Week Two – Digital Diplomacy

This is an overview of some themes and helpful links which have emerged from the 1,500 plus comments which have been contributed in Week Two of Diplomacy in the 21st Century.

(Diplomacy in the 21st Century is a course on FutureLearn provided by the Diplomatic Academy and the Open University.  If you haven’t already joined the course, you can register here.  The course is open until 10 March and can be started at any time.)

Week Two benefited hugely from the input of experts at the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group  and Twiplomacy – do follow @cbjola, @OxfordDiplomat, @Ilan_Manor and @luefkens if you’re on Twitter – and our lead academic consultant @drjsimonrofe.  The Twitter hashtag #digitaldiplomacy can be a very useful source for recent articles, studies and so on.

One big theme of the week was the distinction between social media use and digital diplomacy: these are not the same thing.  Many people liked the phrase “you don’t become a digital diplomat just by sending a tweet”.  In fact the point was reinforced by one of the FCO’s well-known exponents of social media, UK Ambassador to Austria Leigh Turner, who dropped into the course to leave some further thoughts on the risks of being seduced by the world of online clicks:

There is no doubt that “social media” offers huge new opportunities for sovereign governments and diplomats to influence debate. It also presents challenges, eg:
(i) how to balance your rather addictive social media work with the rest of the demands on your time;
(ii) how to ensure that the “hit” you get from social media feedback and followers is not influencing your behaviour in a negative way (doing silly things to drive followers)
(iii) how to detect, and ideally counter, the covert use of such tools to subvert democracy.

My tip: get trained in social media – it is a craft as much as an art. Use it, refine your use of it, think about it. It does add a whole new dimension to your life and work. But remain questioning and critical.

There was a rich discussion about the question of evolution vs revolution (or “evolution at revolutionary speed” as one participant suggested) – just how big an impact has new technology had on diplomacy?  Passing hype or new reality?  Most felt the impact was substantial, perhaps adding to, rather than replacing “traditional” or “closed circuit” diplomacy.  A lot of people mentioned clear impacts on:

  • the reach of diplomats
  • the speed of communication
  • the volume of information/data to process
  • the risk of misunderstandings
  • the speed of decision-making and diplomatic coordination.

People also raised disinformation, fake news, trolling and bots.  In line with Leigh Turner’s point about remaining critical, the most-liked comment of the week was a challenge to the “cyber-utopianism” which can downplay or ignore the dark sides of digital, eg social media monitoring and the issues it raises about the relationships between peoples and governments.

Other issues included:

  • the new (?) phenomenon of diplomats and politicians being active in the same space, and how to manage that
  • whether new technology has disrupted the previous formal hierarchy of diplomacy
  • inequality of access to technology and digital tools (eg in part of the world with poor digital infrastructure)

When asked which of four apps or platforms was most important in their professional lives, participants voted for Twitter (29%) followed by Facebook (20%) – with Instagram and YouTube a long way behind.  But 25% said “other” and many people mentioned LinkedIn and WhatsApp.

One participant posed an excellent question about successful examples of the evaluation of digital diplomacy.  A tweet from the Diplomatic Academy account didn’t elicit any good ideas (at least not yet).  But a promising source of updates is the Oxford group led by Professor Corneliu Bjola – who has written about “diplometrics” –  – and a Google search does throw up some promising case studies and research papers.

Evaluation of diplomatic activity is not just about the digital side: here’s a 2011 paper about the wider evaluation of public diplomacy.

If you’d like some suggestions on who’s doing digital diplomacy well, head to step 2.8 of the course (“Who’s Cracked Digital Diplomacy?”) and scroll through the 240+ comments- there’s no way of capturing the range here!

To conclude with some of the links provided by participants (a resource which is much appreciated by their fellow learners):

Thank you and we hope you continue to get something of value from the course.

Jonathan Marshall


One thought on “Week Two – Digital Diplomacy

  1. As someone who likes to keep one’s personal business to myself ( privacy ) I have been disinclined to ever use social media except perhaps linkedin in a professional means belief. I must endeavor to take on board social media training in an attempt to gain further and better understanding.


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