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Digitalisation of Diplomacy

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With the advancement of technology and the ultimate rise of the internet, a new digital age has dominated the 21st century, leaving no field untouched by its presence. The world has undergone a rapid process of digitalization which has accelerated real-time communication and dissemination of information among people, ensuring that everything is just a click away. The digital era is revolutionizing every domain and one of these many arenas is diplomacy which is being revamped with the evolution of the internet, and social media. Diplomacy heavily relies on state actors, called diplomats, that represent the interests of their nation and try to secure it through mutual understanding and dialogue. However, with the entry of technology, the dynamics have changed with diplomacy not being limited to diplomats and new channels opening like social media where people can express their opinions about diplomatic activities. This has created a dialogue between the citizens and the government with the latter getting instant feedback and citizens being able to speedily get information that was earlier limited to diplomats. With all these new developments in the diplomatic arena, this essay seeks to examine how the advent of digitalism has altered diplomacy, what is its impact, and whether it has changed the value and role of diplomats in global affairs.

Diplomacy has long been used as a mechanism in the sphere of international affairs and foreign policy for states to negotiate with each other to achieve national interests and strengthen strategic relations. It is an instrument through which states maintain multilateral relations with each other to create a strong global presence, resolve disputes through dialogue, and collaborate on different programs. This process has multiple channels like setting up embassies in different countries to foster bilateral relations and diplomats acting as messengers between their nations and other countries. There is a heavy reliance on diplomats who are sent to other countries to achieve the political, economic, and social objectives of the state through dialogue and compromise. This method of diplomacy is referred to as conventional or traditional diplomacy where most communication occurs between the governments and representatives. This kind of diplomacy ensures secrecy and monopoly over information by the diplomats and the nations. It limits the knowledge of the diplomats with little interaction with the non-state actors, and the public in the shaping of policies.

However, as discussed earlier traditional diplomacy now faces a threat in the new digital age. The introduction of the internet and information communication technology (ICT) has added new dimensions to traditional diplomacy as now there is the employment of digital tools to conduct diplomatic activities. It is an interplay between technology and diplomacy. It is the use of social media and other digital instruments of communication that impact decision-making and help in achieving foreign policy goals. The concept of digital diplomacy is relatively new and therefore there has been no unanimous consensus on a universal term for the concept with many scholars using different terms like ‘cyber-diplomacy’, ‘net-diplomacy’, and ‘twiplomacy’. Since there is no universal term for the concept, there is also no concrete definition to describe the growing phenomenon, with scholars currently focusing on everything from social media to cyber attacks to data confidentiality.

Earlier diplomacy was limited to diplomats and conducted privately with the public having a negligible role to play in the decision-making process. However, with the coming of social media, the diplomatic ecosystem has changed with the conversation being a dialogue between the state and the citizens. Now, multiple non-state actors can take part in the decision-making process and influence national objectives and policies. The Internet has given voice to individuals and created a diversity of opinions where every individual has a right to express himself. These multiple voices now can have a direct dialogue with the government where their ideas, feedback, and criticism can be considered. This can be further backed by the words of Bridget Verrekia in her writing ‘Digital Diplomacy and its Effects on International Relations’ where she says, “These lines of two-way communication allow individuals to influence their government in ways that were not previously possible. Governments, and ultimately their foreign policies, benefit from these conversations with the public because they can gain a better grasp of public opinions on certain issues. (Verrekia,2017, p18)” These digital channels have multiplied the voices who now want to be heard. This also makes the whole process transparent and inclusive, ensuring all voices are heard and that the government can be held accountable.

The interaction with the government and a platform to express their concerns have changed the audience of diplomacy, as it has given rise to ‘citizen journalist’ which is when ordinary citizens are actively involved in the process of collecting, reporting, and analyzing information. This is done by citizens through social media platforms where they can create and post content and be active and vigilant citizens of the country. Often these citizen journalists create narratives about certain issues which are followed by the public and are in turn they are successful in influencing diplomatic affairs. Digital diplomacy is a form of public diplomacy which means that there is not just dialogue between the government and its citizens but also with the citizens of other countries. Social media platforms like Twitter make it possible for governments to openly communicate with foreign audiences and convey their strategic objectives. The new technology has ensured that there is an easy proliferation of information among the masses and the government can easily interact with its target audience. This is not just limited to governmental interaction but also the interaction between citizens of different states coming together to share opinions and have discourses.

