And yet, to us digital natives this is frustrating to watch. Not because Canadians shouldn’t be proud to commemorate national dog day or celebrate diplomatic triumphs, but because in classic risk aversion style, the government is taking a too narrow view of digital diplomacy and entirely missing out on its true potential. By framing digital diplomacy as public diplomacy 2.0, and approaching international engagement in the same propagandist monologue as traditional public diplomacy, the government is merely rubber-stamping the successful integration of digital diplomacy without fully exploring the full functionality of this diplomatic tool. The danger of doing is captured perfectly in the @canada initiative, the new “voice of Canada” doesn’t open discussion, it just shouts out over all the other noise.
One of the most challenging, yet potentially rewarding, aspects of digital diplomacy is that as a relatively new phenomenon its purpose, scope and utility have yet to be fully defined. So before labeling such efforts fait accompli, it would be prudent to step back and access more broadly the goals such digital engagement can help to achieve. Of course broadcasting the potential of Canada abroad is an important aspect of foreign policy, but equally so is tuning into the responses bouncing back. What’s more, the promotion of domestic civic engagement on foreign policy issues has the potential to better capture constituent interests, and in doing so shape stronger, more publicly aligned, policies. These suggestions are not new, in fact they are age old problems within diplomacy and foreign policy, yet they are also problems to which the power of digital diplomacy can be leveraged to help fix. So how do we apply digital diplomacy, a concept we can’t even seem to agree upon, to problems we haven’t come even close to solving? Well, one suggestion is to rethink the role social media is playing in current digital diplomacy efforts.
The bulk of current Canadian digital diplomatic efforts have been to leverage tools of social media, rather than their processes. As referenced above, Canada now has accounts on a plethora of social media platforms. This is not surprising, however, as in the world of rapid technical and digital innovation the old adage “if you build it, they shall come” does not apply; Canada cannot simply create its own social networks and so must engage with its audience where they are. But should the buck stop at merely participation? Why can’t Canada take digital diplomacy beyond the passive role it’s currently pigeonholing itself into and start leveraging social media for what it true is, a facilitator of community-based collaboration.
Viewing social media as a process, rather than just a series of platforms, would enable Canadian officials to start thinking about alternative ways digital innovations can be applied to diplomacy. Take for instance, commenting. Commenting is viewed as somewhat of a contentious aspect of social media, the potential benefits reaped from collaborative insight and critique can often be spoiled by those seeking to disrupt, rather than contribute to, the conversation. In the context of digital diplomacy this would clearly be problematic for officials seeking to test a proposal or survey the global community. However, social media has also evolved organically to deal with such disruptions by allowing the community to self-police itself and instil content control through voting schemes and reporting mechanisms. Other examples of social media processes include content filtering through positive and negative feedback reporting, the backbone behind the popular digital bulletin board platform Reddit, or page traffic, the cornerstone variable of Google’s search engine algorithm. The important take away here is not to identify specific solutions, but to highlight the ways in which social media can be leveraged to improve diplomacy in Canada. By harnessing these underlying processes and applying them to things like Government of Canada websites, we can go beyond the current conception of digital diplomacy as public diplomacy, and instead start tapping into how social media can open the dialogue on Canadian foreign policy.
In close, to fully harness the potential of digital diplomacy, we need to go beyond posts, likes and tweets. We need to move past the surface of social media interaction, and begin rooting out the core processes that allow such communication networks to flourish under the colossal mass of such widespread interaction. If we do, we gain the potential to reach larger audiences and make more meaningful contributions to Canada and its place in the world, if we don’t, we will continue to use the telephone as a megaphone in blissful ignorance and risk watching our voice all but disappear in the cacophony of digital discourse.