Digital Diplomacy: How Social Media is Reshaping International Relations

Foreign Policy Brief #132 | By: Inijah Quadri| March 28, 2024
Featured Photo: www.medium.com

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In the realm of international relations, the digital age has ushered in an era of digital diplomacy, where social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram serve not just as tools for social networking but as instruments of diplomatic engagement. This transformative shift has enabled governments, diplomats, and international organizations to communicate directly with global audiences, bypassing traditional media channels.

The utilization of social media for diplomatic purposes—often termed “Twiplomacy” when referencing Twitter—has grown exponentially, offering a platform for public diplomacy, crisis communication, and international dialogue. However, this digital expansion also brings challenges, including the spread of misinformation, cyber espionage, and the potential for exacerbating international tensions.

Analysis

Digital diplomacy harnesses social media’s power to reach and engage with a global audience instantaneously. It democratizes diplomacy, traditionally the domain of elite government officials, and opens it up to public scrutiny and participation. An example of this is the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s initiative, which utilizes Twitter for diplomatic communication, fostering transparency and dialogue with global citizens. Similarly, emerging platforms like TikTok are being explored for their potential to engage younger demographics through short-form video content, demonstrating digital diplomacy’s adaptability to new social media trends. The United Nations’ use of TikTok to raise awareness on a number of issues and the Government of New South Wales TikTok health broadcasts showcase how these platforms can extend the reach of diplomatic and informational campaigns, making complex issues accessible and engaging to a global audience. The implications of these “blown up” efforts underscore the importance of communicating with audiences at different levels—levels they prefer to be engaged on.

Yet, this digital engagement is not without its pitfalls. The immediacy and public nature of social media can sometimes lead to diplomatic faux pas or exacerbate tensions. For instance, tweets from world leaders have occasionally escalated both stock market and diplomatic tensions, demonstrating how digital diplomacy requires a careful balance between openness and diplomatic prudence. Furthermore, platforms like TikTok, while offering unique opportunities for engagement, also present challenges related to data privacy and geopolitical influence, underscoring the complexities of navigating digital diplomacy in the social media era.

Moreover, the current political climate surrounding TikTok exemplifies the multifaceted challenges of digital diplomacy. The app’s Chinese ownership has sparked bipartisan concerns in the United States, leading to legislative efforts by both Republicans and Democrats to enact a ban on TikTok, citing national security concerns. This development underscores the geopolitical complexities of digital platforms that transcend national boundaries. Concurrently, the Biden administration’s engagement with TikTok to reach younger voters highlights the strategic importance of social media in diplomacy and domestic politics. This dichotomy between security concerns and political outreach reflects the broader tensions inherent in digital diplomacy, where the tools that facilitate international engagement can also pose significant national security risks.

One of the most notable examples of digital diplomacy’s impact is the use of social media during crises. The U.S. State Department’s “Virtual Embassy Tehran” offers a platform for dialogue with Iranian citizens despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, showcasing digital diplomacy’s potential to bridge divides.

However, the digital sphere is also fraught with challenges, including the risk of misinformation and cyber espionage. Websites can be hacked, and social media platforms can be manipulated to spread false information, affecting international relations and public perception of global events. The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election highlighted the potential for foreign interference through social media, underscoring the need for vigilance and cybersecurity measures in the digital diplomacy arena.

Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort by international actors to establish norms and regulations governing digital diplomacy. Initiatives such as the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation represent steps toward mitigating the risks associated with digital engagement in international relations.

Digital diplomacy represents a significant shift in how nations engage with each other and the global public. It offers opportunities for more direct and transparent communication but also poses challenges that must be navigated carefully. As digital platforms continue to evolve, so too will the strategies and policies governing their use in international diplomacy, necessitating ongoing dialogue, research, and cooperation among nations.

Engagement Resources

Click or tap on the resource URL to visit links where available

  • The DiploFoundation (https://www.diplomacy.edu/): An organization dedicated to improving the understanding and practice of diplomacy in the digital age, offering training and research on digital diplomacy.
  • Twiplomacy Study (https://twiplomacy.com/): An annual study that analyzes the use of Twitter by world leaders and governments, providing insights into trends and strategies in digital diplomacy.
  • EU Code of Practice on Disinformation (https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/code-practice-disinformation): A voluntary framework aimed at combating online disinformation, including commitments by major social media platforms to increase transparency and accountability.
  • Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (https://www.cisa.gov/): The United States federal agency responsible for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure from physical and cyber threats, offering resources and guidelines for enhancing cybersecurity in the context of digital diplomacy.

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