Everybody’s Diplomacy

A now famous cartoon from 1993 showed two dogs, one sitting at a computer and saying to another sitting on the floor, “On the Internet, no one knows you‘re a dog.” The simple statement captured the anonymity and ambiguity made possible by the Internet and highlighted the new ability to transcend geography, language, culture, and time (and species for the literate pet).

Nearly two decades later, the advent of participatory, voyeuristic, and visceral social media has democratized influence and flattened hierarchies to the point even a dog may shape the agendas of senior leaders around the world. This subverts old practices of governments and traditional media as gatekeepers of information as roles of news producer and news consumer blur and become interchangeable. Traditional communicators who continue to grasp at controlling a message are increasingly bypassed, marginalized, or kept on their heels in today‘s increasingly fast, hyperactive, and shallow information environment.

The information revolution, now over 10 years old, promised greater unity as connectivity was to create bridges of common understanding. Instead, it led to “fragmegration” of audiences simultaneously fragmented and integrated into smaller associations. Empowered by modern communications, cheap travel, and decreased demands to assimilate, the groups were no longer constrained by traditional barriers: geography, culture, ethnicity, language, religion, or even time. Whether Granfalloons or traditional diasporas, members can participate or observe, overtly or covertly, in multiple overlapping and even competing groups based on virtually any affinity.

In matters of international affairs, diplomats are forced to engage in open forums as distinctions of “domestic” and “foreign” and private and public are overwritten with “global.” This gives rise to online engagement increasingly – and erroneously – labeled “digital diplomacy.” It is better described as public-public diplomacy as content will jump mediums and will not be constrained at creation, dissemination, or consumption, within any particular digital domain.

The concept of open engagement upsets the traditional hierarchies and entrenched bureaucratic cultures of institutions like the State Department. Never comfortable with public diplomacy, digital diplomacy is now forced on it as a kind of public “public diplomacy.” Everyone from “front office” diplomats and public affairs officers to “back office” staff are potential communicators with audiences who may be anywhere in the world, hold any rank, and reuse and manipulate anything conveyed. In other words, regardless of title, experience, or employment status (contractor, government service, Foreign Service, or political appointee), virtually anyone can, intentionally or not, shape conversations about critical topics.

Merging professional and personal lives does increase risk. Humanizing the speaker requires not being a dog and giving a name (even if not the true name if security is an issue), just as it is with in-person conversations. This personalization of the speaker, and by extension government, has the potential of disseminating “too much information” or the perception of unprofessional conduct. Where there was privacy among discrete audiences, there is now transparency on a global scale that facilitates recall of short messages about a great frappucino north of Damascus by a State Department official or about drugs or Toyotas from an official State Department channel. Online, enduring engagement requires not being a dog: a public affairs officer would not refuse to give her name (or their real name if personal, or familial, security was an issue) in a conversation. Properly managed, however, the opportunities outweigh the risks.

The concept of open engagement upsets the traditional hierarchies and entrenched bureaucratic cultures of institutions like the State Department.

Digital diplomacy must be embraced and encouraged and its practitioners educated, empowered, properly equipped, and not muzzled. The online world can be used to inform all sides of an issue or be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Alerts, trends, and unguarded comments are more likely to be available and shared widely than ever before.

Bureaucratic reticence is understandable. Governments, particularly foreign ministries who strive to make sure nothing happens, are naturally risk adverse. But today‘s hyperactive environment where perceptions often trump truth, require active and established networks to engage (or counter) the cacophony of online and offline voices as information jumps mediums with greater speed and efficiency every day. This is an uncomfortable environment where information, and thus influence, is both immediate (similar to the past with radio) and persistent (unlike the past). Users can now insulate themselves and share selective content on their schedule rather than on the schedule of the transmitter. While the goal is to encourage networks to become your torchbearer, the danger is of course they will turn on you and burn down your house. Often, however, the need is to simply provide actionable knowledge to dispel misinformation, counter disinformation, or simply lay foundations for future mobilization.

This “digital diplomacy” is hampered by the obvious bureaucratic and cultural barriers and in the U.S. by law, the Smith-Mundt Act. As amended, this legislation imposes an imaginary construct of two distinct homogeneous worlds: one inside U.S. borders and the other outside. This artificial bifurcation leads State Department (and the Broadcasting Board of Governors‘) lawyers to block or curtail online activities that are required to engage the “outside” that may potentially “spillover” into the U.S. This, for example, limits online “exchanges” hosted by State‘s public diplomacy organization. It also inhibits broader awareness, and thus effectiveness, of State‘s successful use of Facebook and other mediums.

More visible and mundane is a requirement suffered by no foreign ministry other than the State Department: segregated websites based on the location of the audience. Despite the fact that 30 percent of the visitors to www.State.gov, a website run by the State Department’s public affairs, are outside America‘s borders, it may not link to the website Smith-Mundt implicitly requires because of the bifurcation of audiences: www.America.gov. Paradoxically, these barriers implicitly encourage digital diplomacy by State‘s individuals, including the “back office” staff, as the institution itself is hidebound by both law and lawyers.

This diplomacy that originates as relatively inexpensive bits and bytes with incalculable reach is heavily relied upon by our adversaries, often to great effect. Insurgents and terrorists regularly engage audiences online to identify and empower supporters and undermine adversaries. These efforts are not constrained to virtual activities. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, would not have become a household name had so-called “digital diplomacy” not been available. Perhaps the best example of the power of the digital domain is the fact that propagandists, from terrorists to Wikileaks, drive the media‘s agenda instead of the other way around.

Whether acting against terrorism, negotiating nuclear weapons, or simply managing a conversation, United States “digital diplomacy,” like regular public diplomacy, will be handicapped, reactive, and marginal until we break through bureaucratic, cultural and legislative barriers that inhibit effective global, persistent, and multiple medium engagement. We will know success when the phrase “digital diplomacy” is no longer used and nobody wonders if you‘re a dog

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