Exploring the Semiotics of Public Diplomacy

Principal Investigator:
Ilan Manor, CPD Research Fellow 2019-21

Recent years have seen the digitalization of public diplomacy. Although digitalization has attracted scholarly attention for more than a decade, few studies have examined the visual component of digital public diplomacy. This is a substantial gap given that digital platforms are visual by nature. Digitalization has thus transformed diplomats into visual narrators. Indeed, never before have diplomats created such an abundance of visuals on a daily basis. Importantly, visuals are not mere ornaments. Images and videos function as ideological devices. They are used to convey norms and values while shaping how intended audiences make sense of the world around them. Visuals are thus a potent contemporary public diplomacy tool given that digital publics may be unable to make sense of today’s world that is in a state of perpetual crisis.

This research project aims to address the aforementioned gap by investigating how diplomats practice visual narration; examining if diplomats use visuals as ideological devices and assessing how digital publics interact with diplomats’ visual content. This project will include three stages. First, in-depth interviews will be conducted with the digital departments of three ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs): The British Foreign Office and the MFAs of Israel and Lithuanian. All three MFAs manage an extensive online presence, all three author visual content on a daily basis and all three are in the process of managing digital campaigns. While the Foreign Offices is preparing for a post-Brexit reality, the Israeli MFA is attempting to dismantle the 2015 Iran Deal while Lithuania hopes to counter Russian campaigns labelling Lithuania as a failed state. Next, 50 images shared by each MFA on Twitter will be analyzed using Roland Barthes's semiotic approach to image analysis. Finally, comments posted by Twitter users in response to diplomats’ images will be evaluated to assess whether publics decode visuals in the manner intended by diplomats.