Online infrastructure has accelerated the process of dissemination of information and the number of sources from where this data is coming. This advanced technology ensures that news reaches people instantaneously, in real-time and they are no longer dependent on the government and diplomats for information. The diplomats no longer enjoy a monopoly on information that was earlier seen to be confidential as with the presence of the internet, the sources have increased and information is easily transmitted to the masses. The state does not have complete control over the information and narrative that is reaching the masses. Here it is required that the government let go of some of the control and collaborate with the masses to try to achieve public policy objectives.

Diplomats, Political leaders, and ministries around the globe have realized the potential of the internet, with many now interacting with the audience through different mediums like Twitter and Facebook. It is a way for them to make the audience feel that they are part of the decision-making process and their input is being considered. Social media can now provide audiences with information in real-time and disseminate information through websites, and social media. The spreading of ideas is a soft power as it helps in creating the desired narratives, and promoting agendas and policies. Social media aids them in creating certain perceptions about different themes, and events. To create and control narratives and information, the practitioners of diplomacy must be well-versed with the new technology to ensure that they can ensure proximity with the public, make essential strategies to sway public opinion, and take part in meaningful discourses with the citizens. With the fast-paced technology and proliferation of data, it is also required that the government also acts in real-time, and diplomats also become real-time actors who are abreast of new information, and developments.

The question here arises is how has the role of diplomats changed in this digital era and whether it has affected the value and significance of the practitioners. Before the digital age, diplomats were entrusted with the task of collecting information and carrying out diplomatic missions around the globe. They were required to foster strategic relationships with other states and had a monopoly over information, which was valuable. Also, there was a sense of secrecy and confidentiality around diplomatic missions. However, with digital tools, diplomats no longer have complete control over information and are not required to collect information as data is already available due to the presence of the internet. This can be backed by the words of Bridget Verrekia in her writing ‘Digital diplomacy and Its effect on International Relations’ where she says “With social media sites now allowing any person to be both a producer and a consumer of information, diplomats have lost their monopoly on being able to report about what is happening in other countries.(Verrekia, 2017, p 26)” As discussed earlier now even ordinary citizens partake in creating content and dissipation of news which means that diplomats are now competing with ordinary citizens and journalists for information.

The role of the diplomat in reporting news has changed and now what is required of them is to analyze the information by using their political expertise. Diplomats possess unique knowledge about foreign policy and diplomatic processes which is unrivalled. Digitalism is not a replacement for classical diplomacy; instead, it complements regular diplomacy by making it more interactive and inclusive. These digital mechanisms aid the diplomats in quick response and being real-time actors and can never suffice for conventional diplomacy as it is the diplomats and government officials who have the actual power. It acts as a supplement to traditional diplomacy which requires representatives to partake in global discourses and negotiations with their proficiency in political matters. Therefore, digital diplomacy can never take the place of regular diplomacy; instead, it provides diplomats with new tools to conduct their activities more efficiently.

The intersection of the internet and diplomacy has brought significant changes in the processes and structures of diplomacy, equipping the government with more tools to carry out diplomatic practices. It has made the government more accessible and transparent to the citizens, with the latter now playing an active role in shaping policies. It has also ensured a high-speed and brisk communication infrastructure and channels which do not limit the production and control of information to the government. Finally, it also changed the role of diplomats in the ever-changing world of technology from information collectors to analyzers. All these points towards how technology has changed the audiences of diplomacy, institutions, and practices of diplomacy, and the practitioners of diplomacy.

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Cercel, M. and Saftescu, R. (2015). Digital Diplomacy-Perspectives and impact on the traditional diplomatic practices-case study: Digitization impact on Romanian and Belgian National Diplomatic Systems. International Journal of Social Sciences and Education Research. 1(2), pp. 318–318.

Manor, I. (2018). The Digitalization of Diplomacy: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Terminology. Working Paper No 2. Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group.

Verrekia, B. (2017). Digital Diplomacy and Its Effect on International Relations. SIT Digital Collections.