Ranking of Governments Engaged in Digital Diplomacy Through Social Media

The concept of Digital Diplomacy (sometimes called Virtual Diplomacy) is fairly new, arguably coming to the forefront of international affairs as a result of the failed Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 where social media played a role, albeit ambiguously in its effect. Then came the Arab Spring and the use of Facebook and other tools. Today, the most active governments are the U.S. and UK in using social media as Digital Diplomacy tools. Below we’ve provided a ranking of which democratic and non-democratic countries are most active in terms of international relations through digital media in Cyberspace.

Democratic Governments Using Social Media for Digital Diplomacy
As the graph below shows, the U.S. government leads the way with a foreign affairs department using social media actively to promote its foreign policy with a close second from the UK FCO. Australia is third but coming up fast. For the most part however, most governments tend to “broadcast” and not engage in dialogue. This graph “ranks” a government based on a) volume of content created and pushed across digital channels, b) number of channels they are active in and c) number of “entities” or people that push out content from that department. The highest a government can achieve for activity is a 9.



Democratic Governments Engaging in Dialogue with Foreign Citizens for Digital Diplomacy
Without a doubt, Australia leads in terms of responding to inquiries and having, albeit short, bursts of engagement with citizens from other countries. Behind them is the Netherlands and then the UK. We term “engagement” as responding to inquiries and questions and occasionally in Twitter, re-tweeting content from someone else. Engaging in dialogue however, can be a challenge for a government in international affairs as there can be serious implications. Over time, as diplomatic services become more familiar with and comfortable in the use of social media, engagement levels will likely change.

For this research we used our proprietary software to analyze the Twitter accounts of confirmed government foreign affairs departments and then looked at traffic and engagement across blogs, Facebook and any other social networks such as YouTube. Rankings are designed to understand the level of activity use by each government in a channel. Human analysts then completed the work through link and data verification.


2012 Top 10 Hottest Topics on Societal Issues in Social Media Globally

In April of 2010, we took our first look into what were the hottest issues of civil society in the USA, Canada and UK on international concerns. We looked at the historical period of 2008 to March of 2010. Now, again two years later, we decided to see if there were any changes and conducted a historical trend from 2010 to 2011. Our methodology and sample size is detailed at the bottom of this blog post. We’re just touching upon the surface of these issues in this blog post; you can contact us directly for a deeper discussion.

What we did find that is important in this new study, is that citizens in the US, Canada and UK are increasingly discussing issues of civil society; politics, legislation, services etc. Based on a comparative sample size between the two studies (we increased the sample size analysis in 2012) we can see a 34% increase in overall discussion volumes of civil society issues. This is important for government policy makers, those involved with public diplomacy and large corporations with a vested interest in these issues.

Financial Crisis: We re-classified this as US focused as Europe warranted a category on its own. Overall, the concern of citizens in the US, Canada and UK regarding the impact of the US Financial crisis and system of 2008-9 has declined in our rankings. We accounted for US citizen views to form a weighted average and adjusted for engaged volume of population sizes. While remains a concern, increasingly, people in all three countries are more concerned with the financial crisis in the EU, seeing it as potentially impacting the global economy and certainly Western economies.

Energy: This replaces Aid Relief as a greater and growing concern. Leading the source of citizen concerns in US and Canada is “fracking” with it’s impact on water supplies, in additional the Keystone XL Pipeline contributed significantly to the volume of discussion in 2011. In terms of energy we included renewable and non-renewable sources and the adoption of greener sources. Although there is a significant rise in concerns over energy, citizens continue to increase their consumption.

Climate Change: Interrelated with energy is climate change. Interestingly, this issue held steady with 2011 views by citizens. We haven’t seen a significant or even marginal increase in discussion by citizens in social media over climate change.

Middle East: No doubt triggered by the Arab Spring in 2011, citizens in Canada, USA and UK have turned their attention to the Middle East. Many are positively impacted by the obvious turn to a demand for greater democracy by citizens in these Arab countries. Unease over Israel and Palestine continues and Iran features prominently as many citizens fear at least a low-level conflict. Many continue to see the region as volatile and unpredictable, but there is a more upbeat view of the region and possible stabilization.

Europe Crisis: Certainly a concern of UK citizens so directly impacted by the economy of the EU, it still weighs strong for UK and Canadian citizens. With Canada negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU the state of the economy becomes of increasing interest to Canadians, while America sees this trading partner impacting its investment banking sector and sales of consumer goods. Likely the EU crisis will feature in citizen concerns into 2014.

Afghanistan: In 2010, we added Iraq into the equation as it was a hot topic of discussion in all three countries. Today the discussion over Iraq has dropped significantly, while the issue of Afghanistan has risen to a category of its own. With all three countries having been engaged in combat and civil engineering in Afghanistan, it is no surprise citizens were so engaged.

