In my previous blog post, I mentioned that I will review Digital Diplomacy efforts during the 2013-2014 Iranian election year. There are several good reasons for selecting this specific case. First, as a Farsi speaker, I can evaluate the content of messages to determine whether it actually propels its policy goals. Second, this initiative did have stated objectives, and so I am not assigning intentionality to a series of uncoordinated tweets. Third, Digital Diplomacy was the only visible means through which GAC executed a broader policy on Iran. At the time, Canada did not have diplomats on the ground in Iran. This simplifies the attribution of outcomes to an amalgamation of direct digital efforts by GAC and the efforts spearheaded through the Munk School of International Affairs’ associated with the Initiative for Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran (GDFI).
For context: a year or so prior to the launch of the GDFI, Canada and Iran had unceremoniously ended all formal diplomatic relations. In 2011, following the attacks on the British Embassy, Canada withdrew all diplomats due to safety concerns. A year later and 32 days before the Iranian Presidential election, at the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran launch conference, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Baird stated that Iranians deserved free and fair elections and “…not another version of the Ayatollah Khamenei’s never ending shell game of presidential puppets”. The then Minister outlined Canada’s policy and how Digital Diplomacy and other innovative digital tools (e.g. anti-censorship software) would be used to create space for dialogue, promote democracy, advocate for change, and bring about freedom of expression “from the ashes of tyranny”. As a borderline advocation for regime change, the policy sought to explicitly put pressure on the regime using digital diplomacy and cyber efforts to support the plethora of political dissidents with the same aim. A complete transcript of the Minister’s opening statement remains available on GAC website. Most of the dissidents that did engage with the program were actively seeking regime change in Iran. Since the last Iran presidential election cycle was widely regarded as cooked and accompanied by mass protests (i.e. The Green Movement) some had come to the conclusion that if proper support for activists was available, the 2009 events could have led to a different outcome, perhaps even to the collapse of the regime.
GDFI digital diplomacy efforts had two outlets: i) GAC’s Canada and Iran Facebook page and Twitter accounts; ii) the collaborative, digital diplomacy campaign run by the Munk School the Munk School of International Affairs. The latter efforts included a series of social media accounts, a YouTube channel, a web portal, and regular events. In addition, GAC sponsored an “election observation center” through the GDFI which, according to then Minister Baird, intended to help Iranians “…cast a protest vote, participate in an online virtual vote or boycott the election altogether.” In the years following the election, the GDFI added several tools to the digital arsenal, including the Rouhani Meter (a site that tracks the commitments of the Iranian President), an aggregate news website, a site monitoring the Iranian parliament, and a site distributing and educating audiences on digital tools to counter censorship and monitoring, most notably Psiphon. The large investments, complex outlay, and Ministerial attention leads me to characterize this effort as the flagship digital diplomacy experiment of the Conservative Government. So how did it go?
Results for the period under analysis (2013-2014) have been mixed. Positively, more recently we see a clear progression and improvement in the approach of the initiatives. Clearly, expertise is being built and GAC is learning through trial and error. The initiative has slowly moved from “telling” Iranians what they should think, to attempting to understand what they are thinking through social media analysis and analysis of data from its aggregate news site. This data is then used to inform Canadian policy. This is a remarkable achievement.
Theoretically, network organization demands continuous engagement and achieves results by building a communicative consensus. Building a communicative consensus requires policy flexibility and active assessment of the direction of ideas within existing networks on social media. The fact that the initiative is engaging in data mining and synthesis process is commendable.
As I mentioned in the last blog, real-time bi-directional communication is at the heart of network organization, and consequently at the heart of anything that happens on the Internet, including diplomacy. The initiative initially failed to engage in effective bi-directional communication. Until very recently, the initiative had limited visibility. My qualitative analysis of GDFI messaging during the election concludes that the initiative focused on dissuading people from voting or encouraging them to spoil their ballots in protest - not in line with the stated goals of the program - but rather with the language and messaging used by the Conservative government. The strong turnout during the election, particularly the strong turnout of reform-minded Iranians, and the election of Hassan Rouhani as president demonstrates that this policy objective (read: dissuading Iranians from legitimizing the regime through elections) was not met and that the message did not resonate with voters on the ground.
What happened? Where did things go wrong? I conducted a word-based and message-based sentiment analysis on a sample of tweets and Facebook posts emanating from official GAC social media accounts; a total of 1301 Twitter posts and Facebook posts, mainly from 2014. The results show that 61% of the adjectives in these messages were negative and only 37% of posts use positive adjectives. Words like imprisonment, terrorists, and repressive were prominent and the positive words used (e.g. hope, dignity) were often used in association with negative events. Sentiment analysis of the messages based on an assessment of the complete (i.e. as opposed to keyword-based analysis) concluded that 59.2% of the messages had a negative tone, only 26% had a positive tone, and the remainder had a neutral tone. It can be argued, albeit anecdotally, that the negative messaging did not resonate. How engaged people are with the messaging is a good indicator of resonance. Iranians only engaged (retweeted, shared, liked or commented on)on 118 messages from a total of 1301 messages more than ten times. The total number of engagements with GAC messaging from the dataset was 10,637 for over 1300 messages sent, which averages to less than ten engagements per message sent. Perhaps even more telling, is that the median number of engagements per message was one share, like or retweet. Some 625 messages received zero engagements. Furthermore, the majority of the engagements were made from outside of Iran (over 60% of them). While the message proliferated resonated with revolution-minded dissident groups outside the country, it did not resonate with reform-minded voters inside the country.
That said, a few poignant observations can be made from this case study. First, digital diplomacy cannot take place in an information vacuum. Without a clear understanding of the evolving ideas, views, and beliefs of people and institutions existing within the target network, a Digital Diplomacy campaign is handicapped. Second, Digital Diplomacy needs to be interactive. In networks, views cannot be stated; they must be discussed. This brings us back to organizing for Digital Diplomacy. In this case, the policy generated from the political centre through interaction with a tight knit group of Iranian dissidents (read: bureaucratic decision-making in a network environment). Proximity to the political centre was beneficial in that it kick-started the campaign and enabled its continuous improvement in process and approach. That said, the fact that GAC did not generate policy and associated messaging through an understanding of the audience, effective network-based data inputs, or on-the-ground expertise, and instead emanated from an ideological standpoint, led to the low level of engagement. If there is one takeaway, it is that digital diplomacy needs effective inputs and cannot act on its own or through traditional avenues of decision-making.
Total Number of engagements (i.e., views, likes, shares, or re-tweets): 10637
10 or more engagements: 118
More than 5 engagements: 216
One engagement: 206
Zero Engagements: 625
Number of communiques to which engagements apply: 1301