Digital Diplomacy and the Brexit Negotiations

  • 28th July 2016
Digital Diplomacy and the Brexit Negotiations


In my memo to the Prime Minister ( I identified elements of a possible diplomatic strategy to secure an acceptable Brexit outcome for the UK. Here I want to explore to what extent digital diplomacy, or rather the tools of digital diplomacy, can be used to implement such a strategy. Much has been written about digital diplomacy, much of which gets no further than the use of social media to promote “a national brand”. I have argued elsewhere ( that digital diplomacy must get beyond its obsession with social media. I also argued that digital diplomacy is not an end in itself, but rather a range of digital tools that should be integrated within broader diplomatic strategies to promote policy objectives. Without policy objectives and a broader diplomatic strategy, it may be digital but it is not diplomacy. If digital diplomacy is all it is cracked up to be, then surely it should be possible to devise ways of using it in one of the major diplomatic crises of the first two decades of the 21st century, for Europe at least: the fallout from the Brexit vote.


Before we can think about the use of digital tools in a diplomatic strategy, we must establish U.K.’s policy objectives in a the Brexit negotiations. As I argued in the memo to the Prime Minister, these should be based on Europe’s geopolitical realities, and in particular the permanent division of the European union between those countries which have adopted the euro and those which have not. For the sake of this exercise I will suggest that Britain’s policy objective should be to reshape Europe into a federal Eurozone surrounded by a confederal periphery in eastern and north-western Europe, where Britain can continue to play a leadership role. Rather than Britain leaving the EU, the EU would restructure itself in such a way that Britain would not need to leave. Nothing so clear cut may be possible (not least because of divisions within the Eurozone itself), but the closer that Europe moves towards this kind of structure the better for Britain. At the negative end of the policy objectives, Britain must avoid any of the existing models for external relationships with the EU, none of which are appropriate to a nuclear power with a population of 65 million and an annual GDP of $2.849 trillion (17% of the EU GDP). Britain is neither Norway nor Switzerland. If the EU, for whatever reason, is able to avoid institutionalising its permanent two speed structure, then Britain’s minimal aim must be a tailor made special association agreement.

Flag of EU with Big Ben in the hole

In devising a strategy to secure it is maximalist or minimalist objectives, British diplomacy must be clear who are its potential friends, who are its implacable enemies, where are the neutrals that can be influenced and what are the interrelationship and tensions between them. Former British ambassador Charles Crawford has written an interesting blog on the layering of the Brexit negotiations ( This outlined some of the conflicts and tensions underlying the negotiations. But Britain’s diplomatic strategy will need to go beyond this to identify the key stakeholders, governmental and non-governmental, and the key issues around which coalitions (friendly or hostile) could coalesce or be constructed. These coalitions are likely to be heterogenous and multilevel, crossing national and sectoral borders. Thus while the Spanish government may be hostile to Britain and its financial sector dreams (unrealistically) of attracting British banks to Madrid, it is tourist industry will be desperate to maintain access to the 12 million Brits who flood to Spanish beaches every year. At the European level, European Commission President Juncker will undoubtedly be hostile, but his prohibition on discussing Brexit before Britain activates Article 50 risks sidelining the Commission from the whole process. Meanwhile, the President of the Council van Rumpuy has appointed a Belgian diplomat to head a special Brexit task force of the European Council. Clearly Britain will be better off negotiating with the Council than with the Commission. Key allies will include the East Europeans outside the Euro and the Scandinavian Eurosceptics. But effective public diplomacy will identify and reach out to sympathetic publics and sectors in all EU member states.


Once British diplomats have identified the key stakeholders and their interests, they can start devising the strategy to secure the policy objectives. At this stage they can start thinking about how digital diplomacy tools can be incorporated into the strategy, what content they should convey and who should operate them. The key caveat here: digital diplomacy should never be seen as “propaganda with bite”, using digital platforms to “sell messages”. As marketeers have found out, denizens of the digital world do not like being lectured at. They expect to be listened to. In the 21st century, one way communication is counter-productive and generates resentment. This has resource implications. You should not launch a social media campaign if you’re not able to engage with the replies.


Like public diplomacy, digital diplomacy is often more effective if carried out by surrogates rather than diplomats themselves. The surrogates are more credible. Thus European business associations are more likely to be influenced by British business associations than by embassies. Think tanks, NGOs, universities and other civil society groups already have their own networks that can be called into play. In some cases there are foreign publics with whom the British government or diplomats would not want to talk, for example far right wing political parties. Well, UKIP is always asking for a role. The key is that in none of these exchanges should Britain be trying to sell messages, but rather launch conversations that move the political discussions in Britain’s direction. Britain deploys public and digital diplomacy techniques with foreign publics to make it easier for their governments to support British positions.


