What is Digital Diplomacy, and how is it Practiced around the World? A brief introduction
Department of International Development
University of Oxford
On April of 2015, a devastating earthquake shook Nepal killing more than 8,000 people.
Within hours of the deadly quake, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) launched a
dedicated twitter channel through which it coordinated consular aid to Indians stranded in
Nepal. Tweets published by the MEA included the emergency contact numbers for the Indian
embassy in Kathmandu, information on flights scheduled to transport civilians from Nepal
back to India and updates on India’s assistance in search and rescue operations. This is but
one example of how digitalization has impacted diplomatic institutions and diplomats in a
process generally referred to as digital diplomacy.
(tweet published on the MEA’s twitter channel, 26/04/2016)
Buy what is digital diplomacy? How can it best be defined? This is a vexing question given
the myriad of ways in which digitalization has impacted the practice of diplomacy. Arriving
at such a definition becomes even more elusive when taking into account that scholars and
practitioners also use the terms net diplomacy, social media diplomacy, diplomacy 2.0 and
See Costigan, S. S. (2012). Cyberspaces and Global Affairs. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
This article aims to offer a definition of digital diplomacy. To do so, it first identifies certain
events and processes that led to the emergence of digital diplomacy. Next, it demonstrates the
manner in which digital diplomacy enables diplomats to overcome many of the limitations of
traditional diplomacy. The article also explores the challenges of practicing digital diplomacy
before ending with a definition of the term.
So what is Digital Diplomacy?
Before defining digital diplomacy it may be beneficial to identify events and processes that
led MFAs (Ministries of Foreign Affairs) to adopt digital tools. One such event was the Arab
Spring of 2010. As Professor Phillip Seib of the University of Southern California has
, MFAs were taken by surprise by these democratic Arab revolts as they were not
monitoring the environment in which these revolts took shape- that of Facebook. While
Facebook did not cause the Arab Spring, it did serve as a modern day town square in which
digital citizens came together to openly criticize their governments, an occurrence that could
never have happened offline. Following the Arab Spring, MFAs began to migrate online so as
to better anticipate events in foreign countries.
The second process that led to the emergence of digital diplomacy was terrorist groups' use of
the internet to recruit youths to Jihadi movements
. In an attempt to combat such activities,
and prevent terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda from gaining online support, the US State
Department took to the internet in order to wage a war of ideas and win over the hearts and
minds of Muslim internet users.
The third, and final process that led diplomats to adopt digital tools was the fact that these
were being used by journalists and news organizations
. Diplomats have traditionally sought
to influence how the media portrays events, actors and even countries given that the media
shapes public opinion. In addition, MFAs rely on journalists and the media for information
regarding events in foreign countries. Thus, once the media migrated online, MFAs were
soon to follow.
Taken together, these three processes suggest that digital diplomacy is actually social media
diplomacy. But this is not entirely the case. Ambassadors now use messaging applications
See Real Time Diplomacy (2012) by Seib
See Digital Diplomacy: The Internet, The battle for Ideas & US Foreign Policy (2010) by Hallams
See Are We there Yet: Have MFAs Realized the Potential of Digital Diplomacy (2016) by Manor
such as WhatsApp in order to influence UN deliberations as they take place. In addition,
MFAs have launched virtual embassies in virtual worlds in order to brand their nation.
Therefore, digital diplomacy includes a variety of digital tools that far exceed that of social
media. While digitalization has brought with it many benefits, it is not without its challenges.
It may thus be useful to explore such benefits and challenges before arriving at a definition of
Digital Diplomacy- Overcoming the Limitations of Traditional Diplomacy
Traditional diplomacy was based on representation. An Ambassador served as one king’s
representative to the court of another king. This ambassador was also “extraordinary and
plenipotentiary” meaning that is was within his purview to negotiate and sign treaties on
behalf of his king. Yet in the age of ICTS (information and communication technologies) one
sovereign, or Prime Minister, may simply call his counterpart thus rendering the Ambassador
not so extraordinary. Likewise, in the age of diplomatic summitry (such as G20 meetings),
leaders come together to directly negotiate with one another.
But while ICTs have reduced an ambassador’s agency opposite a foreign leader, they have
increased his agency opposite foreign populations. SNS (social networking sites) such as
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram enable diplomats and embassies to converse online with
foreign populations and create relationships with them. Thus, digital diplomacy enables one
to overcome the limitations of traditional diplomacy and continuously engage with a large
and diverse audience. Notably, it is the two-way communicative nature of social media that
represents the fundamental difference between digital diplomacy and 20th century diplomacy
practiced via radio or television
Another limitation of traditional diplomacy was lack of representation. Consider for example
that the Emperor of Ethiopia had decided to banish the Swedish Ambassador from his court.
