On 15 February 2019, the Young Transatlantic Initiative and the General Delegation of the Government of Québec to Germany hosted a Munich Security Conference panel on Digital Diplomacy. I was invited, along with Florian Kling, to share my views on the future of diplomacy in the Digital Age. The following are my expanded introductory notes as shared at the session.

Diplomacy, as a form of political communication, evolves just as the rest of society in a Digital Age. This evolution can be described as communications moving towards a form of staged informal entertainment that is often quite reactive, with a hint of snark, all received and dissected in a hyper-critical milieu. In other words, diplomacy is becoming less civil in its digital form.

To dissect this opening statement, let’s explore what has changed, what the effects of those changes appear to be in general, and then, we will examine how those changes are manifesting in diplomacy through associated online communications.

What is diplomacy?

Diplomacy is essentially the communications between states.

The English term derives from the French diplomatie (diplomat), which in turn came from the Modern Latin word diplomaticus and Latin, diploma, meaning “official document conferring a privilege”. On reading this post, my dear friend Ioannis Petsilas noted that the Latin word is derived from the Greek word diploma or δίπλωμα “meaning something folded or rolled and by extension an official document, a diploma, an academic degree.”

Berridge and James in their Dictionary of Diplomacy defined diplomacy as “the conduct of relations between sovereign states through the medium of officials based at home or abroad, the latter diplomacy being either members of their state’s diplomatic service or temporary diplomats.” This complex system of relations, they note, was first termed “diplomacy” by Edmund Burke in 1796.

Yet, diplomacy also carries connotations of being able to deal “with people in a sensitive and tactful way,” implying some sort of delicacy or civility in communications, which is what makes some of what is happening in a Digital Age seem less than diplomatic.

What has changed?

While there is a tendency to proclaim that we are living in new and exciting times, this isn’t entirely the case. Information has always played a role in international relations and conflict, ever since people discovered the important role intelligence and perception play in strategy, ultimately developing ways to manipulate information and each other.

In terms of using information in diplomacy, the Venetians were exemplar. As Christopher Andrew notes in The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, Venice was a world leader in gathering information for strategic purposes, often blurring the lines between diplomacy and espionage: “Venetian ambassadors had a probably deserved reputation for being the best diplomatic-intelligence gathered. Many, probably most, ran agent networks as well as conducting diplomatic business.” Indeed, this activity and its effectiveness led Andrea Spinola, the 16th century Genovese author of Dizionario Filisofico-Politico-Starico, to proclaim that ambassadors who also gathered intelligence or spied performed honourable work. Information, including its careful use and manipulation, has long played an important role in diplomacy. What has changed, thanks to the internet and social media specifically, is the amount of information that can be assembled online without waiting for a diplomatic pouch to arrive from a foreign capital, and the speed and reach that information can now be distributed and accessed as well as the means of audience engagement with it. The fact that there is considerably more information now available than before the internet has rendered attention the scarce resource for which everyone is competing.

What are the General effects of these changes?

These changes in the speed and reach at which information can now be shared, combined with the ability of audiences to engage with it, have led to some general changes in communications in highly interconnected societies.

As the transmission of information has accelerated, so too has our expected response time to it. In 2015, an Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study found that consumers expected a response from a business Twitter account within 60 minutes, and to an email or Facebook message within 6 hours. By 2018, Hubspot found this expected response time had decreased, with 80% of respondents expecting immediate responses to their questions.

This ease of instantaneous communications has also led “to a less formal – but arguably more expressive – language” used in digital interactions. Being able to respond immediately reduces time for reflection, and replies can often be ill-thought through. This is an age of rapid opinion firing.

Ours is also a hyper critical time, if online comments are anything to judge by. Outrage is common, if not expected. The prevalence of anger online has been a growing concern since the early 2000s. Online we seem to be very unforgiving – and public shaming is fast and furious.  

In the competition for attention, entertainment is king, even in political communications. For many, “politics has become simply another form of entertainment”. Christian Schneider in a USA Today opinion piece bemoaned that “historically, politics has been fought by people with strongly-held positions, each making his or her case in public. But instead of citizens looking up to politics for information, politics now looks down at citizens to manipulate them through entertainment.” Given that politics informs diplomacy, insomuch as diplomats are official representatives of a state which in liberal democracies is governed by elected politicians, it should come as little surprise that diplomats are also attempting to use entertainment to win attention.

