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The role of social media in authoritarian leaders’ nation branding and public diplomacy strategies

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How can Erdogan’s Facebook posts of him holding a baby or shaking hands enhance Turkey diplomatic relations? Why Chechnya strongman Ramzan Kadyrov constantly share photos on Instagram while cuddling animals or working out? Scholarly literature has thoroughly addressed the democratic potential of digital diplomacy as a tool both for citizens to streamline social protest and for national diplomatic services to mediate and multiply the messages to reach the wider masses. Nonetheless, a vacuum still exists on the examination of how digital diplomacy – as Aronczyk suggests – can provide authoritarian leaders with a new tool for engaging foreign public in  a “communication strategy […that] allows governments to better manage and control the image they project to the world.”(‘Nation branding’)

We will see – complementing the debate on how social media may serve as a tool of autocratic stability- how digital diplomacy may be an important tool in furthering a nation’s foreign policy”especially for non-democratic regimes by enabling direct interaction and engagement with foreign publics.

As Hanson argued, the technologic changes involving public diplomacy gave politicians and national diplomatic services (NDS) “the opportunity to influence and speak directly and more frequently to large audiences”.Nevertheless, such ability, alongside the capability to segment audiences may be a double-edged sword since it could boost ‘Digital Bonapartism’– a populist rhetoric aimed at marginalizing the opposition and manipulate public opinion in a subtler manner – of authoritarian leaders.Hence, resorting also to empirical data provided by social media analytics, we will provide a snapshot of authoritarian governments’ engagement and assertiveness in digital diplomacy.

Finally, it is worth recalling that the size and emotional preference of international online public determines to a good share the digital diplomatic strategies of non-democratic regimes.

Digital Diplomacy and Nation Branding

As Hocking and Melissen emphasized in their seminal work, “the propensity towards ‘hype’ in responding to technological change” alongside the tendency to resort to vague and amorphous conceptualizations provides little help in analysing ‘diplomacy in the digital age’.

Accordingly, to shed light on the concept,we will define ‘digital diplomacy’ as “solving foreign policy problems using the internet”, id est, as “conventional diplomacy through a different medium”.On the one hand, some critics held that ‘digital diplomacy’ is not diplomacy but ‘listening and dissemination’.Digital diplomacy is indeed a pivotal element of public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy latusensu, sharing with the latter mechanisms, networks and, most importantly, the task of promoting the States’ interests at the international level.

Firstly, the growing usage of social media is instrumental for countries to achieve foreign policy goals while proactively managing their image and reputation abroad. Furthermore – enlarging Szondi’s analysis of the relationship between public diplomacy and nation branding – we emphasize how digital diplomacy may also prove a useful tool in nation-branding without necessarily accounting for the full range of State’s activities to further its image abroad. Nation branding activities through social media involve an effort to develop and spread “a national discourse for global context”.Therefore, digital diplomacy may be deeply interweaved with ‘public diplomacy’: social media may be serve as the medium to convey messages to international audience, enhance a country’s international image in a broader public diplomacy discourse.In fact, as Fouts argued, “for social media, virtual world and physical interactions […] are part of a broader tapestry of interactions that a country should employ to manage its brand”.

Despite the capability of social media to disrupt the top-down political communication and their potential in harnessing countries’ exposure to nation brand-damaging event,their use in diplomacy could bolster the legitimacy of authoritarian regime by framing the discourse and winning credibility among foreign public.

Authoritarian digital narratives: Liars and Outliers?

Unlike the Juan Linz’s authoritarianism Idealtypus, modern ‘competitive authoritarian regimes’ resort to more subtle mechanisms of repression than their counterparts in authoritarian regimes: the engagement of foreign public through social media fits in a broader strategy aimed at winning credibility on the international stage, mainstreaming ‘digital bonapartism’.

Therefore, framing the foreign policy discourse may help authoritarian regimes’ credibility and boost relationships with third countries in the long run.Whereas several studies have underscored that leaders in democratic countries are more likely to adopt social media, nonetheless no further research has been carried out on the features of autocrats’ use of social media to attain foreign policy purposes.

Moreover,the increasing involvement of Head of States’ in digital diplomacy further shrinks the role of foreign ministries as gatekeepers for other government actors.