Not only would there be no communication between the two countries, but the Swedish
Ambassador would also be unable to communicate with Ethiopian citizens be it in order to
stimulate trade between both countries, strengthen political ties or even narrate his countries
policies in Africa.
See Digital Diplomacy: Theory & Practice (2015) by Bjola & Holms; Diplomacy in the Digital Age (2015) by
Hocking & Melissen
Nowadays, however, lack of representation does not necessarily infer lack of communication
as MFAs can create virtual embassies instead of physical ones. Such was the case with
Virtual Embassy Teheran, a web based embassy launched by the US state Department in
December of 2011
. Through this website, the US State Department hoped to converse online
with Iranian citizens, an occurrence that could not happen offline as both nations do not have
diplomatic ties. Similarly, in 2007, the Swedish MFA launched a virtual embassy in the
virtual world of Second Life. As Dr. James Pamment of Lund University explains
embassy was meant to serve as a cultural hub that would showcase Swedish art through
gallery exhibitions, lectures and concerts. Given that Second Life attracts millions of users
from all over the world, this virtual embassy was actually the world’s first global embassy.
If we return to the court of the Ethiopian Emperor, we may also consider that the Swedish
Ambassador was the very embodiment of Sweden to all those at court. It was the
Ambassador’s duty to personify Swedish values, Swedish culture and even publicize Swedish
accomplishments. To paraphrase Louis XIV, the Ambassador was the State. Yet such
activities were usually limited to the court and thus failed to influence how the national
citizenry viewed another country.
In modern diplomacy the art of shaping and promoting a country’s image abroad is often
referred to as nation branding. And digital tools have proven themselves a powerful medium
for nation branding. One interesting example is Finland’s national emoji application now
available on the App Store. The application enables users to use a variety of emoji’s, or
images that are representative of Finland’s culture and history. Through this project, which
attracted mass media attention, Finland was able to brand itself as a vibrant, technologically
oriented and humoristic nation challenging the common perception of Finland as a dark and
See Is it the Medium or the Message? Social Media, American Public Relations & Iran (2012) by Metzgar
See New Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century (2013) by Pamment
(Image of Finland Emoji Application in the iTunes Store)
Other MFAs employ social media to brand their nation. Given that self-portraits in the age of
social media are known as Selfies, social media based branding may be conceptualized as
. The Kenyan foreign ministry, for instance, has been using its SNS
accounts to brand Kenya as the financial gateway to Africa and an emerging technological
powerhouse. Poland, on the other hand, has been crafting a different Selfie labelling itself the
Heart of Europe.
Lastly, as was the case with extraordinary Ambassadors, diplomats have been using digital
tools in order to create trans-national networks. At times, such networks may include MFAs
and NGOs who collaborate on advocacy campaigns. Such was the case with UK Foreign
Office’s campaign to End Sexual Violence in Conflicts
. Through a global network of civil
society organizations, individuals and diplomats, the Foreign Office aimed to influence
policy and prevent sexual violence which is rampant during times of armed conflict.
Other foreign ministries aim to foster networks with their Diasporas
. One example of these
activities is the Indian MEA’s Know India programme that targets second generation
Diaspora (i.e., children of immigrants). The Know India programme website offers a range of
activities for second generation Diasporas so that these retain their cultural heritage and a link
to their country of origin.
The Challenges of Digital Diplomacy
One of the greatest challenges of digital diplomacy lies in its conversational nature.
Following their migration online, diplomats and diplomatic institutions have been forced to
See America’s Selfie: How the US Portrays itself on its Social Media Accounts (2015) by Manor & Segev
See Digital Diplomacy as Transmedia Engagement (2015) by Pamment
See Practicing Digital Diaspora Diplomacy (2016) by Bjola
contend with a vocal and unpredictable online public
. Indeed, verbal attacks and hate
speech against diplomats are an inseparable part of digital diplomacy.
Additionally, MFAs' online activities may soon cause online controversy. Such was the case
with the Selfie below published by the US First Lady Michele Obama. In the selfie, Obama
holds a sign with the hashtag “Bring Back Our Girls”, referencing the abduction of some 250
Nigerian school girls by the Islamist Boko Haram group. The Selfie was meant to raise media
attention to this abduction and indicate that the release of the girls was a US foreign policy
(tweet published by First Lady, 8/05/2014)
Yet what followed was a social media campaign by Twitter users denouncing the First Lady.