Privacy: The issue of privacy is one that always simmers in the background, but is of increasing concern to citizens in the US, Canada and UK. All three countries have been working through various changes and proposed legislations concerning privacy and copyright laws. With the SOPA and PIPA issue in the US, this has citizens of Canada and the UK looking on fearing similar ripple effects in their own countries.

US Election: This one has been simmering to a boil since 2010. Canadian and UK citizens are always fascinated with the U.S. elections and so it was no surprise this issue featured prominently in our analysis.

China: Increasingly, citizens in the U.S., Canada and UK are expressing concerns over China’s increasing role on the global stage. Their impact on the U.S. dollar, acquisition of natural resources in Canada and the U.S. and their role in acquiring energy resources around the world. While China’s soft power and economic power is less than America’s, people are increasingly perceiving a greater level of influence on the coming years for China. In Soft Power terms, perceptions are important.

As western countries increasingly engage in Digital Diplomacy and even Public Diplomacy domestically takes on a digital aspect, insight into what citizens are concerned about can help change and form policy and strategic communications.

This project was carried out using our proprietary search engine and analytics software. We only analysed English language. We took a representative sample size of 3,000 citizens per country and weighted for  engaged population in the U.S., Canada and UK. We did not identify any particular individuals in this report. We discounted sockpuppeting and astroturfing comments and applied our spam filters. The age groups sampled were between 25 and 55 where we could identify an education of at least high school level. We analysed 350,000 “tweets” from Twitter, 4,750 blog postings and 125 news media sites for comments that were publicly available back to 2010. Additional information on our methodology is proprietary.


What Can Hashtags Tell Us?

The use of hashtags (#) in Twitter has become a staple communication element and this has followed in Google+ as well. That the hashtag has become a ubiquitous part of text communications style in social media is proved best perhaps by their now common use by major brands in advertising – instead of a major brand placing a web address in a TV or print ad, they may simply use a hashtag. But more than #Like or #Fail on a brand, what can hashtags really tell us? Turns out, quite a lot.

So we know hashtags are popular to define a location, emotion or subject matter for discussion. But they can provide a lot of “contextual information” beyond basic emotions or brands. As we conduct research across social media channels daily, we’ve gathered a library for the Natural Language Processing element of our software on an international scale. With over 45,000 hashtags, we’ve been able to dig a little deeper and gain some insights. We’ll share some key ones.

The Obvious Hashtags:

Location: As in #Halifax or #LAX or #YYC (Airport codes are quite commonly referenced by Twitter users)

Event: As in #SXSW11 for the South by SouthWest event. An event can be “at the moment” or ongoing/leading up to a specific time such as #Election2012  for the US Election (great guide here to those hashtags), or #TyElec for the recent election in Tunisia.

Brand: Most brands have hashtags associated with them, if the sentiment is negative or positive then it may be accompanied by Fail or Win.

Emotion: A very common one is #Fail and then the likes of #Happy or #Love or #Smile – these vary across the spectrum.

The Deeper Elements & Building Context

But hashtags can give us a far deeper set of insights, including in some instances that a “tweet” or message may carry multiple meanings and have several different target audiences. The use for example of French, Arabic and English in countries experiencing civil unrest are often aimed at foreign governments and news agencies as much as locals.

As an example, during the recent Tunisian election, it was common to include the hashtag “#zaba” which was a reference to the recently ousted president and a reminder to anyone viewing the tweet message that this is why they were having an election and as a badge of support. This is an element of context and goes to the next challenge – analysing hashtags. A single tweet or a group of tweets can start to add a deeper sense of “place” and context by indicating timing, immediate and surrounding locations, how an event is unfolding or provide an indicator of what is about to happen.

The Challenge of Analysing Hashtags

The obvious ones are easy such as #Fail or #Love, but hashtags can evolve and we often see “groupings”. Again to reference our research on Tunisia, the hashtag #Gonhim had 39 variations such as #Ghonim or #Ghanim…each referencing the same extremist preacher. With the Icelandic volcano a couple of years ago, the clever #ashtag was popular, but so was simply #volcano. Hashtags also tend to evolve very rapidly, adding or deleting characters or becoming entirely new ones.

For researchers this presents a number of challenges. For marketers it is fairly easy around brands. For those monitoring or researching civil society issues such as elections, civil actions (e.g. #Occupy or #OWS) or social commentary, it is vastly more complex. Multiple languages may be used, the speed of change and intensity will add another dynamic. Yet they they content a rich source of material and can lead to social media channels where a thread can be followed and deeper insight gained.

