Hoffmann Scholar Ilan Manor, an expert in digital diplomacy and editor of the blog Exploring Digital Diplomacy, gives us a brief introduction into what digital diplomacy is and how it influences the world around us.

Technology has always impacted the practice of diplomacy. The printing press, for instance, contributed to the formation of nation states and the establishment of the role of Ambassadors. Mass media technologies such as the radio and television enabled governments to converse directly with the populations of neighboring states. The internet impacted the speed of diplomacy as diplomatic couriers and encrypted communications were replaced with more immediate means of communication such as the email.

Recent years have witnessed yet again the impact of technology on diplomacy with the migration of foreign ministries to social media (i.e., twitter, Facebook, YouTube). Often referred to as digital diplomacy, the incorporation of social media in the conduct of diplomacy may be viewed as both an evolution and a revolution in diplomatic practice.

An Evolution

Diplomacy has traditionally been occupied with three tasks: representation, information gathering and negotiation. Through social media, foreign ministries and diplomats are able to better preform these tasks. By following the social media accounts of influential bloggers and citizen journalists, a foreign ministry may gather valuable information and better understand or predict events in other countries. Indeed it has often been claimed that had the UK Foreign Office followed the hashtag Tahrir on twitter it would have anticipated the Arab Spring (this hashtag was used by the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir square).

In addition, through social media nations can better their represent their nations abroad. For instance, through its embassies’ twitter accounts, Israel can better explain its policies vis-a-vis the Arab world to foreign populations. Likewise, the British government can shape its international image in an attempt to better its relationship with the populations of Arab states.

Finally, through social media, diplomats are able to influence negotiations in real time. During the 2014 Crimea Crisis, the German Foreign Ministry was actively using social media in order to shape global public opinion and pressure Russia into withdrawing its forces from Eastern Ukraine.

However, it is also possible to state that the very attributes of social media indicate a revolution in diplomatic practice.

A revolution

Throughout the 20th century, governments had become accustomed to using mass media channels in order to communicate with foreign populations. These activities ranged from Nazi radio propaganda in the 1940’s to the use of the Voice of America radio station during the Cold War years. What is common to all such 20th century activities was a one way flow of information in which governments spoke at, not with, foreign populations.

This is not the case with social media as by definition sites like twitter and Facebook are centered on two way communication and an active exchange of information. Thus, governments can now speak with people, rather than at them. It is this transition from monologue to dialogue that is revolutionary in its character.

Two-way engagement holds many benefits for foreign ministries. Comments by social media followers on a ministry’s Facebook page can enable it to assess the manner in which its policies are viewed around the world (i.e., British migration laws, US use of drones in war on terror). Nations may also use such information in order to better manage their international reputation, an activity known as selfie diplomacy. Finally, foreign ministries may identify the issue shaping the global agenda.

Yet like all revolutions, foreign ministries struggle to adapt to social media. The need to converse with online followers necessitates both training and resources. Likewise, foreign ministries are change resistant organizations that are not eager to replace existing practices. Finally, it is often hard to predict how social media followers will react to content published online given the volatile nature of the online demos. At times, ministries’ posts or tweets can lead to online mayhem.

Between Evolution & Revolution

Digital diplomacy is now a global phenomenon. From Santiago to Baku, and Nairobi to Sydney, foreign ministries are migrating en masse to the online world. Yet most studies show that they are using social media in the same way they used the radio and television – they are talking at social media followers and not with them. Thus, it remains to be seen if digital diplomacy is indeed a revolution or merely another evolution in diplomacy.

About the Scholar

Ilan Manor

International Development (DPhil), 2018
St Cross College, Oxford
Hoffmann Scholar