Reaping the benefits of digital public diplomacy

Yet reaping the full benefit of digital public diplomacy requires that diplomats invest time and resources in cultivating online relationships which rest on dialogue.

By CORNELIU BJOLA,
December 19, 2017 21:57
4 minute read.
 ‘WHILE THE Israeli Foreign Ministry has long since been regarded as a digital leader, it is now als

‘WHILE THE Israeli Foreign Ministry has long since been regarded as a digital leader, it is now also at the forefront of the battle against online hate having developed new digital capabilities.’. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Last week, the Foreign Ministry hosted Israel’s Second Digital Diplomacy Conference. Attended by representatives from 30 foreign ministries throughout the world, the conference explored how diplomacy can contend with an increasingly violent online sphere. The issues addressed in the Israeli conference demonstrate how the practice of digital diplomacy has altered in recent months.

Digital diplomacy was initially viewed by diplomats as a tool for engaging with foreign populations. By utilizing digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, diplomats could converse online with foreign publics, narrate their nation’s foreign policies, respond to online criticism of these policies and demonstrate a commitment to fostering understanding between nations.

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This way, digital diplomacy promised to assist foreign ministries not only with the promotion of their agenda, but most importantly, with building relationships with foreign populations by practicing a new and more engaging form of public diplomacy.

The past two years, however, have cast a new light on digital platforms. Social media algorithms, which tailor one’s online experience to his/her political orientation, are now seen as being responsible for creating echo chambers which polarize public opinion and erode societal discourse. Within these echo chambers, the rhetoric of hate becomes deafening, often leading to offline manifestations of violence. Fake news, conspiracy theories and emotionally charged rumors flood the digital environment, thereby transforming the digital society into an ignorant society, while disinformation is strategically used by countries to influence democratic processes in other states.

It is against this backdrop that the Israeli conference sought to identify new tools and techniques for contending with digital threats. While the Foreign Ministry has long since been regarded as a digital leader, it is now also at the forefront of the battle against online hate, having developed new digital capabilities. Specifically, the ministry now practices “algorithmic diplomacy,” to map digital networks, empower online influencers and to prevent the spread of malicious and false information among their networks. Over the past two years, the ministry has demonstrated a notable ability to prevent the spread of antisemitic and anti-Israeli content online.

The development and employment of algorithms by a Foreign Ministry represents a new form of digital public diplomacy, one that far exceeds the publishing of Facebook posts. However, foreign ministries still face significant challenges in their attempt to reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of digital public diplomacy. One of these is ministries’ lack of two-way engagement with online publics.
As studies have consistently shown, foreign ministries do not use digital platforms to engage in conversations. Rather, they employ broadcast communication techniques in which information is blasted at online users. Yet it is unlikely that individuals will alter their opinions, world views and biases following a well crafted tweet.

Opinion and behavior change can only occur through continuous dialogue and relationships forged between diplomats and digital communities.

Another challenge facing foreign ministries is the fierce competition over online publics. Diplomats are by no means the only ones attempting to win over connected individuals, as these are targeted by a host of actors ranging from advertisers to news outlets and foreign governments.

The Ukrainian online public, for example, has been targeted by US, British and Russian digital diplomacy and news channels. Winning this online competition necessitates that foreign ministries act as authentic communicators. In other words, diplomats cannot hide behind ambiguous diplomatic language or offer amorphic responses to online questions.

Authenticity also requires that diplomats recognize and address the negative consequences of their country’s most contentious policies, be it the use of drones in the war against terrorism, the sale of weapons to authoritarian regimes, or military interventions.

Importantly, authenticity can help foreign ministries overcome a third challenge, that of false information. The digital environment is one that empowers small actors and levels playing fields. On Twitter, a single blogger can be as influential as an established news outlet. Moreover, the speed at which information spreads online means that actors can make outrageous claims without having to prove their allegations. The digital environment is thus one is which fake news spreads as fast as real news. This reality has led many online communities to search for credible sources of information.

Foreign ministries can fill this void by providing digital publics with accurate and timely information and by working with online communities to co-create programs and projects to increase societal resilience against disinformation.

The rise of echo chambers of hate, disinformation and fake news has led some diplomats to doubt the potential of digital public diplomacy. Innovative approaches to diplomacy, such as algorithmic diplomacy, can help foreign ministries overcome some of these challenges. Yet reaping the full benefit of digital public diplomacy requires that diplomats invest time and resources in cultivating online relationships which rest on dialogue, authentic conversations, accurate information and genuine engagement.

Dr. Corneliu Bjola is an associate professor in diplomatic studies in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford and the director of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group. Ilan Manor is a PhD candidate in digital diplomacy at the University of Oxford.


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