground made up of individuals who did share information between the two segregated networks, as shown below.
Even Covid-related behavior seems to be polarized, with Democrats willing to be vaccinated, and Republicans refusing to do so. One important study examined users’ willingness to share dubious information online. The study found that both ardent liberals, and ardent conservatives, are willing to share half-truths and fake news stories. These then circulate widely within a segregated network. As fake news stories often include appeals to emotion, scholars have found evidence of emotional contagion in polarized and segregated networks. In other words, not only are online discussions polarized, but each pole is becoming increasingly more radical as it is flooded with information that evokes a strong emotional response. One famous example is Pizzagate, a fake news story, widely shared online, that suggested that Hillary Clinton and leading democrats were abusing children in a Washington pizza place.
Digital polarization is a serious challenge for diplomats. Polarization can lead to the resurgence of nationalism and the strengthening of populist movements who prioritize national policies over international collaboration and undermine shared approaches to shared challenges (e.g., climate issues). Moreover, emotional contagion leads to heated debates around policy issues leading to a narrowing of the middle ground. Yet it is at the middle ground that diplomacy operates. Third, segregated networks may be less willing to interact with diplomats or hear opposing views. This reduces diplomats’ ability to leverage digital tools towards policy advocacy. Finally, polarization is not confined to politics or contentious issues. Polarization surrounding Covid19 can hamper national and global efforts to face the pandemic. However, diplomats may be able to address the challenge of online polarization by searching for the new middle ground.
The New Middle Ground
All of the aforementioned studies found increased online polarization. Yet in all these studies, there exists a small middle ground, a small number of individuals that connect segregated networks and that facilitate the flow of information between opposing networks. Diplomats could seek to interact with these digital users in order to increase the flow of information between networks and reduce levels of online polarization.
Such an undertaking could include a six stage approach. First, diplomats and MFAs would use network analysis to map networks that have formed surrounding certain issues, be it banned beef, trade agreements or global vaccination efforts. Second, diplomats would use network analysis to identify the middle ground, those digital users that sit at the intersection of segregated networks. Third, diplomats could engage with these individuals while trying to ascertain their motives. What is it that leads these individuals to share content from opposing networks? Why are they willing to share contradictory information? Do they know that they are the new middle ground in online politics?
At the fourth stage, diplomats could attempt to create and leverage relationships with the middle ground. For instance, asking these individuals to share information and MFA content with both segregated networks. MFAs could also launch shared campaigns with the middle ground with the hope of disseminating factual information that can help fight emotional contagion and the emotive element in disinformation campaigns.
At the fifth stage, diplomats could empower the new middle ground by offering them training in the creation of social media content or providing them with tools and strategies to map the flow of the content they publish. In this way, MFAs may solidify bonds with the middle ground and, together, seek to reduce the gap between segregated networks. Finally, diplomats could try to reach other individuals located in the middle ground. Indeed, one individual located in the middle ground may help MFAs connect with other individuals occupying the same pace between networks.
By mapping, interacting and working with the new middle ground diplomats could reduce online polarization, combat disinformation and return to the origins of digital diplomacy- building and leveraging relationships with digital publics. This would put the P (public) back in PD (public diplomacy).