The rise of the Digital Diplomat in a turbulent age


 Digital platforms are enabling an era of digital diplomacy – but, says British High Commissioner to Ghana Jon Benjamin, there are certain rules of the game that need to be taken into account.

Jon Benjamin
Jon Benjamin

The use of digital and social platforms as communications channels for business is a topic we cover all the time on diginomica. We’ve also covered their use in political circles, as part of election campaigns or referendums.

But here’s something different that touches on both aspects, but is itself a discipline in its own right – diplomacy in the digital age. In other words, how can digital technologies and platforms empower new forms of diplomacy in a turbulent and threatining geo-political climate?

It’s been cynically said that diplomats are people sent abroad to lie for their country. If you accept that thesis, then do digital platforms enable them to lie more and better or do they encourage greater levels of transparency and mutual understanding?

It’s a question that Jon Benjamin, the British High Commissioner to Ghan and a career diplomat, has pondered. He bases his conclusions on a set of simple premises – diplomacy is how countries do foreign policy, which in turn is about managing international relations to achieve your own aims internationally and shared international goals with others. Diplomacy is the means of achieving those aims.

So where does digital diplomacy come into this? Is it some new and complicated thing? No, says Benjamin, far from it:

Put simply, digital diplomacy is how governments and their diplomats use the Internet, smart telephony and social media as part of managing international relations, again in their own national interest.

That’s what we’re talking about, and that’s important because, frankly, sometimes there is a tendency to overstate the meaning and importance of digital diplomacy. As a profession, I guess like many other professions, diplomacy can have a self-obsessed fascination about itself, often while failing to make an impact on others. There’s a recent tendency, I think, to spend too much timing talking and navel gazing about digital diplomacy rather than just getting on and doing it.

My point is this: digital diplomacy may be a new form of the art, but it’s still diplomacy, not separate from it.

Benjamin argues that diplomacy can be broken into two camps – the private and the public. Of the two, private diplomacy has made up the bulk of diplomatic activity – the confidential exchanges between governments and the off-the-record conversations with leading figures in society.

Alongside this, there sits public diplomacy – direct, on-the-record communication by governments, directly or through diplomats, with the population of other countries in order to inform and influence them, sometimes in ways that the governments of those other countries might not like. Some call that diplomacy, others might call it propaganda, but the reality is that public diplomacy has existed for as long as private diplomacy has.

Benjamin’s main thesis therefore becomes that digital diplomacy is just the latest, form of public diplomacy, albeit the most public form of it ever, powered by the reach of social media as a communications channel. It’s important to keep this in perspective though, he adds:

Let’s not put digital diplomacy and social media completely on a pedestal. Individual human beings have always communicated – that’s one of the core things that make us human – and societies have always engaged in mass communications. So, we’re talking about a new form of communication, not something that is above and beyond, or a wholly separate category from basic communication, per se.

That said, digital technology has certainly disrupted diplomacy, not least because it necessitates that it must be:

quicker, less formal and rigid, more impactful, more robust in debate and more responsive to those who question it.

Three ingredients

Successful digital diplomacy is about three things, according to Benjamin –  authenticity, engagement and purpose – and most effective when all three are combined:

For example, authenticity and engagement without a real purpose can be eye-catching, but may well end up being pretty ephemeral or not more than sloganistic. But add some real purpose – such as the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which was both an awareness raiser and a description of the end goal at the same time – and a digital campaign can create a common aim that goes viral.

Against that of course, we can surely only judge that campaign a success, if we then do actually bring back the girls, something sadly we’re still waiting for in this case. So, we have to progress more now in developing the metrics to know if and how we’ve actually influenced others, what reach and access we have and where – and whether we’ve actually achieved anything through such campaigns.

Equally, authenticity and purpose without engagement means broadcasting a message without others hearing you and without you listening to what others think. What digital platforms do allow is for diplomats and ambassadors in their ‘ivory tower’ to have real conversations with ordinary people. Benjamin argues:

It breaks down real or perceived walls. It humanises my profession. It is also democratic and transparent, as a way for the public to hold diplomats accountable – and remember diplomats, like me, are public servants and so they should be held to account. In short, social media now allows supposedly ‘ordinary’ people to talk directly to a real person in a position of some relative power and influence – and, generally speaking, I think they much prefer that than to speak to an institution, or, indeed, to a brick wall.

Finally, there’s the problem of engagement and purpose, but without authenticity – or, as Benjamin puts it – with insincerity:

Another serious mistake in my view is to be on social media but to fake it, by trying to be someone you’re not. Generally, sooner or later, people will see through a faker. So, I always try and be myself, and true to myself, in my online persona, while also trying to be a good representative of those who pay my salary.

For example, if you don’t really care about football, you should not pretend that you do, simply as a means of seeming more approachable. I do like football, and talk about it a lot, but I don’t generally pretend that I like, say, opera, because I don’t. So, I don’t talk about or join in debates about it. On social media in general and in digital diplomacy in particular, it’s important to find your own, genuine voice, not somebody else’s. Reflect a true you, not somebody else.

It’s also important to remember in an age of short attention spans that diplomacy is a long game. Benjamin counsels:

Beware of viral hashtag hysterics that may reflect very genuine and widespread concern, but often replace, or certainly don’t lead to, real action. People often have short memories. The circus moves on, a new issue takes over public attention. So, a social media campaign might be very intense but only short lived, with little account asked for later by the people who so enthusiastically took part in the first wave of concern.

Real concrete results in diplomacy are nearly always the result of long, hard, patient hours, days, weeks and months – and sometimes years – and not the result of sending out a tweet.

For all the caveats, Benjamin’s ultimate conclusion that it is better to be on digital and social platforms than not:

Every ambassador from every country ought to be on it – presenting, debating, responding, countering, influencing. This new kind of public engagement shouldn’t be a professional optional extra, but a compulsory part of the job description of every diplomat of every country in whatever country they are serving.

My take

An interesting overview by a career diplomat of a not-often-considered aspect of digital government – and one that bears closer scrutiny over time. 

Hillary Clinton taunted Donald Trump the other day about not wanting someone who could be wound up by a tweet in charge of the nuclear arsenal. I suspect that digital diplomacy is something we’re going to be hearing a lot about in the years to come, for good and bad reasons.