Sunday, 23 September 2012

Digital Diplomacy

The Economist this week  (22-28 September) includes a brief discussion of what it calls 'virtual relations' and 'digital diplomacy'. The article reviews how 'Foreign ministries are getting the hang of social media.' We are told that the US State Department has 'spawned 194 Twitter accounts and 200 Facebook pages':

About 20 British ambassadors are now on Twitter. Russia's foreign ministry is said to have more that 40 Twitter accounts. Israel has announced it will make more use of e-diplomacy. Even China, which heavily censors social media at home, is interested in using them as a diplomatic tool abroad.
       [Barack Obama's Twitter audience] of nearly 20m followers dwarfs the one of Venezuela's autocratic Hugo Chavez (3.4m) and Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev (1.5m).

I remain an e-agnostic. For one thing, these statistics tell us nothing about content: in public diplomacy does size really matter? I understand the motivation for wishing to participate in an already overcrowded information landscape, and I do not agree with critics who claim social media are another 'Trojan horse' for cultural or political imperialism. This is a naive argument that gives the social media too much power. Besides, audiences will always interpret messages in ways that may surprise the source and contradict the original motivation for the communication. In soft power, the power is rarely in the hands of the source and almost always resides with the audience.

When it comes to diplomatic activity and communications, I believe that we must be cautious in advocating the use of social media. Mere presence in the virtual sphere is meaningless without substantive content. Just as public diplomacy is not a panacea for bad policies, e-diplomacy is not a solution for poor presentation and communication. Governments looking to participate in the world of the social media must identify first the reasons for doing so, and second the expected outcomes.  Mere presence in an overcrowded information environment is an insufficient reason. As Joseph Nye wrote in The Future of Power (2011: 103): 'Plentiful information leads to scarcity of attention. When people are overwhelmed with the volume of information confronting them, they have difficulty knowing what to focus on. Attention, rather than information, becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable information from background clutter gain power.'

Sifting the 'background clutter' is not easy when we are faced with both information overload and time scarcity. Gone are the days when we could casually 'surf' the internet in response to Microsoft's question, 'Where do you want to go today?' Authority, trust and credibility of information is far more important than ever before and training users of the internet - especially diplomats - to think critically about the authenticity of both the source and the message is more urgent than at any time in the past. Most of us access very few websites every day and tend to rely on established print and television media - even if we no longer buy a newspaper from a vendor but instead access it online - for our news and information. We will still depend on 'old' media to guide us: Wikileaks was most valuable when its cables were republished in the Guardian, the New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel. The second tranche of cables which were not published in the press met a more muted response: the newspapers were able to contextualise the information for its readers, analyse it and explain its importance. We had time and space to digest what we read. Without this process of mediation, the relevance of such information is lost.

Hence, it pays to be cautious and not be too optimistic about the contribution of the social media to the gathering of intelligence, especially about public opinion. Reading China's Weibo may offer a far more raw, accurate and thorough insight into how its users think and feel about certain topics than any of the official mainstream media. The Economist article calls this 'diplomatic preparedness.' While it will remain difficult to predict events, despite what the article thinks, monitoring seriously the social media does provide the extra information that can supplement the intelligence diplomats should be gathering from elsewhere. However, there is still a need to contextualise the information and understand its source: how representative is Weibo if the majority of its users are young, University educated Chinese living on the eastern seaboard? Diplomats will never find a perfect substitute for leg-work, for getting out into the streets and talking to people face to face. It sounds simple and easy: I wonder how many diplomats actually still do it?

A thorough discussion of how American diplomats use the social media as a source of information, and to facilitate public diplomacy activities, is provided in William Kiehl's edited volume, The Last Three Feet. See my blog

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