Digital media, data and diplomacy

Once upon a time, diplomats travelled by horse to hand over handwritten messages of peace. Or threats of war. Sometimes, once they arrived, war was already a fact. Today, the president of the United States uses Twitter to spread messages about destroying another country, and the other country’s response quickly gets viral.

‘My God, this is the end of diplomacy!’ called out Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister, when he received the first telegraph message in the 1850s. Since then, practically all major inventions in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have given raise to predictions of major change in human relations. But what’s in it for diplomacy? In which ways are digital media and data affecting diplomatic practices?

Diplomacy might have ended as Lord Palmerston knew it, but it definitively didn’t end. In the paper The impact of New Media on Diplomatic practice: An Evolutionary Model of Change, Dr. Cristina Archetti, now Professor in Political Communication and Journalism at the University of Oslo, shares her findings on how diplomats in the late Lord’s own capital London use new media, mainly websites and social media networks.

“the less a country receives attention in mainstream news media, the more that country’s diplomats will turn to new media sources”

Archetti’s main finding is that in general, the less a country is perceived as politically interesting and the less it receives attention in mainstream news media – be it digital, electronic or traditional print, TV or radio – the more that country’s diplomats will turn to new media sources to draw attention to themes of its interest. Archetti refers to this as an evolutionary model of change, where the less fit or attractive by the media’s standards become more innovative in their struggle for mediatic survival.

Interestingly for me as I work at the embassy of Sweden in Rome, Sweden is among the countries studied and happens to be the one found to make the most use of alternative communication channels, while also being the one (after Malta) to receive less attention in news media.

The conclusions might be somewhat stretched considered the limited scope of the study and the lack of attention to other factors that could affect the diplomatic missions’ media usage. Still, it raises some interesting points for reflection and comparison.

Media makes the world go round – Creative Commons image

Back in 2011 when the paper was published there was no dedicated press or communication officer in the Swedish embassy in London, and the main digital outreach channel was the embassy’s own website, according to Archetti. Today there is a press officer and two cultural officers, and the embassy is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In Rome there are two such positions and we post on Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis. Staff use smartphones to communicate on the go.

Yet the impact of digital media and data on diplomacy goes far beyond facilitating public diplomacy and increasing the options for promoting one’s country and its values to a foreign audience. For a start, being connected with fellow diplomats on social media, on portable devices help ‘de-formalize’ relations and facilitate exchange of non-sensitive information. In addition, using web-based platforms to comment on policy documents within multilateral development cooperation increases the speed of interaction, and saves travel emissions.

But changes might actually be far more far-reaching, moving beyond shape and speed into the actual substance of diplomacy and development.

In a recent blog article, Jovan Kurbalija explores how the surge in data usage and infrastructure are transforming the environment, topics and tools of diplomacy. Kurbalija compares the international flows of data to those of oil when showing how the cross-continental cables for internet traffic are re-shaping the playing field of diplomatic geopolitical and geoeconomic deliberations. Harming these cables could threaten vital societal functions and security, and would most probably be considered an act of international aggression that could have serious consequences for diplomatic relations.

Data, technology and security – Creative Commons image.

The digital era also introduces new negotiation topics on the diplomatic agenda such as privacy rights and data protection, e-commerce and trade. Apart from the speed with which they develop, the multidisciplinary nature of these topics posts challenges to diplomats, who must often seek and balance advice from experts in areas ranging from economy and security, to technology, law, and human rights.

New methods for data management have great potential for making diplomatic activities more effective, inclusive and transparent.

Of course, data in the meaning of bits of information is nothing new to diplomacy. It’s the new forms of data brought about by digital technology, including web-data, satellite data and crowd-sourced data, that provide challenges and opportunities for diplomatic practices. We have seen how social media and digital platforms facilitate diplomatic exchange. New methods for data collection, analysis and sharing also have great potential for making diplomatic activities, including aid cooperation, more effective, inclusive and transparent. Look out for an upcoming post on this topic!

4 Comments

  1. Ali Ababneh

    Hi Clara, Very interesting topic indeed, it seems that technology especially when it comes to ICT always brings the question about change, the old ways might die and new ways are approaching. I think that for example social media has two sides in its impact in diplomacy. It helps states to share their political opinions about a given situation in other countries and take it directly to the public. But also it change the way diplomacy is working. It made it more open, more flexible and accessible, but I also think less credible.

    • Clara Axblad

      Hi Ali, thanks for your comment!
      The question about credibility in very interesting indeed. I tend to share your thought that bringing diplomatic communication closer to the broader audience and making it more accessible also in terms of language might actually make it less credible for the same audience, as it could be conceived as more volatile and less authoritative when placed next to kitten videos than in a news paper or on an official government website. Clearly it depends on the content of the message; turism or other types of popular trade and cultural issues might fit better with the ‘social media logic’ than messages of war and peace, for example. In any case this might be part of a bigger globalizing information trend where the rapid flows of communication makes messages less persistent and ‘true’ in general.
      Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  2. Sofoklis Dais

    I haven’t touched Archetti’s paper until now, I was afraid that it would end up being too specific and boring. Clara, you changed my mind. Thanks!

    You should be thankful that Sweden is the one to not receive much attention in news media, especially when the attention reflects a country’s will to obliterate another country and backwards 🙂 .

    • Clara Axblad

      Thank you Sofo for your comment! I hope you’ll find the paper interesting. And I guess you’re right about the attention, although I figure the situation is a bit different today considering Sweden’s outspoken feminist foreign policy and engaged membership of the Security Council. Thanks again for visiting!

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