Social media activism and international diplomacy

by David Leeming

Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño with freedom technologist Julian Assange [1]

 It 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 [2] 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 [3], 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.

[1] “Reunión con Julian Assange – 9060714006” by Xavier Granja Cedeño/Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores. Licensed under CC BY-SA

[2] 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

[3] 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.


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  1. Muhammad Al-Waeli

    Interesting post.

    When thinking about diplomacy and social networks, the fist diplomat that comes to my mind is the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who although has a relatively small number of tweets, seems to be using Twitter effectively.

    His first tweet was “thanks for warm welcome to twitter. hope to be able to #interact & stay in touch.” His second one was “Happy Rosh Hashanah” (Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year), which was a huge surprise to the world. Needless to say, the Iranian diplomacy using Twitter, or the so called “Twiplopmacy” did make some interesting headlines since then [1].

    Mr. Zarif is definitely “appropriating technology to more effectively attain their diplomatic objectives”, as you said. And by roughly analyzing his tweets, the objectives you mentioned, like “representation, projecting their home countries’ interests through public diplomacy, information-gathering and reporting back to their governments.” seems to be what Zarif is aiming when using Twitter.

    And the world is ‘following him’ when doing that. He has 10 times more followers than the current UK foreign minister Philip Hammond and about half as many followers as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, which still is considerable.

    It also seems that social media is convenient in many other instances.

    For example, one thing he (and others) seems using social media for is to bypass the conventional media outlets and directly delivering news to the public. I can imagine that there exist many motives for that. It is definitely more convenient to have complete control over what to say to the public instead being bombarded and pressed by reporters to say something in press conferences. Another motive for that might be having the opportunity to deliver a clear message to the public without the risk of being misquoted or misinterpreted. And above all, it is quick.

    Another very common practice social media is used for is to provide links to articles published. I guess the op-eds written by diplomats will have more readership in a short time when announced on Twitter and shared by thousands of followers. Javad Zarif’s response to Senator Tom Cotton letter did get 3.6K retweets, and 4.2K favorites.

    Thank you for the post.

    [1] For example read this: Twiplomacy and the Iran Nuclear Deal:

  2. Christos Mavraganis

    Thank you David for such an interesting post. It is clear that you’ve dealt with it in depth, as you raise some serious points regarding to international diplomacy that relates with the new media.
    First of all, the usage of Cristina Archetti as a main source for literature theory was excellent, as the “The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice” is very useful and relevant.
    The quote that you are referring to, that the new communication technologies are “redesigning the scope and patterns of social interaction, including political processes” successfully describes the new era and another relevant input would be what Hemer and Tufte describe, when saying that “…the communications sphere becomes an essential medium through which individual participants and players identify, interpret and represent their social and cultural wants and needs. In doing this, they begin to shape development itself” (Hemer & Tufte, 2005, p. 299)”.
    At another point, you go on describing the new communications environment that is shaping in an ongoing procedure and effects the diplomacy field. This new landscape has also been under examination by Shirky, who is referring to a Katz and Lazarsfeld’s famous study. This study points out that mass media alone can not change people’s minds. It also indicates that there is a two-step process in which opinions are firstly transmitted by the media, and then it is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. In this second step, the social media can make a difference (Shirky, 2010, p.4). The diplomacy actors are evolving through procedures like this one, as they realize that the times when propaganda through the mainstream media was enough for them to achieve their goals, has long gone.
    After a quite long list of obstacles that you mention based on Archetti’s view, you give the conclusion that diplomacy cannot operate inside a strict framework and that the policies must adjust to the needs of “now”. Something that might be interesting for you to look up, is another point of Arcetti’s work. And this is that the author also underlines the issue of the local differences. She sets the question: “How can any analysis of the effectiveness of communication with audiences have any practical relevance if local differences are not taken into consideration?” (Archetti, 2012, p. 188). Therefore, diplomacy -and especially international diplomacy- has to be considered as a constantly moving and reshaping map. A map which you can follow to the letter, but still this might not be enough to have a successful outcome. But an extremely complex map seems like a better solution than no map at all.

    You’ve made an excellent work David, using literature sources that back up your points to the most of it.



    Hemer, Oscar & Tufte, Thomas (2005) Media and Glocal Change. Rethinking Communication for Development. Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Chapters 16, 17 and 27.

    Shirky, C. 2010: The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political change, Foreign Affairs 90: 28-I.

    Archetti, C. 2012: The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice:An Evolutionary Model of Change, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 7: 181-206.