Why Governments Engage in Digital Diplomacy Through Social Media

The US State Department and the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) are perhaps the most engaged Western governments when it comes to social media. Following them is Sweden and Australia. Lagging is Canada, Germany and other major Western nations. Even terror groups like Al Qaeda use some social media tools such as Twitter. Russia is engaged and Hugo Chavez, when not in Cuba for health care, is madly “tweeting” on Twitter. But why? Does it make sense in this new area called Digital Diplomacy? Very much so and public diplomacy is nothing new. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.

To understand why Digital Diplomacy is a natural part of Public Diplomacy, just look at how foreign governments have a long history of reaching out to citizens of a foreign land. Public Diplomacy has been a staple part of Soft Power for centuries. Modern public diplomacy has mostly been shaped and defined by America; and they do an exceptionally good job. It’s aim is to influence the general public in the country in which the instigator has a foreign policy interest – everything from trade negotiations to peace operations. Traditional public diplomacy tactics range from advertising and editorial coverage in foreign newspapers to bringing youth to a country to study at universities and exporting cultural elements (exporting culture is considered an aspect of Soft Power.)

Digital Diplomacy is simply extending the aims and goals of Public Diplomacy into cyberspace/Cyburbia. Today, Cyburbia is an increasingly deeper part of our every day lives; from email to classifieds, online dating, social networking – over 2 billion people worldwide connect to Cyburbia every day in some form. That doesn’t mean you have to open a browser on your computer to access the Internet. Your email comes to your SmartPhone, you might access Facebook or Twitter through your SmartPhone or iPad, never once opening a browser or watch YouTube videos through your DVD player or, Roku box or AppleTV.

Countries that understand the complexities of today’s fractured media landscape know that public diplomacy through traditional channels alone is no longer enough. Added to this is the aspect of being able to develop a dialogue with non-state actors and groups as well as individuals. With citizen groups and individuals having the ability to form groups and communicate at virtually no cost, effective use of Digital Diplomacy by a foreign government advancing an agenda, can become much more effective. A foreign government knows that if it effectively communicates its agenda and gets more support in Cyburbia, it can add political pressure by citizens. This is most effective in democratic countries, a lot harder in less or non-democratic states. But different tactics are used and messaging can help encourage citizens in a difficult country.

The key to Digital Diplomacy is a) the ability to shape a message quickly and adapt it as conditions change and b) to be able to actually engage in dialogue with the target audiences in the foreign country. Two elements that have never before been possible. These two factors are very powerful. Governments that understand this and engage with a strategy will have an effective Soft Power tool.