Conservatives urged to adopt ‘Twiplomacy’ in foreign affairs

Screen capture of the Twitter account for DFATD (Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada) shows Canada's early efforts at "Twiplomacy".
Screen capture of the Twitter account for DFATD (Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada) shows Canada’s early efforts at “Twiplomacy”.

Twitter screen grab / Twitter

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Canada is increasingly relying on a new style of diplomacy — called “Twiplomacy” — that takes place in bite-sized increments of 140 characters or less.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is turning to social media in an effort to engage in online diplomacy, practise “open policy development” and improve international trade ties. The government is also looking to Twitter and other social media to retool what it acknowledges has been a “closed” diplomacy and policy model that “emphasized control over information and access,” show newly released federal documents.

The federal government — specifically the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) — must better use Twitter and other social media tools to help fulfil its diplomatic objectives and shake up outdated policy making, says a committee of federal deputy ministers.

The Tories have been moving to social media to reach a large number of people quickly in a way that conventional diplomacy cannot — part of what it calls “direct diplomacy” that has already been used in countries like Syria and Iran, according to federal records obtained under access-to-information laws.

“It is vital for our network of Embassy and Consulate operations to continue to innovate in how they engage the societies they operate in. This can be a key competitive advantage for Canada, or if we are not agile we could see ourselves falling behind others,” says briefing material provided by the deputy ministers’ committee focused on social media and policy development.

“Social media also facilitates the ability to reach out quickly to a large audience for impact that traditional diplomacy just could not do, such as when (Foreign) Minister (John) Baird sent his condolences to his Italian counterpart over Twitter after the May 2012 earthquakes,” says the briefing material from fall 2013, but just released by the government.

The Conservatives, and Baird in particular, have been regularly turning to Twitter to voice  foreign policy positions on the conflicts in Israel and Gaza, and in Ukraine. The government’s increasing reliance on social media diplomacy can also be seen with its new ambassador to Israel, Vivian Bercovici, who has been extremely active and opinionated on her Twitter account during the escalating violence in recent weeks.

The government is also turning to social media in its trade commissioner service, but “multiple levels of approvals” required for social media messages are eroding their timeliness and effectiveness, the documents say.

At a time when technology is rapidly reorganizing international relations, the government of Canada, like other governments, has struggled to keep up with the pace at which information and news travels, say the documents. This is posing problems for DFATD as it looks to advance federal interests through diplomacy, trade and consular services.

“The traditional response to this challenge operated in a closed, compartmentalized model that emphasized control over information and access. As technology shrank the world, the department has responded by trying to compete with proliferating sources of news, data, contacts, and expertise. It tried to match these developments rather than leverage them, and fell behind as a result,” says the briefing material. “A more open model produces knowledge, shares it, and shapes it into opinion and advice. Refocusing efforts starts within the organization.”

Along with direct Twitter engagement, the Tories are increasingly relying on social media monitoring to inform its policy decision-making. The policy research division at DFATD has been working with digital media research firm MediaBadger, “to map the Canadian digital diaspora in India, as well as the nature of its online conversation,” the documents say.

The government used the same firm in Haiti to “assess Haitian perceptions of actors and issues of relevance to Canadian policy,” says the briefing material. The social media monitoring is also an important element of the government’s “direct diplomacy” and helps measure the impact of federal diplomatic efforts. “The recent direct diplomacy campaigns in Syria and Iran have proved to be valuable for DFATD in gaining significant insights into new networks and in building new relationships and alliances,” the documents say.

Currently, DFATD has more than 250 accounts across more than 10 social media platforms, according to the department. More than 140 of these accounts have been launched since January 2014, with over half of them Twitter accounts.

DFATD is now launching Twitter accounts in response to events on the ground, such as the launch of accounts of the Canadian embassy in Turkey during the Twitter ban earlier this year as well as in Thailand during the announcement of the military coup.

For the conflict in Ukraine, Canada’s embassy in that country is also disseminating messaging in Ukrainian.