All’s Quiet on the Digital Front


Over the past month, foreign ministries have been actively involved in national efforts to stem the coronavirus outbreak. Thus far, foreign ministries have been charged with four tasks. First, offering consular assistance to citizens stranded abroad. Second, acquiring much needed equipment from other nations including ventilating machines, protective gear for doctors and masks for the wider population. Third, fostering international collaborations through which scientists can jointly search for a vaccine to the coronavirus. Diplomats have also sought to debunk falsehoods and propaganda spread online that can affect the health of their citizens.

However, diplomats now also have at their disposal digital resources. Indeed, over the past decade foreign ministries have flocked to social media sites to engage with foreign audiences and raise awareness to their policies while also deploying algorithms and developing smartphone applications. An important question is can digital diplomacy offer an added value in this time of crisis? The answer is yes.

One important domain of digital activity is the management of national images. Studies suggest that people use stereotypes when thinking of different nations. For instance, Switzerland is often associated with the white Alps and banking services, Germany with precision engineering and France with gourmet cooking and high culture. Studies also suggest that altering national images is difficult as stereotypes are resistant to change.

Yet the Corona pandemic is likely to alter the image of many nations. This is because citizens throughout the world are comparing their government’s response to that of another. In addition, social media allows citizens to constantly monitor how other nations are impacted by the Corona outbreak. Lastly, during times of crises people may be more willing to change their view of the world. Uncertainty leads to a thirst for new knowledge, including that which negates previous beliefs.

One notable example is China. During the first few weeks of the Corona outbreak, the prevailing narrative in the Western media argued that China was failing to contend with a mere ‘virus’. Next, China was lambasted for imposing harsh quarantines while welding citizens’ doors shut. Now China is hailed as the first country to defeat Corona. Its policies are adopted across Europe and the Middle East while many praise the leadership of President Xi. Earlier this week, a motorcade of Italian police cars hurried Chinese doctors to local hospitals. The Chinese cavalry had finally arrived to aid Italy, a country who risks being associated with tragedy and government helplessness.

Israeli diplomats should use social media to better Israel’s international image. Social media content ought to resonate with two narratives that already an integral part of the Israel’s image. The first is that of David versus Goliath. Diplomats could, for example, depict Israelis’ spirit of  kinship when faced with a dangerous threat. At the moment, volunteers are delivering food to the elderly; private companies are using their business contacts to acquire medical equipment; the national carrier, EL AL, is raising funds to bring home Israeli youngsters while families are planning to hold the first-ever virtual Passover meal.

The second narrative is that of the Start-Up nation. Social media content could focus on high-tech companies that are already searching for a remedy or vaccine to the Corona virus. Other companies are sharing information with academics while still others are analyzing big-data sets in an attempt to better understand the spread of Corona. There are also those who are laboring to create better screening tests for Corona patients.

Above all, social media content could create a new Israeli narrative- that of the First Responder. Israel was the first nation in the region, or in Europe, to enact a partial quarantine. In a matter of days, Israel established hospital wings dedicated to Corona patients while now entire hospitals are converted to treat such patients. The Ministry of Health holds daily public briefings outlying new measures to cope with the outbreak. Equally important, the Director General of the Ministry of Health is interviewed frequently by the press holding true to the tenants of government transparency and accountability. Israel was also the first nation to explain to its citizens what social distancing means. The image of a First Responder will resonate with social media users who are searching for countries to emulate.

In times of crises, nations have a unique opportunity to reshape their image. Digital diplomacy can help Israel achieve just that. When the Corona pandemic ends, as it surely will, some countries will emerge as leaders and others as failures. Those able to boost their national image, will be able to leverage that image towards other diplomatic ends. Digital diplomacy is thus as important as offering Israelis consular assistance.

The above was co-authored by Ilan Manor and Corneliu Bjola. Corneliu Bjola is an associate professor of Diplomatic Studies at the University of Oxford. Ilan Manor is a diplomacy scholar at the University of Oxford. They are both members of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group.