This phenomenon is particularly evident when contrasting the digital audiences of the most followed authoritarian leaders with that of the respective MFAs. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)While MFAs are more prolific in delivering messages, their effectiveness in achieving visibility is limited. The claim that the “stimulus to centralization in foreign policy making […] is not evident in the case of digitization” may be revaluated when tackling authoritarian regimes.  In this form of government strong leaders may rely on their pivotal position to convey narratives aimed at offering the international public partisan explanation of complex events.

Twitter, thanks to its brevity and its intuitive interface quickly imposed has the most widely communication tool for diplomacy, allowing world leaders to broadcast short, poignant messages to millions of followers.These inherent features of social medias give leaders an edge: being the digital realm an ‘emotional space’, the rising prominence of emotional expression may clash with the diplomatic tradition with an international public increasing demand for emotional and visual connections.

Furthermore, as clearly shown in Table 1, the ‘digital audience’ of most-followed authoritarian leaders in every region is mainly located abroad, thus increasingly the value of Twitter as a tool for convey foreign policy messages and signals.

Table 1. Followers and Tweets of non-democratic leaders as of February 2018

The data gathered clearly display a massive divide in terms of the number of followers among leaders –communicating through personal accounts – and their respective MFAs.

Furthermore, through social platforms leaders may tailor messages matching contrasting narratives to target different foreign constituencies: the sheer size of messages delivered by MFA accounts -acting as simple sounding boards –  may be instrumental in amplifying the leaders’ messages spreading the ‘official’ narrative set up by the Head of State/Government. Faced with the need for addressing different audiences at different levels, authoritarian leaders are enhancing their effectiveness in delivering through different social platform, resulting more effective where the message is framed in an epigrammatic or visual manner (Twitter and Instagram, respectively) than the more ‘discursive’ Facebook posts.

Table 2. Most Effective World Leaders on Instagram

Conclusion: Emotional Digital Diplomacy?

Digital modes of communication provide a new dimension and challenge to ‘framing’ issues”. As Manor emphasizes, narratives may be particularly important in digital diplomacy since they offer a clear explanation of complex events.

We argued that the very issue of authoritarian leaders’ engagement in social media concerns digital diplomacy’s values as a powerful tool to expand soft power reach in public diplomacy”.

Moreover, digital diplomacy offer a whole new device to convey narratives. The centralization trend allows leaders to play a crucial role in nation branding, in which the authoritarian structure enabling– as Surowiec has illustrated in his case-study – a “commitment to unification and synergy of collective identity projection [that] is hardly viable in any democratic political field”.

Finally, the narrative storytelling framework of social media – characterised by ‘the predominance of emotional content’ – enables non-democratic leaders to resort to a full range of emotional solutions offered, exploiting the tailoring and timing of the communication.

In a radical overturn of social media promise of a more enlightened politics, as accurate information and effortless communication,digital tools represent nowadays a powerful device for spreading biased narratives and influencing the foreign public appealing to the emotional sphere. Therefore, digitally-empowered autocrats are increasingly carving themselves a niche in the ‘attention economy’ of international arena imitating and learning from digital diplomacy strategies of their democratic peers.

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Diplomacy

Chinese soft power winning hearts and minds

Dost Muhammad Barrech

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Soft power cheaper than hard power, winning hearts and minds of the people, is prerequisite for the state in international politics.  Joseph Nye, the pioneer of soft power argues “It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”. Solely relying on hard power in digital era proves to be counterproductive for the state, tarnishing its soft image, causing destruction, squandering a colossal amount of money being spent on military. Seduction, likewise, appears to be more effective and more instrumental than coercion in interstate relations.

Rise of China is imminent, for rising power in 21st, soft power is as crucial as hard power. China’s preoccupation with its soft power has resultantly been accelerating by leaps and bounds, giving positive image to the world that it would be a benign power in the foreseeable future, crafting consent rather than coercion in its foreign policy. China in the last couple of centuries remained isolated from the world, intimidated by the external powers, has currently been emerging as a dominant player on account of its robust economy, initiating Belt and Road Initiative(BRI), making a headway in technological development, settling territorial disputes with its neibouring states,  contributing in UN peacekeeping mission, supporting countries in ongoing pandemic disease that invariably  promote its soft power spectacularly.

China possesses components of soft power, having 5,000 years of civilization, 1.3 billion people and 960 million square kilometers of territory. China, remained a great power, the Tang dynasty from the seventh century to the tenth century conceives to be a golden era of Chinese history. Glorifying Chinese civilization and history by Chinese statecrafts as their soft power is on the card. China till December 1, 2015 had built 500 Confucius institutes and 1,000 Confucius classrooms in 134 countries with enrolment of nearly 1.9 million students, promoting Chinese language, culture, and facilitating cultural exchanges.

