I recently attended an event called #DiploHack, organized by the SecDev Foundation in partnership with the Governments of the Netherlands and the Government of Canada. The event brought together a multidisciplinary group of diplomats, social entrepreneurs, tech developers, journalists, NGOs, and businesses in an effort to ‘hack’ traditional diplomatic problems using creative technological and internet based solutions. Listening to the speakers, and mingling with the attendees, it became evident that there was no clear consensus regarding what Digital Diplomacy actually was, or how best it could be used. At this Hackathon, our goal was to find applied, pragmatic, and workable answers to real world problems (e.g., violence against civilians in Syria) through the use of digital technology. That said, the elephant in the room was a broader more abstract yet seemingly innocuous problem: How is the Internet impacting global politics and relationships between states?
The Internet has introduced a series of new foreign policy tools to the state giving rise to a host of new challenges and opportunities. Some of these are an extension of hard power tools such as state sponsored hacking (e.g., Stuxnet virus) others are extensions of state soft power such as digital diplomacy. Amongst the emerging Internet based soft power projection tools are a range of activities we call Digital Diplomacy. A hodgepodge of various communicative acts generally involving social media whose intention is to influence the behavior of foreign publics and foreign states. Much like every other Internet based tool of state, the contours of digital diplomacy are blurry. While states are actively using Digital Diplomacy, we do not have an agreed upon definition.
For example, is Digital Diplomacy something that always takes place over social networks? What about not so independent state sponsored news channels (e.g., Russia Today)? Should these more permanent outlets of state sponsored views be seen as a form of Digital Diplomacy? Alternatively we could ask: what is the difference between traditional public diplomacy and today’s Digital Diplomacy? Is Digital Diplomacy simply public diplomacy in the digital era? These are just some of the questions we need to answer.
Without a good definition of Digital Diplomacy, it is difficult to measure its success' or failures. Do we take a communications based approach and count tweets, page views, and response rates? Do we take a policy oriented approach and evaluate if policy objectives were met? Do we even know which policy objectives are best served through Digital Diplomacy and which ones are better undertaken using traditional tools? For example, should we use Digital Diplomacy in conjunction with private negotiations such as trade negotiations? To what extent, for what purpose? Should it be used to influence a civil conflict? If so, how would it be impactful and what policy objectives should it serve?
Organizing for successful Digital Diplomacy:
Knowing what Digital Diplomacy is, how it works and when it works enables us to organize effectively. But then we must tackle the fact that the Internet challenges the very structures which form the foundation of traditional diplomacy – bureaucratic structures. Traditional bureaucracies, sometimes for good reason, take their sweet time developing policy and the associated public communication. This meticulous multi-step and multi-layered approach to the development of communication, spawned by the hierarchical form of organization was great for uni-directional communication mediums such as television, radio, and newspapers. Before the Internet, the perfect message could be tailored and sent across the airwaves without much fuss. Governments did not need to worry about a creative tweet by some pimply kid in his parents’ basement challenging meticulously developed communication and retweeted by thousands in a span of a few minutes.
Why we need a panel
All these questions seem daunting. The contours of the practice of digital diplomacy are blurry. This is precisely why a panel on Digital Diplomacy is so important. Through this panel we will further discussion on fundamental issues. We can ask: how do we organize for digital diplomacy? How do we define its contours? When and how should we use it? A panel is a great place to deepen relationships, introduce creative ideas, and discuss potential solutions. It will enable us to ask the right questions.
However, a note of caution is required. We might not get all the definitive answers we seek. To get effective answers we must move the study of Digital Diplomacy from the anecdotal to the scientific. It is through this process that we can develop a series of best practices, effectively organize for digital diplomacy, and train the practitioners of the future. We need more interaction between scholars and practitioners. The upcoming panel is a great first step enabling critical discussion. In preparation for the event, I will continue blogging on Digital Diplomacy. In the coming few days, I will move away from some of the outstanding theoretical questions towards more tangible examples of Digital Diplomacy. In the next blog, I will explore the effectiveness Canada's Digital Diplomacy campaign during the 2013 Iran Elections. During these elections the pragmatic and centrist Hassan Rohani was elected. How did Canada’s Digital Diplomacy fair?
Ehsan Torkamanzehi is digital communication specialist, an Internet policy consultant, and a former knowledge economy entrepreneur. In 2007, he co-founded an online regulatory training institute active in the life science industry providing internet based educational services to over 500 organizations across twenty five countries. Ehsan holds a BA in political science from Concordia University and is earning an MA in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. His current graduate research is focused on developing a theoretical framework to account for the myriad of ways that the Internet is impacting relationships between states. The above is an excerpt from his upcoming co-edited book on the topic.