Digital Diplomacy: How has the revolution in communications technology affected the practice of diplomacy?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Intelligence and Security, International Developments, Strategy & Defence

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert

Modern technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones and satellite communications, constitute not only one of the most prevalent changes in our daily lives, but also a common way in which politicians and diplomats operate. Until the 1980s, one of the main diplomats’ tasks was to gather and analyze information in order to provide them to their home country. Nowadays, even though diplomats’ personal contacts are still useful, most of the information reaching governments comes from the media and particularly from the Internet-based media. If we wanted to define ‘Digital Diplomacy’, we would say that it is “the use of the Internet and new Information and Communications Technologies to help carry out diplomatic objectives.”[i]

Digital diplomacy is also known as “e-diplomacy”, “twiplomacy” or “facebook diplomacy”. It is obvious that the use of social media is dominant in digital diplomacy and has become an integral part of almost every government communication. “The year 2012 has seen a marked increase in the use of social media – especially Twitter and Facebook, by heads of states and governments, ministers and diplomats.”[ii] Twitter is so popular among politicians and diplomats, because it is one of the easiest tools and it allows broadcasting short messages to a large audience. If we consider the number of the registered users of Twitter, which is more than half a billion people from all over the world, we can understand how important it is to communicate via Twitter and social media in general. On the one hand, the fact that the messages have a limit of 140 characters has been constantly criticized, as it is believed that someone cannot express his/her thoughts in only 140 characters. On the other hand, there are people who believe that this limitation is positive, as it “forces” the writing of precise and concise messages.

It is not possible to be a successful and popular politician or diplomat, without having a personal account on at least one social media. The majority of governments have also a lot of accounts, usually one for each ministry, department and embassy. Maybe the most typical example is the United States of America. The White House uses Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube and Reddit. “U.S. President Barack Obama has sat down for two YouTube interviews sourced from the YouTube community via video. He travelled to Facebook headquarters for a town hall meeting moderated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who put questions from Facebook users to the president. The U.S. administration organized a Twitter Town Hall at the White House, moderated by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.”[iii]

Let us consider the most prominent benefits of digital diplomacy. Firstly, it enables open-source intelligence. Previously, countries have invested capital in monitoring radio, TV and newspaper products of another state, but now they have access to billions of digitally connected citizens who write or even create multimedia about events in real time.[iv] Secondly, as the new communications become more and more participatory, people have greater access to information and engage more actively in public speech. There are also numerous examples of demonstrations organized by social media. This may lead to two further benefits: the first is that governments could be benefited by “using social media to stir up political will among citizens of another state and produce game- changing effects when it comes to international negotiations.”[v] The second is that the access to more information increases the influence of public opinion on the conduct of foreign policy and citizens ask for more transparency and accountability from their leadership.

But what are the perils of the digital diplomacy? The last benefit described above, is associated with a potential danger or to put it more accurately, it challenges traditional practices and particularly the one of confidentiality of the diplomatic activity. Another peril is the ‘risk of impulsive decision-making’, given that usually people have to react immediately or at least quickly to a message, and they might not express exactly what they want to say or not use the right language.  “The ‘paradox of plenty’ produced by the explosion of information”[vi] constitutes another peril. As Nye observes, “plenty of information leads to scarcity of attention and when people are overwhelmed with the volume of information confronting them, it is hard to know what to focus on.”[vii] So, it becomes necessary to distinguish the valuable information from background, non useful or even untrue information, in order to gain power.

The most serious danger of digital diplomacy lies probably in Internet security. Viruses, spyware, weak passwords and poorly understood encryption systems  constitute a big risk for diplomats. A striking example is when in 2007 the login credentials of email accounts at embassies of many countries, including those of Russia, India, China and Iran were published by a hacker. This danger is more likely to materialize in countries with poor government email services, where diplomats may have the temptation to use free web based services, such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail for official business.[viii]

Finally, without judging it as successful or not, let us remember a recent, Greek example of “twiplomacy”. Last November, on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels, a highly unusual online exchange of comments/tweets took place on Twitter between the prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras and the prime minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu. Alexis Tsipras posted on his official English- speaking account four tweets addressed to Ahmet Davutoglou, saying the following: “Fortunately our pilots are not mercurial as yours against the Russians. What is happening in the Aegean is outrageous and unbelievable. We’re spending billions on weapons. You—to violate our airspace, we—to intercept you. We have the most modern aerial weapons systems and yet, on the ground, we can’t catch traffickers who drown innocent people.” The tweets were later deleted and replaced with a more diplomatic language, when Ahmet Davutoglou answered him. But, it is interesting that the comments are still up on his Greek account, as they are what the domestic audience wanted to hear. But, sometimes what is successful in communicating with a domestic audience may have negative effects on a foreign audience.

[i] Hanson, F., Baked in and Wired: eDiplomacy@State, Foreign Policy Paper Series no 30, Washington D.C., Brookings Institution, 25 October 2012: p.2.

[ii] Matthias Lüfkens, ‘The Digital Diplomat: Connected and on Twitter,’ Open Canada, October 17, 2012,

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Brian Fung ‘Digital Diplomacy: Why It’s So Tough for Embassies to Get Social Media Right,’ The Atlantic Oct 17, 2012,

[v] Ibid

[vi] Simon, Herbert A. 1998. Information 101: It’s not what you know, it’s how you know it. Journal for Quality

and Participation, July-August, pp. 30-33.

[vii] Nye, Joseph S., Jr. ‘Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616, (Mar., 2008), pp. 94-109

[viii] Berridge, G.R. Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)