Digital Diplomacy in #Ukraine- A Case of Strategic Transparency

The age of social media is the age of total transparency. Studies have found that the more personal a tweet or Facebook post, the more a user bares his soul, the more Likes they will garner. And as social media users wish to be seen and Liked, they become accustomed to sharing all facets of private life. On Twitter, users publish their successes and failures, marriages and divorces, Bar Mitzvahs and miscarriages. A notable example is a university professor who became a viral sensation when sharing a CV of his failures. This professor was Liked and Re-Tweeted to stardom because of his willingness to embrace the norm of transparency.

Transparency is made into a norm, or even a virtue, through financial and social incentives. Those Twitter users who obtain the most followers become “Twitteratis”. They sky down the slopes of Davos, and dine in luxurious Michelin restaurants, as they are endorsed by corporate brands. Yet Likes also offer a sense of social validation and belonging. Although social media rests on the concept of reciprocal validation, or mutual Liking, the fastest way to garner Likes is to expose one’s body and soul, to Selfie one’s graduation cap as well as his/her visit to the Auschwitz memorial. As Bauman and Lyon have argued, on social media everything once done in private must now be done in public and for public consumption.

However, transparency is also promoted through the activities of leaders and states. Leaders use social media to offer followers a “behind the scenes” look at power. Digital followers are at times turned into voyeurs, allowed access to a leader’s sanctum sanctorum. Consider the image below of Barack and Michelle Obama. It was obviously taken at the backstage of an event, and was obviously a private moment. A romantic interlude between a power couple that lives in the limelight. Yet this private moment was soon shared online, the messages being that there is no backstage anymore. Only a stage on which all social media actors must perform for their peers.     

States hammer the logic of transparency into the minds of citizens by supposedly embracing the value of open governance. Diplomats share images of intense diplomatic negotiations; foreign ministers share pictures from the sidelines of world summits while even intelligence agencies are active on social media including the CIA and MI6. The Chief of MI6 might not share secrets with his followers but he does share scenes from his home life. The activities of leaders, diplomats and spies all converge and urge social media users to also lead transparent lives. If diplomacy, a practice shrouded by discretion, is now transparent, if intelligence agencies are now transparent, how dare we lead private lives? Of course, in most cases states merely perform acts of transparency. The truth is that there are no open governments and that most governments are now focused on accumulating data on citizens and safeguarding that data under the guise of national security.

The current war in Ukraine offers another interesting example of how transparency can be leveraged by states.  I term these activities as strategic transparency, or instances in which a state publicizes its diplomatic activities so as to obtain strategic foreign policy goals. Over the past five days, numerous Ukrainian ministers have publicized their appeals to outside parties. For instance, the Ukrainian Minister for Digital Transportation has shared letters written to tech CEOs demanding that these stem the flow of Russian propaganda. In another instance, the minister publicly called on Elon Musk to ensure Ukrainian access to the internet. Yesterday, Ukraine’s foreign minister published a letter sent to the International Court of Justice demanding an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Russia.

These letters and pleas were made public not due to a commitment to transparent governance or out of a desire to ensure that social media users continue to share personal information. Rather, the publication of these letters may have served four strategic goals.

First, these letters demonstrate that there is a Ukrainian government, that it is functioning and that subsequently Ukraine remains unconquered by Russia. So long as these ministers engage publicly with world leaders, other governments or tech leaders the state of Ukraine remains intact. Second, these appeals are made public so as to exert pressure on other actors. Ukrainian ministers’ tweets have been re-tweeted by civil society organizations, NGOs, other governments and other ministers. Facebook could deny a private request made by the Ukrainian government to ban fake Russian social media accounts. Yet as these appeals are made publicly, and as they garner the support of state and non-state actors, it is harder for Facebook to deny Ukrainian requests.

Third, these public appeals are like signals sent to digital publics stating what the main issue of the day is. On Sunday, the main issue was blocking Russia from social media or at least limiting its ability to monetize from disinformation. The tweets published by the Minister of Digital Transformation went viral and online discussions soon focused on the topic of propaganda. On Tuesday the issue of the day was human rights’ violations and Russian war crimes. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister’s letter to the International Court of Justice went viral as users enthusiastically shared videos of Russian assaults on homes, hospitals and ambulances labeling these as war crimes.

Finally, Ukrainian public appeals serve as signals sent to allies. Following the Ukrainian Minister’s public demand from Facebook, a similar letter was published by the Prime Ministers of all three Baltic States. Former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, has amplified the message of human rights violations. By using social media to publicize demands from other actors, Ukrainian ministers are also able to rally support from their allies and thus further increase pressure on Facebook or the International Court of Justice.  

In all four cases, transparency has been used as a strategic tool enabling Ukraine to obtain concrete foreign policy goals ranging from banning Russian channels from YouTube or launching an investigation into possible war crimes by Russia. These are thus all examples of strategic transparency

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