There are real limits to digital diplomacy

Digital diplomacy is hard to define.  First coined in 2001, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office simply defines digital diplomacy as ‘solving foreign policy problems using the internet.‘  But this definition does not illustrate the complexities of digital diplomacy.  One certainty is that social media plays a large part in this – governments use the likes of Facebook, Twitter and online government portals to communicate with other governments and both foreigners and nationals in a cost-effective way.  

Because it uses the latest digital technologies available, it is ever evolving, which is perhaps why it is hard to pin down a definition.  It is often described as empowering and increasingly more important for citizens across the globe.

There is a seductive logic behind digital diplomacy.  As more and more time is being dedicated to establishing new methods of digital diplomacy, it is important to realise that there are real limits to digital diplomacy – and more than just the odd skepticism that gets attached to ‘buzzwords.’  

Digital access

There is no denying that the internet is a powerful tool, as is social media.  With 3.02 billion people or 38% of the world population expected to be on social media by 2021, coupled with a fast-growing rate of global mobile penetration around the world, it would be unreasonable to deny that the internet is here to stay.  This means that governments can exploit the potential for positive, creating meaningful digital diplomatic engagement that is strong, transparent and powerful.

Digital diplomacy relies on access to the internet.  For those living and working in North America, Europe, and other affluent countries, access to the Internet is a given.  However, there are still many people who do not have access to the internet on a regular basis. As Keith Kirkpatrick explains, in many countries in ‘there is relatively sparse infrastructure in place to allow citizens of these areas to access the Internet. Moreover, even when there are connections available, many people in those regions simply cannot afford either the devices required or the account access.’  There is a real difference between countries, and even within countries, between rural and urban areas.

If there is no digital access, digital diplomacy will mean very little to citizens.  It does not matter if Emmanuel Macron has taken a selfie with his fellow world leaders or António Guterres has had a tweet gone viral. This means that governments have to rely on traditional forms of diplomacy or accept to have no engagement at all.

There is also no ‘one size fits all’ solution.  Some countries are more reliant on one form of social media, usually Facebook, whereas others need a strategy spanning over a plethora of websites.  If a government website is brilliant, it does not matter if it is hard to access on a mobile phone in a country where few people have desktop computers or laptops.  Similarly, it is wonderful to have a great Twitter feed, but not so useful if your population is largely reliant on Facebook.

Governments do recognise that digital access is important, and many governments have made it central to their overseas development programmes.  But at present, there is still a gap between digital diplomacy reaching the furthest corners of countries.

Disinformation

It is not just the ideas that governments are putting out there – everyone can post on social media and we are living in the era of fake news.  Disinformation, false information spread deliberately to deceive, has caused real earthquakes in the political sphere in the last decade.  

In the short term, disinformation can be utilized reactively by different entities – to mislead a population, perhaps to cover up a story.   In 2014, Russian-backed fighters in Eastern Ukraine shot down a commercial airliner. As a result, Russian state media offered often conflicting alternative explanations for the plane’s crash.

In the long-term, it can shift political discourse and change results of elections – both the victories of the Leave campaign in the UK and Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election have been attributed to the use of mass disinformation.  One story that was widely circulated was Pizzagate, which gained covered in autumn 2016. After the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager was hacked in a spear-phishing attack, his emails were made public by WikiLeaks. Proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory falsely claimed that the emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting several U.S. restaurants, including the Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong and high-ranking Democratic Party officials with an alleged child sex ring.

There has always been false information circulated, but the widespread use of Twitters bots, falsified news, deceptive videos and even trolls has meant that decisions are made on false information and many argue that it undermines democracy.  Effective disinformation campaigns usually draw on preexisting divides within target societies and produce content for which there is societal demand. By doing this, it can certainly undermine domestic and international relations, and therefore becomes a blockade to digital diplomacy.  As Dr. Corneliu Bjola explains, ‘The optimism from the early days of the “Arab Spring” about digital platforms empowering the powerless, has given way to the pessimism induced by the proliferation of the echo-chambers of hate and the rise of post-truth politics.’  

There are initiatives to tackle disinformation, such as ignoring it or using humour to dispel it, however, foreign ministries might not be able to eliminate it completely.  With more insight and understanding on how it works, they should be able to produce counter-strategies to reduce its impact.

Easy solutions

As mentioned in the beginning, there is a very seductive logic behind digital diplomacy and the idea that it will be increasingly important and effective.  This is not something to dispel, but those working in diplomacy should avoid attaching themselves to simple solutions.

It is a common belief that digital technology can grant extraordinary power to those using them and people can look at the multitude tech start-ups with exponential growth, rather than all the ones that were trampled in their path.  If this were true, it could help countries increase their diplomatic clout to levels they might otherwise not be able to reach.

It is largely for this reason that small- and medium-sized states (for example, Sweden, Mexico, Israel,) have proved so keen and early adopters of digital diplomacy. But the United States, China, and the more historical superpowers are still diplomatic heavyweights, with their trade and affluence to support them – even if digital diplomacy were presented as an opportunity to punch above their political weight.

Digital diplomacy cannot replace traditional diplomacy in all its forms, whilst there are people still with limited access to the internet.  Nor can it ensure transparency in diplomacy, whilst societies still find it difficult to dispel disinformation. Whilst there has been exciting disruption and great leaps made in communicating across borders, we cannot yet rely on digital diplomacy as a sole form of diplomacy.  

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