Since the 1960’s, public diplomacy has been discussed as a concept. Ever since, it has emerged to become the practiced reality for influential diplomacy in international affairs today. Twitter and Facebook are part of shaping the world, and to gain an influence for a nation state.
Taking use of new tools, spreading the influence of a nation, or indeed an international organisation is being done through various means, in a combination of technical tools and ordinary diplomacy. Looking at public diplomacy in the light of the new technologies makes it even more pertinent.
Coined by Edmund A. Gullion in 1965, “public diplomacy” is about the influence of public attitudes in foreign policy, beyond ordinary diplomacy; i.e. reaching out to public opinion in other countries; online reporting and commenting on politics. “Central to public diplomacy is the transnational flow of information and ideas.“
Since then, world politics have taken note of social media in public diplomacy. Megan Kenna wrote in 2011 that the effects of social media was “changing the landscape of diplomacy, governance and international relations. Social media has become an important limitless resource to connect and inform people, transcending borders and impacting all demographics. It presents a real-time stream of information in which one source can instantaneously broadcast to many sources and stimulate debate on a personal level. These developing communication methods have dramatically changed politics: democratising the flow of information, exponentially increasing awareness and quickly globalising ideas and concepts. In the Arab Spring, social media facilitated action in the Middle East and North Africa).”
But how is it applied? In practice, basically e.g. all Swedish Embassies twitter. Some even make films, living the Bergman dream of all Swedes. One of the most popular politicians on Twitter is the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. He is in fact the leading politician in the world who has most contacts with other politicians worldwide over Twitter. He is also among the politicians in the world who answers most tweets from other users. Most followers has the US president Barack Obama. Another top Twitterer is the Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes. Clearly, influential politicians use Twitter.
Will Twitter change diplomacy?
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau said in 1969, “Why pay good money to keep an army of diplomats abroad so they can report something I have already read in my morning newspaper?” Likewise, the question has arisen, if diplomacy is practiced instantly online, by the Foreign Minister, what is the use of diplomats? Yet, they are needed.
But what is the impact of this new public diplomacy in diplomatic interaction? Long gone are the times when it would take diplomats two weeks on the horseback to deliver a declaration of war. Nowadays, it is rather a digital war, fought with words, to win the minds and hearts. The twitter streams, like flocks of birds, are spreading the memes of how your country wants to perceive the world, being followed and retweeted, according to how well you sharpen and shape the words. The understanding of the digital diplomacy’s potential impact is thus crucial for any nation, to spread its view online on welfare, human rights, and other policy areas.
So, what does this mean for diplomacy in practice? Using a study of US embassies, the numbers of followers is a frequently stated metric to look at influence. But does not say anything of the quality of the followers, i.e. what their influence is. Or, you can look at which embassies are followed and considered influential and necessary to follow by the other embassies in DC.
Clearly, to obtain trust and influence, you need online communication activities that goes hand in hand with your politics. In that sense, trust itself must be obtained, through your actions. It cannot be “managed”, it must be practiced. Thus, you need a proper digital strategy to decide tone, frequency, etc, and the correct social media platform to reach specific target audiences, to reach your policy objective. A nation’s communicators can thereby manage the systems to improve its reputation. This is why, today, the skills of writing in public diplomacy has become an important policy influence tool. Today, a sharp pen is a sharp diplomatic sword.
By being better online, you can influence negotiations. But you can also create twitter wars. Evidently, the risks for misunderstandings are high, and the possibilities to solve a diplomatic online conflict with 140 characters is challenging. At best you can establish the classic “We can agree to disagree.” with 24 characters.