Digital tools are not only about engaging more effectively with foreign governments and publics. Social media can be valuable sources of information about change in public opinion, especially when combined with data mining and other big data techniques. In the case of the Brexit negotiations, this would allow British diplomats to monitor public attitudes towards Britain, and British policies, in different countries, helping them to tailor their approach to each country. It can also help measure the effectiveness of Britain strategy in terms of social media reactions. This kind of data mining does have weaknesses: the data sample tend to be biased towards the young (who most use social media) and those sufficiently interested in politics to post or tweet about Brexit. But it does, unlike polling, give real-time indications of changes in attitudes.


Diplomats could also enhance their analysis of European attitudes and policies towards Brexit through crowd-sourced analytical platforms. Such platforms allow analysts from across cyberspace to take part in forums, scenario building, or wargaming. They can significantly strengthen the analytical capacity and reach of governments, especially of smaller countries. In the case of Brexit it would be better if such crowd-sourced platforms were constructed and operated by “neutral” bodies, such as the British Council, think tanks or universities. This would allow them to bring in a broad range of analysts, governmental as well as non-governmental, from across Europe to debate the key analytical questions. Apart from deepening Britain’s analytical understanding, it could also provide invaluable corrections to misjudgements and Whitehall groupthink – a form of digital “red-teaming”.


Social media will, of course, also form part of the strategy to influence debate among European partners. As suggested above, the key questions will be who (is it aimed at, will most effectively manage it), what (will it centre around), which (are the most effective platforms) and how (does it fit into the wider strategy – including synchronising with other parts of the Diplomatic campaign). This suggests that there may be a previous stage of strategic planning: identifying those non-governmental bodies in the UK, whether they be trade associations, companies, NGOs, universities, think tanks or civil society groups, who will be the most effective surrogates and then persuading them to take part. Simply putting out messages on the Prime Minister’s or the Foreign Office Twitter account won’t cut it. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn can be used for campaigns, promoting conversation and debates among foreign publics, or as networking tools, identifying and cultivating potential allies (Big Data and data mining can also throw up interesting contacts to be cultivated). Key issues on which Britain would want to encourage conversations in its natural allies in Eastern Europe, for example, would include the security threat of Russia, Ukraine, migration, the relationship between the non-euro countries and the Eurozone and the role and powers of the European commission. Some of these issues would have resonance within the Eurozone, where Britain would also want to encourage discussion on how to stabilise the Eurozone economy in the medium term and its economic and sovereignty implications. Clearly it would not be tactful, and could even be counter-productive, for the British government to initiate debate on these issues while trying to negotiate the terms of Brexit with Paris and Berlin. This reinforces the importance of using credible surrogates.


There are a board range of other digital tools that can be used to promote debates on the key issues. It includes creating online platforms that can allow scenario building or simulation exercises with participation from across the EU. Again these are more credible if promoted by independent surrogates like think tanks or universities. An interesting exercise might be to launch an online scenario building exercise on what Europe will look like in 15 years, aiming to generate four or five possible Europes. Build into this exercise could be the key issues identified above.


A more imaginative approach would be gamification, the use of computer games to explore different possible Europes and how they relate. Producing such games as a smartphone app would increase their reach – think of the impact of the new Pokémon app. In this case the aim is more manipulative, as the rules of the game condition the outcomes, and so can be used to push the view of Europe’s future favoured by Britain. The constraint here is credibility: to work effectively and be credible with users the extent to which it pushes the British view must be subtle, even concealed. This in fact raises an important issue about Brexit public and digital diplomacy. They will be more effective if they can be built around the problems and issues of our European partners rather than Britain. A computer game app, for example, which games the issues of security, migration, relations with Brussels or relations with the Eurozone as seen from Warsaw or Bratislava will be far more effective than one that worries about migrants at Calais.


The Brexit negotiations offers digital diplomacy the chance to come of age. In as far as it operates to influence foreign opinion it must recall that its function is the same as public diplomacy: to promote a political and social environment in which specific policy objectives will flourish. It must form part of a broader diplomatic strategy to secure the policy objectives, and like that strategy must be dynamic and adaptive. Proponents must also be realistic about what we can achieved. Its outcomes are by its very nature uncertain. Digital diplomacy promotes conversation and debate rather than selling messages. Attempt to control its outcomes render it ineffective, and damage Britain’s reputation. But in a digital world digital diplomacy tools must form part of the Brexit negotiating strategy.

Shaun Riordan

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