By Sanjana Rathi
It is ubiquitous to see nations around the world reaching out to the public, both domestic and foreign, to shape public opinions on one hand and exert influence on the other. As a result of public diplomacy, national leaderships are showing the urgency to connect to people for explaining government postures and decisions and communicating the desired ‘images.’ Therefore, it is essential to understand the meaning of public diplomacy and the Internet’s role in this age.
At the same time we also see a surge of fake news and politicisation of media platforms. There is massive amount of data being created and social media rules are being defined and undefined without proper insight into it. There is a surge of terrorist recruitment especially during COVID 19 pandemic, which has added to this complexity and discrepancy.
With almost everyone forced to move online, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, we cannot ignore the role of social media in connecting with the public. Public diplomacy is bound to be online. In this essay, first public diplomacy is defined and then the role of social media is analysed. Finally, the challenges and examples of use of social media for diplomacy is highlighted.
So what is Public Diplomacy?
According to Nye(2010), public diplomacy is also called Propaganda, which aims to win over their people and indirectly influence foreign government. It is stated that while one of the aims of conventional diplomacy is to exert direct influence on the foreign government, the objective of Propaganda, or public diplomacy is usually to do it indirectly.
It is done by appealing to the heads of those government, so also to influence the people.
According to Cohen(1998), public diplomacy is the driver of international relations established by states to articulate their foreign policy objectives and coordinate their efforts to influence foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiations and other measures. However, public diplomacy may vary in its character and targets. Maintaining contact with the citizens who have migrated online and harnessing new communication tools to listen and target audience with key messages. The diplomatic corps of different countries are using social media for these activities.
There is also a new word coined for diplomacy facilitated through social media platforms, and that is called “Digital Diplomacy.” Hanson(2012) defines digital diplomacy as the use of the Internet and new Information Communication Technologies to help carry out diplomatic objectives and states eight policy goals for this. One of the policy goals for digital diplomacy is ‘Propaganda or public diplomacy.’
How countries around the world use social media for public diplomacy?
An analysis of the literature on public diplomacy reveals a predominantly western perspective and the traction it has had in foreign policy and diplomacy narrative. Since its coining by Edmund Gullion in 1965, it has been an essential practice in the diplomatic core of various countries, such as the U.S. and Turkey. Also, in African countries like South Africa and Ghana, like the western nations, have aimed to build ‘longer-lasting networks of individuals and institutions that may influence the wider relationship between states and peoples.
However, it has not been in good light by many European scholars who are engaged in exploring if Europe’s digital diplomacy efforts have yielded a coherent overall image or worked at cross-purposes. There is a debate on the effectiveness is noticeable in the U.S., particularly after the tragic incidents of 9/11. Effectiveness of this is closely scrutinized elsewhere, like in India, where, despite the increasing emphasis on its exercise, many are skeptical about India’s ‘nation brand.’ It is noticeable that there has also to proceed among blurring of borders with domestic issues being debated by the international audience and vice-versa. It is important to note that European countries are mostly using ‘digital diplomacy’ or social media platforms for Nation Branding. This is an effort for creating an ‘image’ for a nation that is good for it’s people, trade, commerce and industry. Considering this aspect, public diplomacy has also been defined as ‘efforts by the government of one nation to influence public or elite opinion in a second nation, to turn the foreign policy of the target nation to advantage.’ It has assumed a new context with social media platforms facilitating two-way communication, allowing for dialogue, and direct engagement.
Is Public Diplomacy & Propaganda same?
Although Public Diplomacy and Propaganda are seen as synonymous terms, today’s dominant public opinion tends to regard Propaganda as a deceitful and dangerous practice, even if a more descriptive definition of Propaganda might be more neutral. Jacques Ellul defines Propaganda as a method of communication employed by organized groups that want to bring about the active or passive participation of a mass of individuals in action. Further, he says that these individuals are psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated into an organization. Karen Johnson-Cartee and Gary Copeland contend that effective Propaganda requires taking into account the predisposition of the audience. They state that’ Propaganda is not brainwashing – or the introduction of new ideas, attitudes, and beliefs, contrary to the individual’s cognitive structure. Instead, Propaganda is a resonance strategy, the discovery of culturally shared beliefs, deliberate reinforcement, and ultimately aggrandizement of those beliefs.
