by David LeemingIt is certainly true that the new and social media have transformed our lives in many ways. Whether or not you agree that the new technology has been a net benefit for political movements and activists, or believe in a more complicated, nuanced outcome as Zeynep Tuekci argues, we can’t deny the spectacular way the Occupy movement was able to mobilise tens of thousands of protesters to symbolically reclaim public spaces and creatively bypass authority. Another recent example of social media put to good use for political mobilisation was the use of the NationBuilder software in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Leadership campaign.
One might assume similar seismic events in the world of international policy making and diplomacy. Certainly the infusion of ICTs will have created new opportunity structures and resulting choices for diplomats and their staff. It must also be true for the professional and epistemic communities participating in international development conferences and summits, including activists. So what does the research tell us? .
In this article I will summarise examples of empirical research in two areas: international diplomacy and international development policy. I will follow this in my next post with an illustration of my own, involving a content analysis of Tweets on the West Papua independence issue around the time of an important Pacific Islands leaders meeting.
The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice
In this study, Christina Archetti  has researched the changing communication behaviours of a representative sample of diplomats resident in London. She notes that the new communication technologies are “redesigning the scope and patterns of social interaction, including political processes”. What then are the effects of this “reprogramming” on diplomacy?
Archetti refers to an evolutionary analogy to explain the process whereby social actors struggle to “survive” within the rapidly changing communications environment. The features of this environment as experienced by diplomats and their staff are defined by multiple networks, with the “geometry of the environment shaped by media access, availability of social contacts and structure of political opportunities”.
She notes two main trends in the literature, one focusing on technological constraints on political action, and the other focusing on agency at the expense of structure. Archetti’s ethnographic study, involving interviews of diplomats, reveals that changing behaviours cannot be explained by technological determinism alone. It is true, technologies are sometimes unavoidably disruptive, however we must look at the question of agency – how diplomats are appropriating technology to more effectively attain their diplomatic objectives. Those objectives include representation, projecting their home countries’ interests through public diplomacy, information-gathering and reporting back to their governments.
One structural factor is access to the mainstream media. Those countries attracting most political interest, either for traditional reasons or because they have a spotlight on them are less likely to develop alternative channels. Conversely, countries that do not attract much UK media interest such as Malta, find themselves needing to enhance their visibility by adopting new communication technologies.
The study reveals that “despite the hype”, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter may not be the first preference of diplomatic missions from their communicative toolkit. Firstly, human resources for managing social media do not come cheap. Again, it is those missions that do not attract media interest that tend to justify this cost.
In conclusion, the study reveals that there is no hard fast rule or one-size-all policy for new media use in diplomacy. Rather, a “multitude of nuances” characterises the way in which “diplomatic practices are both constrained and enabled by technologies”. These nuances include the changing role of the diplomat, with European missions moving away from the representative or “messenger” role to more of an administrative function. Structural factors include the country’s position within international system, media attention, the host country’s journalistic culture and environment and even physical characteristic of the city within which the diplomats reside and work.
Social Media and Global Development Rituals
My second example concerns social media research by Tobias Denskus and Daniel E Esser , who looked at a different domain of international diplomacy, that of international development policy making. Investigating the United Nations High-Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development goals, they analysed the content of a sample of 108 blog articles and 3007 tweets that discussed the meeting.
Denskus and Esser ask the central question whether, in the light of the technology use during the Arab Spring, social media can “produce a similar momentum at critical junctures of global policy emergence”. However, they found little evidence of sustained debates on alternative priorities and approaches to international development. On the contrary, most of the social media content mirrored the existing priorities. Twitter was used almost exclusively as a broadcasting tool concerning event updates rather than to catalyse critical discussion, although it did also serve to bring members of different epistemic communities together on the fringes.
They argue that such global conferences are performances or ritual spaces where different interpretations of international development practice are ordered, with some privileged over others. The event was more about “reliving learned practices” and reproducing global culture than about opening up a market place of ideas or a space for contestation. On the contrary, say Denskus and Esser, it is “sobering” to note that most emerging international development policies continue to be framed “offline” by professionals, without much sign (yet) of democratisation, at least in terms of influence via the social media.
 “Reunión con Julian Assange – 9060714006” by Xavier Granja Cedeño/Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores. Licensed under CC BY-SA
 Archetti, C (2012), The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice: An Evolutionary Model of Change, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 7 (2012) 181-206
 Denskus, T., Esser, D. 2013: Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit, Third World Quarterly 34: 409-424. brill.nl/hjd