China, presently remains the hub of foreign students. In 1978 there were merely 2,000 foreign students studying in mainland China, in 2007 the number outstripped to 200,000. Under current juncture, nearly 28,000 Pakistani students are studying in China. China by granting foreign scholarships wishes to exploit foreign talent, ensuing strengthening of its economy, resulting in its soft power projection.

The classic book titled “Research Outline for China’s Cultural Soft Power” authored by Guozuo Zhang. Zhang in the book sheds lights on Chinese culture and its civilization arguing that soft power is deeply entrenched in Chinese history giving reference of Chinese sixth century BC strategist Sun Tzu’s book “Art of War”. The writer quotes Sun Tzu” The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without a war.” “The best tactics is to take by strategy,” “Those who win people’s heart can win the world.”Sun Tzu’s adages unambiguously illustrate functions of soft power in Chinese history.

Another insightful book titled “Charm Offensive How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World” authored by Joshua Kurlantzick. Kurlantzick in the book states that China’s charm offensive as soft power triggered in 2000s,attributed to desired stability and harmony with all its fourteen neighboring states. Chinese charm offensive maintains that “Safeguarding peace, promoting development and enhancing cooperation, which is the common desire of all peoples, represents the irresistible historical trend,”. The term hepingjueqi, or Peaceful Rise coined by Zheng Bijian a renowned and senior adviser to the Chinese leadership, was soon inculcated into Chinese leaders’ speeches and in foreign policy.

The term Peaceful Rise is being used tactfully in Chinese foreign policy reflects its soft power; realizing its fourteen neibouring states that China unlike the US believes in peaceful co-existence and shuns warmongering strategies. If China eschews Peaceful Rise in its foreign policy, its neibouring states by all means would become sceptical about Chinese belligerent intentions.

China is increasingly using public diplomacy as a soft power. In 2010, the Beijing Foreign Studies University, launched China’s first ever Public Diplomacy Research Centre, aimed at orchestrating positive image of China, invalidating distorted overseas reports regarding China, improving surroundings of Chinese peripheral states and influencing policy decisions of foreign countries. China through public diplomacy has successfully been trying to reinforce its narratives as the saying of Nye goes “narratives become the new currency of soft power”.

Under current circumstances, Covid-19 a highly contagious virus has tightened its grip on the entire world, states are in dire need of help instead of looking towards the US title towards China. Realistically, speaking, Covid-19 oriented in China should have tarnished its image instead China seems to be a torch bearer of the world, supporting states, providing medial aids. Nouriel Roubini, an American economist at NYU, maintains that during the pandemic “China is building its soft power,” he further reiterates that China assures to the world that ‘‘Our political system is better, our technological model is better, our economic model is better.”

To sum up, China has bad reputation in the US; The US and Western states including India will inevitably strive to malign Chinese soft image, demonizing it’s an authoritarian regime, human rights violation in China, its debt trap policy under BRI and labor exploitation in African states. China, thus, needs to engaged into introspection and should ponder over these areas in order to further bolster its soft power.

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Diplomacy

Covid19: Upgrading Diplomacy and Statecraft to prepare the new normal

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image: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

The world is abruptly changing and this requires adaptation. The transformations are targeting not only individuals and specific countries, but the entire international ecosystem. The pandemic will only accelerate the trends we have seen for years in global politics, so the window of opportunity is closing for those who want to play an increased role in the post-Covid world, but do not fully understand or master the tools necessary to succeed in such a complicated context. I will sketch some of the elements that diplomats and decision-makers involved in international politics have to consider as they seek to navigate the new contours of power politics. Beyond talk of wolf warriors or video summits – and fatigue – diplomacy deserves a strategic comeback during and after corona: international affairs professionals needs to be conversant in both the old and new paradigms; in Western, Eastern, non-aligned and Global South vernaculars; and in both technological and old school human terrain navigation. To well serve their countries and organizations, diplomats (and also, as intellectual framework providers, Diplomatic Academies and Institutes) will have to be more adaptable than ever and willing to quickly learn and deploy new tools and techniques. 