Facilitating the global village and national branding
Technological innovation has contributed to globalization by supplying infrastructure for transworld, connections, and countries of the world cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities that tech is creating. This advancement in globalization has also led to increasing competition between nations for political and economic attention. We see that an increasing number of countries make a conscious effort to create a favorable image in the minds of the citizens and the world to increase their influence and prestige. The initiative is often referred to as “nation branding”. Apart from the traditional diplomacy, which is usually between the members of the diplomatic corps for various nations, digital diplomacy is another way to reach out to the citizens of the other country and get them into contact with the culture and society. It is also a way of exerting a country’s soft power and informing them about policies and the government and engaging them in dialogue and exchange by using strategic communication. To create a brand image or for nation branding, commercial organizations, governments, and their embassies are starting to use social media to reach out to their audiences.
Is the Internet weakening Public Diplomacy? – Highlighting the Challenges
The merits of social media are easily overrated by the diplomatic core. It is necessary to approach them with caution and keep possible anger like the loss of control over information and the inability to steer the online conversation into the desired direction. The problem may also be about finding the right audiences for one’s messages in mind. Furthermore, unless the communication strategies are updated to be consistent with the new technologies, the use of new tools will not lead to improved communication and public diplomacy efforts.
The problem is that there is a discrepancy between social media expectations and what they can realistically deliver. For instance, this discrepancy manifests in government agencies, and diplomatic missions trying to engage in modern dialogic online communication with what they assume are the correct or interested publics for their messages. It results in dialogue efforts that are less efficient than they could be and shows the challenges and risks to the use of social media for public diplomacy efforts.
The surge in fake news over recent years has wrought unprecedented effects on the national and international stage, and there is a heated debate between the public, governments, the media, and big tech regarding how best to handle this wave of misinformation. However, no comprehensive action is taken by any of these stakeholders. Also, those in positions of influence are doing little to stop fake news. The surge in fake news over recent years has wrought unprecedented effects on the national and international stage. There is a heated debate between the public, governments, the media, and big tech regarding how best to handle this wave of misinformation. However, no comprehensive action is taken by any of these stakeholders. Also, those in positions of influence are doing little to stop fake news.
To bring into account, China has defined social media rules to suit its purpose by introducing the social credit system. This system is Orwellian in nature, and just like individual credit scores, it is based on manipulating the social score of a citizen depending on their behavior. For example, bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games, and posting fake news online against the government can lower the social credit score. As a result, it can lead to negative legal consequences. Therefore, disinformation and Propaganda are symptoms of deeper structural problems in a democratic society and media environments.
Lately, the ban on social media and online communication platforms in Kashmir had received much criticism against the Indian government. However, the latest Delhi riots, where social media was used to plan, mobilize the rioters, and spread hate, brings into question about how this platform needs to be regulated. After all, we need to acknowledge that we have not yet come up with a solution to this structural problem that democracies face.
Also, in middle eastern countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, social media has become a “weaponized” platform for the distribution of uncensored public information among users. It has been used to crack down “the psychological barrier” of fear by galvanizing people and sharing information. Unfortunately, the volume of data and the speed of proliferation may create an uncertain and uncontrollable scenario for the diplomats and bureaucrats to shape public discourse and Propaganda. However, it has not made public diplomacy irrelevant.
Therefore, disinformation and Propaganda are symptoms of deeper structural problems in a democratic society and media environments. Lately, the ban on social media and online communication platforms in Kashmir had received much criticism against the Indian government. However, the latest Delhi riots, where social media was used to plan, mobilize the rioters, and spread hate, brings into question about how this platform needs to be regulated. After all, we need to acknowledge that we have not yet come up with a solution to this structural problem that democracies face.
Currently, there is no clarity in legislation against fake news, and this is a big challenge. Globally there is a notable lack of consistency among human rights organizations using the term’ fake news’. For example, in Europe, there are two resolutions by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe(PACE) referring to fake news that does not attempt to define the phenomena. Resolution 2212 (2018), PACE considers “fake news,” “propaganda,” and “disinformation” as different forms of manipulation. In contrast, in Resolution 2217 (2018), “fake news” is identified as a form of “mass disinformation campaigns,” which constitute a technique of “hybrid war.” The Joint Declaration by the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression acknowledges fake news in the title of the document but talks exclusively about “disinformation” and “propaganda” throughout the main body of the declaration. Therefore, within the legislative domain, the concept of fake news is even more ambiguous, as evidenced by the recent debates around the efforts to introduce national ‘anti-fake news’ laws.
Social Media platforms have led to the origin of wars. Revealing a military operation via Twitter would seem a strange strategy, but it should not be surprising given the source. The Islamic States of Iraq and Syria owes its existence to what the Internet has become with the rise of social media, a vast chamber of online sharing and conversation, and indoctrination, echoing with billions of voices. Social media has successfully empowered ISIS recruiting, helping the group draw thousands of foreign fighters, from all over the world, to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. It has aided the seeding of new franchises in Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and even Bangladesh.