Beyond attempts to entertain wider audiences, diplomats are also under pressure to respond quickly, and as with the rest of society, diplomacy is becoming less formal online, but also quickly criticized by mass audiences, as the examples below explore.

How has it played out in Diplomacy?

In drawing from examples of diplomacy in a digital space, a few key trends emerge that mirror wider changes in general communications online, namely a turn towards staged entertainment, using social media to set narratives, the use of snark, unexpected high stakes consequences, and a growing informality – all set within an environment of hyper-criticism.

Diplomacy as Staged Entertainment

Diplomats, just like most everyone else, are competing for attention. This has led to attempts by some diplomats to use jokes or entertaining posts to make statements and trend online. This sort of staged entertainment can be seen in the post made by the Joint Delegation of Canada at NATO in 2014, which through a satirical post accompanied by a regional map critiqued Russian actions in Crimea. As far as official tweets go, this could be called a success insomuch as it garnered nearly 40K retweets.

Russian officials, not to be outdone, responded in kind. The following day referencing the Canadian tweet, the Permanent Mission of Russia at NATO posted a new map showing Crimea as part of Russia.

This post failed to garner as much engagement as the initial Canadian tweet, receiving less than 2K retweets. Unhindered by a lack of viral success, the Russian Embassy in the United Arab Emirates responded to reports that Russian armored vehicles were spotted entering Eastern Ukraine with a picture of toy military vehicles in an attempt to belittle such claims. This tweet did slightly better, earning nearly 4K retweets, but still not coming close to the Canadian map post.

Russia’s Equally Light Hearted Response

These informal, satirical posts from official representatives of states follows a general increase in informality of communications, with an emphasis on entertaining audiences to encourage spread of content. While diplomacy is the “the conduct of relations between sovereign states”, as Berridge and James defined it, such posts move beyond exchanges between two governments, however, and to an engagement with a broader audience of diverse citizenry. The ultimate aim might be to influence the politics of a target government, but in so doing such communications aims to do this through the hearts and minds of the general public.

At the same time as officials dabble in entertaining audiences for political ends, the field of entertainment is drawing on international relations for material – often to much greater success. By way of example, following Trump’s use of the campaign slogan “America First”, a Dutch comedian proposed to position The Netherlands Second in a YouTube video that has been watched nearly 30M times since early 2017.

When diplomats and other officials attempt to use entertainment as a means to reach ever broader audiences, they are, in effect, competing for the same audiences as the entertainers. This sort of cross over between official communications and entertainment blurs the lines for less savvy consumers who might not understand the differences in source. Likewise, such competition for attention will entail a continued reduction of formality in communications, which is not without consequences.

Using Social Media to Set the narrative

Diplomats and other public officials are also actively using social media to set the narrative on issues. In response to a post by the White Helmets, a group of volunteer emergency first responders in Syria, about the 4 April 2017 attack in Khan Sheikhun, Russian Ministry of Defence officials posted a counter narrative to YouTube and Facebook within 10 hours. The White Helmets had accused the Assad regime of conducting the attack, while Russian officials blamed terrorists.

While the stuffy video is in Russian, the Ministry of Defence social media accounts helpfully provided English subtitles and a lengthy corresponding Facebook post sharing the video. It is evident that Russian officials had hoped to influence a broader audience than just Russian-speakers. Just as the White Helmets had been successfully speaking to a wider audience outside of Syria, the Russians, too, turn to it to attempt to set the narrative on the conflict. 

Snarky diplomacy

As diplomacy in a digital age becomes more informal, a touch of snark creeps in. Snark, once the fanciful creature imagined by Lewis Carroll, has taken on new meaning in a Digital Age. An amalgamation of the words snide and remark, snark is “biting, cruel humor or wit, commonly used to verbally attack someone or something.” This definition from the Urban Dictionary suggests that snark is perhaps more sophisticated than it often manifests. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to find examples of it in modern diplomatic communications.

Indeed, Trump’s tweets are a veritable treasure trove of snide remarks about opponents as well as foreign leaders. Take for example his post in early 2018 claiming his nuclear button was much bigger than that of Kim Jong Un.