Users soon uploaded their own Selfies baring the hashtag “Bring Back You Drones”,
referencing the Obama administrations affinity to drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
Thus, Obama’s Selfie reignited the online conversation regarding US morality in its War on
See Corporate Diplomacy in the Information Age: Catching Up to the Dispersal of Power (2011) by Haynal
(image source: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/michelle-obama-s-bringbackourgirls-sign)
An additional challenge lies in MFAs’ need to maintain their online diplomatic empires. In
order to attract social media users to their accounts, MFAs must create attractive social media
content. In order to brand their nation, MFAs must converse with online publics and respond
to questions and comments. In order to influence news coverage MFAs must follow
journalists online and in order to predict events in foreign countries they must follow other
diplomatic institutions. These all demand substantial resources. This challenge becomes
evident when one realizes the size of MFAs’ digital diplomacy apparatuses. The US State
Department, for instance, manages an empire of some 1,000 social media accounts
It is also worth noting that digital diplomacy is not practiced in a vacuum. Indeed one MFA’s
online content may immediately be contrasted by another. For instance, the Hamas group that
controls the Gaza strip recently published a new YouTube video depicting life in Gaza. This
video was part of Hamas' election campaign and it therefore portrayed Gaza as a bustling city
with an emerging economy, beautiful beaches and large communal parks.
See Social Media at State: Power, Practice and Conceptual Limits for US Public Diplomacy (2012) by Hayden
(images from Hamas election video)
But immediately after this video was released, Israeli diplomats used it to infer that Hamas
had been lying in recent years by depicting Gaza as the victim of a brutal Israeli military
siege. It is this example that demonstrates that digital diplomacy is a competitive arena in
which MFAs and diplomats bide over audience and media attention while attempting to
discredit one another.
Digital diplomacy also presents certain technical difficulties. The first of these is Bots which
are computer programs that are meant to imitate Internet users and post certain comments and
opinions on SNS and websites. By using Bots, one nation can impact the social media
discourse in another. For instance, it has been alleged that Russia uses Bots in order to create
a swarm of online criticism against German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Regular internet
users, that visit social media sites or even online newspapers, will therefore get the
impression that many in Germany oppose the Chancellor and her migration polices. In this
manner, Bots warp online discourse and people’s perception of reality.
Algorithms present an additional difficulty. Social networking sites are all based on
algorithms that are meant to tailor our online experience. For instance, an algorithm may
detect our political affiliation, world view and even sexual orientation. The algorithms than
exposes us primarily to content that confers with our opinions and beliefs. As such,
algorithms are actually bubbles that limit what we know about the world. This is a major
challenge for MFAs and diplomats looking to alter the manner in which their nation is
perceived. If, for instance, a social media user is inclined to support Palestinian statehood, it
is unlikely that he will be exposed to content posted online by the Israeli MFA. Likewise, a
social media user who is critical of the US is unlikely to be offered articles on US aid to Syria
in his Facebook feed. It is therefore incumbent on diplomats to attempt and crack these
algorithmic bubbles, a task which to date has proven most problematic.
A Definition of Digital Diplomacy
This article aimed to offer but a glimpse into the emerging world of digital diplomacy.
Through a series of examples, it also aimed to demonstrate that digital diplomacy is a global
phenomenon. From Nairobi to Delhi, and Lima to Ottawa, MFAs and diplomats are
embracing digital tools. This process offers both great rewards, and great challenges. Finally,
the article illustrates the fact that digital diplomacy is more than just tweeting. It is a
conceptual shift in diplomatic practice that places and emphasis on conversing with foreign
populations. It is a cultural shift which requires that MFA share information rather than guard
it. And it is a technological shift that necessitates that diplomats develop digital skills
spanning from knowledge of social media algorithms to the writing of computer programs
and smartphone applications.
For some diplomats it is a time of innovation and experimentation. For others, it is a culture
It is this realization that demands a definition of digital diplomacy that is both inclusive and
particular, that is both optimistic and cautious. Thus, this article ends with the following
definition of digital diplomacy-
The positive and negative impact digitalization has had on the practice of diplomacy at both
the institutional and personal level
Ilan Manor is PhD student at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the manner in
which foreign ministries use social media during times of geo-political crises. His book Are
We There Yet: Have MFAs Realized the Potential of Digital Diplomacy was recently
published as part of Brill’s Research Perspectives in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. His
analysis of America’s Selfie (with Elad Segev) was recently published in Digital Diplomacy:
Theory & Practice (Routledge). He has contributed to the Hague Journal of Diplomacy and
Global Affairs. He blogs on the issue of digital diplomacy at www.digdipblog.com