I’ve written/blogged about the inevitable rise of digital diplomacy, and the need to adapt to it. President Donald Trumps’ use of Twitter is testing the patience of the foreign policy community in particular, setting many against the wisdom of his use of Twitter, and the value of digital diplomacy in general.
However, this morning’s New York Times piece about the use of Twitter by the President of Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen, is an illustration of its significance, and likely growth. As Taiwan is working against efforts to marginalize the country and even ‘muffle’ news and information about the nation, Twitter is offering the President a means to go global with tweets in English to reach foreign journalists and others within and beyond Taiwan’s borders, including Chinese netizens around the world.
Interestingly, despite the legends of politicians ranting about President Trump using Twitter, most of those complaining – it seems – tweet!
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. Drawing from Richard’s paper, there are at least five ways in which the Internet and social media are reconfiguring diplomacy:
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”;
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;
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;
Pushing diplomacy to be more event-led, when the world knows about events that diplomats cannot ignore; and
Eroding borders, such as enabling diplomats to communicate locally or globally from anywhere at any time.
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.