And as far as Trump goes, let’s stop there.

The US has also been on the receiving end of snark. Following the decision to close Russian consulates in the US due to findings that Russian operatives had attempted to influence American voters in the 2016 election, the Russian embassy in DC tweeted a poll asking followers which US consulate it should close in response.  

If diplomacy involves “dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way,” snark could not be further from it, and yet it continues to creep in to communications between state officials. This decreasing civility cannot possible be a good outcome if working relationships are desired between states.

Reactive with High Stakes

There is a tendency to distinguish between the online and offline worlds, with a sense that the former is somehow less real. Yet, information communications technologies are so integrated into our daily existence, particularly in more developed countries, that the online world now pervades almost everything we do such that this sort of distinction, between digital and physical, could lead to a poor understanding for our current environment. 

A simple tweet now has the ability to rapidly degrade international relations. Global Affairs Canada, the ministry responsible for international relations, learned this after publicly criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights track record on Twitter.

The tweet, which was translated into Arabic and posted anew by Canadian embassy in Saudi Arabia landed badly. As Reuters noted: “The reaction from Saudi Arabia was swift. Hours after the Arabic tweet, the Saudi government recalled its ambassador, barred Canada’s envoy from returning and placed a ban on new trade.”

The reaction took many pundits by surprise as Canada had regularly criticized Saudi Arabia with little to no effect. It is clear that something as innocuous as a tweet can have significant effects – and online outrage is not just for the masses.

Informal – and Criticised

As with many of the examples above, there is a tendency towards informality in diplomacy in a Digital Age – however, there is also a tendency towards reactive outrage and hyper-criticism as users pile on with their opinions.

Following social trends, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed the boundaries of informality in his tweet to comedian Trevor Noah, announcing funding for education women and girls as if addressing an old friend.

Unsurprisingly, Trudeau’s opposition at home readily seized the opportunity to claim he was attempting to impress a celebrity, despite the fact that the official announcement about this funding was made three weeks prior to the tweet, during the G7 Summit hosted by Canada.

In a quick analysis of the 100 most recent comments on the Trudeau tweet, Twitter users seemed to be no more supportive, with 75% posting negative responses, and only 11% adding positive replies. What’s more, these commenters perceived the Tweet to be the official announcement, not seeing the distinction between the official announcement weeks earlier, questioning the accountability of such a donation.

Many also picked up on the opposition leader’s comments about impressing a celebrity, while others pointed to other policy issues where they would rather see Canadian funding go.

Canada is a representative democracy, meaning politicians are elected to represent the people and thus make decisions on their behalf. With the internet and in particular social networks, there was much initial hype that this would bring a democratization process to society, enabling people to participate in public decision-making where they hadn’t been able to before. Most official use of social media, however, is much more in a traditional broadcast sort of format, or unidirectional to an audience, as opposed to engaging that audience. Governments have failed to really engage citizens in a meaningful way beyond consultations that often lead in the same direction as officials had initially planned. The average person at best has been given increased access to share their opinion with politicians. Expressing an opinion online is not the same as participating meaningfully in democracy. As liberal democracies continue to face the challenges brought by the ability of a variety of actors to shape the information environment for a strategic purpose, many governments will need to reassess what it means to have real, meaningful citizen engagement in the democratic decision-making process beyond the occasional election – this at a time when most governments are attempting to find ways to regulate or control the spread information in a bid to protect those very citizens.

Where does it go?

As seen in the examples above, diplomacy is following other trends in communications, namely adopting entertainment techniques, becoming much more informal and “snarkier”, using social media to attempt to control narratives, and all of this is happening in a very reactive and hyper-critical environment. Alas, it will likely worsen before it improves, as more countries and their officials adopt similar techniques to compete for limited attention spans among target audiences. There will be serious fallouts from adopting these approaches, leading to diplomatic rows as already evidenced in Canada-Saudi relations. Of course, all of this is not unique to diplomacy, but is part of a general trend in a Digital Age, mirroring what is happening across all of society.

About the Cover Image: Soviet Propaganda poster “‘Capitalists of The World Unite” c. 1919

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About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.

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