In this quest, one first has to acknowledge the challenges on the substance (beyond communications issues, such as disinformation in the latest form of the infodemic) and understand that they pose problems we never had to face before. Climate change will bring about coastal entropic systems collapse, desertification and food insecurity, with potential consequences related to increased refugee influx, civil wars and inter-country tensions. Pandemics are also here to stay: Covid19 is only the first major outbreak of this decade and, with the right technology, almost any country with minimal biotech capabilities can turn sneezing into anti-personnel weapons. Catalyzed by great power competition, deglobalization, protectionism, and the restructuring of global value chains, non-market and imperial economics revival will become a staple of the new era. Tech dominance and informational supremacy will be a highly sought after prize and the competition will only increase. Strategically, with the rise of China and a relative decline of Europe and the US, we should be ready for a world order that values a different type of multilateralism and is polycentric and non-Western based. The Gulf, as an ambitious global hotspot abundant in global and regional medium powers, is watching power shifts closely and adapting its strategies and actions accordingly. It also has, via Saudi Arabia and its chairmanship of the G20, a key role to play in “annus horibilis” 2020 global solutions. 

Institutional transition and reform is complicated not so much because of inertia, but because since World War Two we were asked to focus and solve one problem at a time, by keeping all other variables constant. Given the above mentioned changes, to cater to institutional transition needs, we have to develop our capabilities to include the most unusual and un-practiced skills and knowledge that now has become, in our estimate, a must have in order to navigate from an age of certainty to a state of continuous flux. By being programmed to combine technological foresight, cultural intelligence, transversal inter-generational multicultural and integrated disciplinary approaches to statecraft and grand strategy, diplomats 2.0 (during and after corona) will be ready to engage comprehensively with a wide range of situations, geographies, and objectives. Research and innovation in international relations, grand strategy, statecraft and identity development strategies should be combined with communication efforts that integrate tools related to cognitive patterns discovery, subversive frameworks neutralisation, and multi-stage communication strategy development.

Organizations need to function more like networked capabilities and teams of teams, rather than relying on traditional multi-tiered track diplomacy and traditional engagement practices. In my experience, the more non-central and non-mainstream actors are, the more they will engage asymmetrically. Furthermore, their engagement tends to be more reputational and personalised than the traditional Western expectations of structure, objectivity, and calculated gains would have us believe. For a long time, with the exception of the actions of great powers, the policy and academic discussion has focused on how the international environment overwhelmingly shapes domestic politics. The international will continue to matter, but we will see a strong pushback from national politics to shape the conversation in global affairs. Diplomats, as the platform between the state and the rest of the world, are on the forefront of meeting the challenge. The context of economic crisis and uncertainty generated by the pandemic will mean additional pressure on mainstream parties and a threat to political stability, so populism and protectionism will also affect diplomatic action, and nationalism diminish diplomatic efforts. 

Based on the experience of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the Nordics and the Baltics, one can encourage International Relations and Diplomatic institutes and academies to develop general public content and training to increase societal resilience, governance and democratic literacy, and citizen esprit de corps. From an elements of power perspective, these vectors need to be developed within every national strategic studies institution to complement the traditional areas of preparedness for which nation states prepare. Five topics are particularly important, in my opinion: T-profile development of people: transversal, interconnected, broad knowledge, with one vertical in depth (versus the current extremes of either breadth or ultra-specialisation); Bellingcat type of skills for information acquisition from OSINT, use of digital means, and understanding of online behaviours (social media aggregation and analysis would also play an important role); increased attention to global Architectures and competition between “Old” and “New” global and regional organisations; IP Diplomacy that focuses on networks of innovation, capital, technology and entrepreneurship – today, intellectual property diplomacy is practices by a handful of countries currently (Singapore, Switzerland, China, Israel), but will become the cornerstone of future exchanges, the same way Silicon Valley is for tech, and NY for global capital. Last but not least, each MFA Academy and IR institute should create its own simulation of the world based on AI, behavioural and statecraft modeling capabilities, and its own „handbook of world views and strategic interests”. Interestingly, in context, wargaming and redteaming of policies and strategic decisions are currently under development in a handful of institutions and will start rolling out to national security establishments towards the end of 2020.

All these points are relevant especially for countries that want to punch above their weight, both regionally and globally, especially current middle powers and aspiring middle or great powers. But they also carry lessons for other states, in case they want to deal with the pressures and risks attached to great and middle power competition in a diplomatic-efficient manner. 