To investigate the spread of fake news, a data scientist Soroush Vosoughi, and his colleagues collected twelve years of data from Twitter. They then looked at tweets that had been investigated and debunked by fact-checking websites. They found that a set of 126,000 “fake news” stories shared on Twitter 4.5 million times by some 3 million people. They looked at how quickly those stories spread versus tweets that were verified as authentic. As a result, they found was that fake accounts reached more people and propagated faster through the Twittersphere than real stories. It was also found that around 80% of flights in schools originated from discussions on social media platforms.
While governments have been slow or wary of social media’s hastened pace and losses of control, non-state actors have exploited the connective, interactive, and global influence of these tools. The rise of non-state players has become a significant element redefining the conception of public diplomacy as a primarily state-centric phenomenon. In the current issue, the two graduate papers illustrate the critical role of non-state actors working with the state — and against the state. In “Shifting the Blame on the High Seas,” B. Theo Mazumdar studied a case of attempted Israeli public diplomacy following an incident in May 2010 when activists on a “Freedom Flotilla” of petite vessels tried to enter Gaza, despite the blockade. The resulting clash with Israeli commandoes who intercepted the flotilla, which left nine activists on the ship dead. Israel undertook a campaign to explain its side of the story, using Youtube videos with a narrative designed to blame the activists as “terrorists.” Mr. Mazumdar reports that the campaign was unsuccessful because the video images did not support the Israeli claims, but instead appeared to viewers to be “manipulative rhetoric.” He concludes that such campaigns need to be credible and have due regard for their international reception. On the other hand, Michael Jablonski’s study, demonstrates how the distribution of data, by social media, might be used for purposes of persuasion. It was not a case of traditional public diplomacy by a government but rather information dissemination by a non-state actor, an NGO called the ‘Democracy Council.’ Jablonski argues that since the Council collected data clandestinely, the conclusions were biased, but the Council failed to disclose the bias, leading to suspicion that its effort was deliberately deceptive. The study has lessons for full disclosure of sources and methods, and close examination of data accuracy.
While Jablonski’s piece shines a spotlight on a non-state actor in U.S. public diplomacy working with the state, Mazumdar’s article on the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” activists illustrates how non-state actors can confront governments and create crisis public diplomacy. These studies demonstrate how a non-state actor, which shares a similar public diplomacy list as a state actor, may be able to operate with comparative less scrutiny and diplomatic ramifications than a state actor in high-risk, conflict situations.
While diplomacy has historically transformed by adapting to the advent of new technologies “ beginning from telegraph in the 1860s to radio and television in the later century” the Internet has reshaped diplomacy in a way difficult to fathom. It has made people equal participants in the diplomatic process, with governments compelled to ‘look both inward and outward’ simultaneously. In this article, I have highlighted a necessarily broad view of both public diplomacy and social media. It is inferred from the article that because media is inherently a tool for humans to communicate, all media is social. Given the media’s tendency to amplify the impact of human interaction, today’s new social media tools are exhibiting the same combustive social effect. While new technologies impact diplomacy writ large, their impact is significant for public diplomacy. Historically, public diplomacy has ebbed and flowed with wartime, when the need to rally public support becomes critical. The advent and use of the mass media closely parallel Propaganda’s emergence during World War I and II, and the urgency of studies on persuasion, attitude change, and opinion research followed in the war’s aftermath.
However, the recent surge of interest in public diplomacy we see today occurred in the wake of 9/11. Over the past decade, the rising investment in public diplomacy has coincided with the accelerated development and proliferation of social media. In the context of the spread of social media, images are critical when the public evaluate politicians. Global leaders have taken to connecting to people and creating images through the active online presence in social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
The rapid rise of India, Indonesia, and China and their enthusiastic deployment of social media in diplomatic communication requires an alternative perspective. In several respects, social media is also seen as a force equalizer in the world. These Rising nation-states, with expanding economies and global ambitions, are taking to purposeful communication with global audiences to build a positive image and enhance goodwill and resulting in improved ‘Nation Branding’.
However, democracies have not been successful in legislating laws against fake news. Therefore, it is a concern for nations with liberal values because most fake news propaganda has the power of steering the masses in a particular direction and leading to unintended political consequences. The Arab spring exemplifies this aspect. The surge in fake news over recent years has wrought unprecedented effects on the national and international stage, and there is a heated debate between the public, governments, the media, and big tech regarding how best to handle this wave of misinformation. However, no comprehensive action is taken by any of these stakeholders. Also, those in positions of influence are doing little to stop fake news. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that governments are as much to blame as individual actors. Therefore, there is no direct answer to the question of the relevance of use of social media in Public Diplomacy.