Digital diplomacy has been heralded as 21st century statecraft. It involves using the Internet and social media platforms to communicate with citizens, businesses and non-state actors; promote national values; and build public support for policy goals or strategies.

In a world where everyone is increasingly connected, the ability to gather and share information to wide audiences at unprecedented rates has created new opportunities for policy leaders and government departments to share messages and set political agendas beyond traditional channels. While conventional forms of diplomacy still dominate both the domestic and foreign policy landscape, an increasing number of governments are utilizing technology as a new tool for communication, information gathering, and the promotion of values both at home and abroad.

The United States and the United Kingdom have an impressive history of encouraging their ambassadors and missions to engage the public and policy leaders through social media. The U.S. State Department has hundreds of social media accounts set up around the world, ranging from Facebook and Twitter, to Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube. Through these online platforms, the State Department has been able to reach new audiences and engage with citizens, corporations and non-state actors in new ways. 

In 2014, Canada’s former Foreign Minister John Baird made some efforts in getting Canadian policy leaders and practitioners online. In a speech to the Global Commission on Internet Governance in November 2014, Baird noted that since January of that year, over 290 new social media accounts had been created for missions abroad and departmental initiatives, bringing Canada’s digital footprint to over 100 missions around the world.

Being involved in online conversations is an important first step for digital diplomacy. But, in order to be effective, digital diplomacy requires more than just setting up a social media account. Social media is a tool – and a powerful one for gathering information, sharing ideas, facilitating dialogue, mobilizing public support or even surveilling citizens – but the successful uses of these tools depend on being clear about the ends to which they are put. What does the government want to achieve? Does it want to promote Canadian values, acquire more and better information about the world, or to build public support for certain initiatives? The answer is most likely all of the above.

Accordingly, it is important to remember that just as you do not use a hammer to unscrew a screw, similarly, you cannot create social media accounts and simply expect "to do diplomacy." The way in which one uses the tools available to them matters.

Listening to the perspectives of others and disseminating ideas are critical elements of conducting diplomacy. But traditional diplomacy also involves results-focused bargaining and negotiation. Diplomats are the eyes and ears, just as much as they are the mouths and hands. Successful engagement is often measured in terms of outcomes.

Unlike traditional forms of diplomacy, there is no easy way to evaluate the success of digital diplomacy initiatives – or even how to set targets for success. Much of the analysis on the success of digital diplomacy focuses on indicators such as the number of followers or shares an individual or organization receives. For example, one study named Pope Francis the most influential leader in the twitterverse because he is retweeted on average more than 10,000 times per tweet, compared to other leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama, who is only retweeted an average of 1,400 times.

But, in its truest sense, the only thing that separates digital diplomacy from the traditional definition of diplomacy is the medium used to carry out conversations, build public support, and disseminate ideas, eventually leading to policy change.

Social media has given us the ability to connect and communicate with a diverse range of citizens, businesses and non-state actors. Online, people can discuss issues and ask questions without ever seeing the person or organization at the other end-point. However, the use of the Internet and social media alone do not directly lead to the most important part of diplomacy – namely change.

The concept of digital diplomacy is not truly diplomacy; its listening and dissemination. Compared to diplomacy, listening and dissemination more accurately represent how governments are using the Internet and social media to gather information, share ideas and build national identities on the domestic and international stage.

Using these new platforms to gather information and share ideas is an important and necessary first step to achieving foreign policy goals or outcomes. However, one must be aware of challenges and biases built into the tools they use. There are important selection effects in regards to the information one gathers, and the audience they are conveying messages to. Much of the world’s population is still not online, and while this is expected to change over the next five years, the Internet is still disproportionately rich and Western.

In addition, the Internet might not truly reflect preferences. It’s easier for individuals to express dissatisfaction or outrage online; it’s less easy to take real action to try and change something. So the Internet might over-predict outrage, or at the very least, the likelihood people are going to do anything meaningful about it.

Finally, social media is a highly visible communication channel and not all of diplomacy can be, or should be, completely public in the moment.

Thus, traditional forms of diplomacy remain important. While the Internet has revolutionized our world over the past 10 years, we should not throw away old methods of engagement. Accessing information online is not the same as having on the ground, first-hand experience. Having a conversation with stakeholders behind a computer screen is not the same as talking face to face. Substituting online forums for embassies would be a mistake.

I am a digital diplomacy skeptic because I think the term is largely misused. Further, social media, and Internet technologies more generally, are much more useful for things other than diplomacy.

Of course, we cannot sprinkle the Internet on things and expect problems to be miraculously solved. But there is a real opportunity for Canada and other like-minded countries to use technology in creative ways in order to communicate with new audiences, participate in global dialogue, promote national values and develop a stronger national identity on the global stage – while simultaneously using technology to address global challenges, promote economic and social development, and protect human rights.

These uses might involve diplomats, as well as other parts of government, but might not all be sensibly called “diplomacy.”

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.