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Beyond Twiplomacy: Diplomacy and the Digital Fast Forward

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The practice of diplomacy in the virtual space is geared towards amplifying foreign policy drives and messages and forms a vital and dynamic branch of strategic communication. Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the inexorable certainty of a digital future – a future that has already begun. As COVID-19 thrusts the world’s population into their homes and compels multiple operations and processes to move online, diplomatic engagements too must be primed to fit the order and arrangement of altered circumstances. The use of the internet offers real time dissemination and exchanges in a relatively informal setting, at low financial costs and aims at shrinking the space between foreign publics and stakeholders on the one hand and foreign policy practices and practitioners on the other.

Digital diplomacy falls under the broader spectrum of public diplomacy, the roots of which can be traced to the extensive use of radio communications by both the Axis and the Allied powers during WWII. Interestingly, the digitization of diplomacy however is believed to have happened earlier when foreign ministries first began the use of telegraph services in the 19th century. In the contemporary context, digital diplomacy has been practiced primarily through social media since the innovation of an online world, the arrival of new information communication technologies and the rapid popularity of the internet.

Today, diplomats and government representatives routinely engage in both pleasantries as well as repartee on Twitter in what is now popularly known as Twiplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy. Twiplomacy is direct, often unencumbered and enables wider reach of foreign policies than traditional channels. Such online engagement can also be converted to a substantial support for foreign policies and/or agendas. It is at times assumed that Twiplomacy has shaken traditional preferences for confidentiality, hierarchy, instrumentality and top-down decision making of foreign affairs departments favouring instead the use of crisp language, visual storytelling, emotional framing, algorithmic navigation, and so on. This is an incorrect conjecture as the traditional modus operandi of foreign interaction remains equally pertinent today. What Twiplomacy has done is added a supplementary avenue of diplomatic exchange which is in keeping with contemporary circumstances.

As diplomatic exchanges thrive on Twitter and other social media platforms, the question is whether it is merely the diplomatic conversation which has moved online or whether there is more to the scope of diplomatic engagement employing digital tools in the virtual space. While the latter has been deliberated by technology stakeholders and to an extent by policy makers, its practice is yet to see the kind of flurry that is observed on Twitter almost on a daily basis. This is where the use of 5G systems, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and the applications of big data come in. Aggregation of big data can assist in the identification of disinformation campaigns while collating geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering which in turn would aid the core component of diplomacy – negotiation. While the use of some of these technologies is mired in controversy, all of these will eventually find application across sectors and diplomacy too will not be an outlier.

Greater use of digital tools can assist diplomacy in broad ways. First, it ensures a quick response time. Digital tools facilitate diplomatic engagement to happen in real time and in so doing helps ease communication as well as make way for effective action in times of urgency or crisis. Second, it assists in resource mobilization in terms negotiations and building of alliances, primarily by eliminating constraints of distance and time. Third, it helps pave the way for gaining a wider understanding of public emotions and perceptions which can at times facilitate more updated policy approaches and methods of implementation.

This brings us to the dividing line between policy outreach which is designed to inform, assist, facilitate and where applicable, ameliorate global relations and the utilization of sharp power which is aimed at exerting disproportionate levels of influence to censor, manipulate and falsify information for hostile purposes. The virtual space, like many other forms of technology, faces the dual-use challenge i.e., it can serve both constructive purposes and also disruptive ones. For foreign policy this poses a considerable challenge as governments often find themselves in the middle of misinformation and disinformation campaigns which are difficult to debunk and deflate given the pace and volume of the reach that virtual networks offer. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that governments across the world must learn to tackle because the medium and the technology will not go away but rather diversify and proliferate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already and will probably continue to suspend or reorganize most activities for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously however, engagements and functioning across the world must persist and diplomatic outreach forms a vital component of pooling in efforts to mitigate the health crisis. This involves the dissemination of information, transfers of key supplies, provisioning for the inevitable uncertainties of challenges post the pandemic and reorganizing institutions to better apprehend future exigencies. Bound by limitations on travel, world leaders are responding by convening on virtual platforms for multilateral summits like the G20 and SAARC. India’s first ever virtual bilateral summit is being planned with Australia. COVID-19 demands a fast forward from deliberations to action and foreign ministries around the world need to harness the advantages of cost and geographical inconsequence to effectively respond to the global crisis at hand and also in the process enable digitisation of diplomatic processes which can continue to be in practice in the post-Covid world.  

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