Analysis of Foreign Language Usage in Twitter: Tunisia

It’s common knowledge that Twitter today can play a key role in communications and organising for not just marketing, but civil society issues, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy. Most of our research is for multi-national corporations and governments around public policy and diplomacy. As part of this, Twitter is one of many channels that we look at. This means we have to work in multiple languages. And we’d hazard a guess that very few firms deal in langages in social media like we do. With that context set, we’ve found some interesting aspects to the use of Twitter around languages.

It is often assumed that for the country in question, citizens will use mostly if not always, the native language. Turns out this isn’t the case. Languages will be mixed up with up to three languages in a single “tweet” and multiple hashtags. In research into the use of Twitter in Tunisia, Haiti, Sudan and Afghanistan we found that these languages will comprise of; 1) native tongue (Arabic, Kreyol, Tribal), 2) English and 3) the Colonial country’s language such as Spanish or French. In the case of Tunisia (and other former French colony countries) we also found that French words/numbers may be used that “sound” like an Arabic word. Not even Google Translate can manage this level of complexity, especially when you add numerical characters and an ever changing Lexicon of words.

Here’s an example of a tweet in Tunisia around the recent election: “j’ai vote ta7ya tounes #TyElec #vote” Which basically means “I voted in the Tunisia election” and what “ta7ya tounes” translates to is Arabic for “long live Tunisia.” The use of “ta7ya” is French and a number that makes up the sound of an Arabic word. Our study looked at 16,700 distinct users all located in Tunisia. We found that 67% of all tweets contained at least one English word with 14% of tweets being fully English. 92% of the tweets we looked at (over  a 1 month period from February to March 2012) contained a hashtag. Overall French and English dominated the tweets, which is interesting given it is predominantly an Arabic speaking language. We anticipated a high level of French with Tunisia being a former French colony.

The use of hashtags in Twitter for civil society issues has a complex set of communications goals that are used to identify; 1) Event, 2) Location, 3)Timing, 4) Opinion or view. They may also be used to establish political standing, tribal or community standing and a sub-set of events or issues and at times to add another layer of context. An example of an added layer of context is the use of the #Syria and #tugov (means Tunisian government) where the Syrian ambassador to Tunisia was asked to leave. This event took place during the election period and was a subset issue of the national election.

In the cases of Haiti we found little use of Kreyol (at only 12% of all tweets examined) and a much higher use of English (68% of the tweets) than French where we had expected French to be used. The Haitian tweets we looked at were from Haiti and we excluded Haitian diaspora. This is an interesting finding for a country that until the 2010 earthquake used very little English in social media. In Sudan we found that hashtags are often used by people to first identify their tribe or region of Sudan. Arabic and English dominated with very little use of tribal languages.

All of this goes to show that Twitter has become a key communication tool for people around the world. For those that don’t understand Twitter and only see the “silly” tweets, this finding we are releasing and our other research shows that Twitter plays a key role in the voice of civil society today and we suspect it will only increase. For building any analytics with natural language processing, it will be a daunting task and always be limited by the rapid changes in hashtags, short life-spans for some hashtags and their evolving nature in  Twitter communications. We also posit that the dominant use of English and French is that nationals and civil society groups are intending to reach an international audience, including news media.

This issue also adds a layer of complexity for foreign governments with digital diplomacy and public diplomacy programs that use social media. They will need to develop an understanding of the meanings and context of hashtags as they evolve and to understand how words may be played with and what the use of former colonial languages may be signalling, if anything.

The Downside of Focusing on Influencers in Social Media for Public Policy

When it comes to companies and brands looking to engage in social media for marketing purposes, the emphasis is on people who have influence or authority…in other words; reach. If you’re a brand, you want to engage with someone who has an audience, that way if they something good about your brand, they reach a lot of people. That’s okay for marketing, but not so much when it comes to public diplomacy or policy issues. Even in marketing terms, it has a downside and here’s why.

Really valuable information, the kind of information that becomes intelligence (remember, it’s intelligence we use to make a decision, not information…and we’re not talking espionage type intelligence) may be a single “tweet” or blog post from someone who perhaps doesn’t have a very big audience. But the quality of their content is critical. In public policy terms, it may be a blog post that can play a critical role in shaping a policy through a suggested improvement or approach. In marketing terms, it may be a comment on a product feature/function the company had never thought of that provides for a whole new revenue stream.

Too often in our research projects (over 200 of them) into social and news media, we see public and private sector clients looking for the big “wow” or the thought leader they can then instantly form a rapport with – without a clear understanding as to “why” it has to be someone with a big audience. This can mean the most valuable of information gets completely overlooked. With so much industry news media and pundit “hype” over social media and size mattering more than substance, it is not the fault of the governments, NGO’s and corporations who fall prey to looking for big numbers over substance.

If you’re researching into digital media, in this case specifically social media, then be cautious about focusing on on just those who have a big audience; they often have different value to their content.