Twitter Foreign Policy and the Rise of Digital Diplomacy

Recent Chinese concerns over ‘Twitter Foreign Policy” are just the tip of the iceberg on the ways in which the Internet has been enabling diplomacy to be reconfigured, for better or worse. Over a decade ago, Richard Grant, a diplomat from New Zealand, addressed these issues in a paper I helped him with at the OII.[1] Drawing from Richard’s paper, there are at least five ways in which the Internet and social media are reconfiguring diplomacy:

  1. Changing who participates in diplomacy, creating a degree of openness and transparency, for example through leaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, that puts diplomacy in the public eye, establishing an entire field of “public diplomacy”;
  2. Creating new sources of information for diplomacy, such as when mobile Internet videos become key to what is known about an event of international significance;
  3. Speeding up diplomatic processes in response to the immediacy of news about events in the online world that require more rapid responses in order to be more effective, such as in challenging misinformation;
  4. Pushing diplomacy to be more event-led, when the world knows about events that diplomats cannot ignore; and
  5. Eroding borders, such as enabling diplomats to communicate locally or globally from anywhere at any time.  th-1

These transformations do not diminish the need for diplomats to serve a critical role as intermediaries. If anything, the Internet makes it possible for diplomats to be where they need to be to facilitate face-to-face interpersonal communication, making the geography of diplomacy more, rather than less, important. However, it poses serious challenges for adapting diplomacy to a globally digital village, such as how to adapt hierarchical bureaucracies of diplomacy to respond to more agile networks, and how to best ‘join the conversation’ on social media.

[1] Richard Grant (2004), “The Democratization of Diplomacy: Negotiating with the Internet,” OII Research Report No. 5. Oxford, UK: Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1325241  Also discussed in a talk I gave last year on Mexico in the New Internet World, see: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2788392

4 thoughts on “Twitter Foreign Policy and the Rise of Digital Diplomacy

  1. This makes sense. Also, and as we have seen, social media has been effective at influencing the media agenda. What I find difficult to measure is the effect of the Twitter “undiplomacy” that we have all experienced lately. Threats, endorsements, fake news, dog whistles, etc. Is all of this sustainable?

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    • Good question. While it seems unlikely to be sustainable, there is some sense that others are adapting to President Trump’s tweets, such as reading them in the morning, and taking them in with a grain of salt, as sort of a feeling thermometer. Overtime, the President and his inner circle cannot help but become more aware and informed about the history and present state of relationships, so their digital diplomacy might be taken ever more seriously. We shall see, but I notice more politicians getting on Twitter, not fewer.

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  2. I have watched relentless attack on the “media” (i.e. journalism) today at a press conference, even news personalities and executives. I have a feeling that when social media starts acting like “media” current enthusiasm for digital diplomacy will wane. Or do you think that the fifth estate is less confrontational than the fourth?

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    • Khaled Soubani, I agree that the tenor of debate within the media and on social media is often too partisan and vitriolic. However, the media are extremely powerful institutions, and they should not be worried about being held to account by their readers, or receiving commentary from their readers, and social media are among the few avenues for providing meaningful feedback.

      But maybe you were talking about the President’s criticisms of the media at his press conference. Again, however, the vitriol is flowing both ways. One hopes the administration and the press raise the level of civility and the quality of discourse about public issues.

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