Digital Nativity and Digital Diplomacy: Exploring Conceptual Differences Between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

The past decade has seen the accelerated digitalization of foreign ministries. In this study, we conceptualize digitalization as long term process in which diplomats adopt different technologies to obtain foreign policy goals. To date, only a handful of studies have investigated which factors influence digitalization. This study sought to address this gap by examining generational gaps within foreign ministries, while investigating how such gaps may prevent diplomats from obtaining communicative goals. The study thus employed the concept of digital nativity, while examining operational and conceptual gaps between digital natives and immigrants. Using a sample of 133 diplomats from six foreign ministries, the study finds there are few operational gaps between natives and immigrants. There are, however, substantial conceptual gaps between both generations. Specifically, digital immigrants use social networking sites (SNS) for one-way message dissemination and influence and are also less likely to interact with, or value follower feedback. The same is not true of natives. Conceptual gaps may thus prevent foreign ministries from successfully marketing new policies online or gaining valuable insight that may be integrated into the policy formulation process. The study includes a series of policy recommendation that may help ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) overcome gaps between natives and immigrants.

Policy implications

 

  • The results of this study indicate that ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) looking to leverage digital technologies towards the obtainment of foreign policy goals must address generational gaps. One way of doing so is through digital training that focuses not only on how to use technologies, but on how to increase returns on investment. For instance, in the case of social networking sites (SNS), training could elucidate the importance of listening to online audiences and valuing their comments, as a way of integrating public sentiment into the policy formulation process.
  • While this study focused solely on SNS, generational gaps may hinder the usage of other technologies. Indeed, the process of MFAs’ digitalization is far from over. In light of COVID19, and the emergence of 5G, MFAs may undergo a rapid process of digitalization integrating technologies for virtual meetings (e.g. Zoom), engaging audiences through virtual reality or using big data analysis. Senior diplomats who may view these technologies as ‘fads’ may hamper the successful utilization of digital technologies.
  • In this study, digital immigrants focused on managing their nation’s image. Yet SNS could also be used to strengthen ties with important journalists; cultivate relationships with travel bloggers and interact with diasporas. Digital immigrants may lack the vision required to employ digital technologies in innovative ways. Training is especially important for higher echelons who may not use digital technologies, but should still understand the rewards that can be reaped.

 

1 DOES DIGITAL NATIVITY IMPACT THE DIGITALIZATION OF PUBLIC DIPLOMACY?

Over the past decade, ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) have eagerly embraced digital technologies as part of their public diplomacy activities (Bjola & Holmes, 2015; Mazumdar, 2021). Scholars have yet to consider how generational gaps may impact diplomats’ ability to utilize digital technologies. Are younger diplomats, born into the digital age, more likely to interact with followers and stakeholders on social networking sites (SNS) as opposed to senior diplomats born into an analogue age? Conversely, are senior diplomats more likely to leverage digital tools towards mapping opposition to certain foreign policies when compared with younger diplomats? Conceptual and practical differences between generations may impact an MFA’s ability to reap the benefits of using SNS in public diplomacy activities.

This study addresses this limitation by asking: Do different generations employ SNS in different ways and can these differences limit an MFA’s ability to leverage digital technologies towards public diplomacy ends? To answer this question, we analyze a questionnaire disseminated among 133 diplomats. Our results demonstrate that there are important conceptual differences between generations.

1.1 The digitalization of public diplomacy

Twenty-first century definitions of public diplomacy exemplify a transition towards two-way models of communication. Melissen (2005) defined the ‘new’ public diplomacy as one that centers on engaging with ‘connected’ publics. According to Cull (2008), the term refers to obtaining foreign policy goals by engaging with foreign publics. Cowan and Arsenault (2008) argued that ‘new’ public diplomacy activities transition from monologue to dialogue and collaborations between diplomats and foreign publics.

By the beginning of the 21st century public diplomacy scholars and practitioners regarded SNS as the medium of the ‘new’ public diplomacy as these technologies enable organizations to transition from broadcast to communicative paradigms which are centered on mutual interactions (McNutt, 2014). Indeed, relationships are the foundations of SNS (Waters et al., 2009) as organizations and publics can discuss issues of mutual concern (Bortree & Seltzer, 2009). The initial adoption of social media by diplomatic institutions was intrinsically linked to the goals and logic of the ‘new’ public diplomacy (Manor, 2019). Recent studies have sought to identify which factors impact MFAs’ use of digital technologies (Mazumdar, 2021), as is explored next.

1.2 Digitalization as a process

In this article we assert that MFAs do not digitalize their public diplomacy activities overnight. Rather, the adoption of digital technologies is a long term process in which diplomats and their institutions experiment with different digital technologies. This process is impacted by both internal and external factors. Digital enthusiasm of senior policy makers is an internal factor. One of the earliest examples of digitalized public diplomacy was Sweden’s digital Embassy in the virtual World of Second Life. Launched in 2008, the Embassy served as a cultural hub exposing global publics to Swedish art (Pamment, 2013). Pamment asserts that this initiative was the result of active encouragement by Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, a digital evangelist (Duncombe, 2018) who inspired Swedish diplomats to experiment with digital tools setting in motion a decade long process of digitalization.

Digitalization is also shaped by trial and error as was the case with the US State Department’s Digital Outreach Team (DOT) which was tasked with interacting with Muslim internet users following President Obama’s 2009 ‘New Beginning’ speech. Khatib et al. (2012) found that this experiment was hampered by rigid guidelines as all answers to online queries had to be approved in a dedicated DOT meeting. By the time an answer was posted online, there was no one left to read it. Yet this experiment had a profound impact on the State Department’s process of digitalization as, in its wake, diplomats were ‘set free,’ allowed to converse with online publics whenever they saw fit. Subsequently, the State Department institutionalized the use of SNS by drafting guidebooks and identifying best practices (Manor, 2019).

Digitalization can also be shaped by the experimentation of individual diplomats. Such was the case with Tom Fletcher who, as British Ambassador to Lebanon, used Twitter to communicate with hundreds of thousands of local users. Fletcher’s conversational style, and willingness to interact with average Lebanese Twitter users, was soon emulated across the UK’s Foreign Office (Collins & Bekenova, 2019; Manor, 2019).

Lastly, digitalization can also be shaped by external factors, such as crises. Following Russia’s use of bots during the Brexit referendum, the British Foreign Office launched a data science unit tasked with detecting fake SNS accounts (Rohaidi, 2019). Another external factor may be the limitations of offline diplomacy. For instance, Palestine launched a Facebook Embassy to Israel with the goal of promoting Palestinian statehood through interactions with Israeli Facebook users. Palestine opted for a digital Embassy as it has no physical diplomatic presence in Israel (Manor & Holmes, 2017).

While public diplomacy studies have begun to examine the process of digitalization, these studies suffer from two limitations. First, scholars often employ terms such as ‘engagement,’ ‘dialogue’ and ‘listening’ without clearly defining them. Melissen (2005) states that MFAs must ‘engage’ with foreign populations without articulating what constitutes an act of engagement. Is it a conversation between diplomats and SNS followers or any form of two-way interactions such as ‘liking’ a diplomat’s profile picture? Similarly, Cowan and Arsenault (2008) use the term dialogue without articulating its properties. Is dialogue the mere answering of a question or ongoing, online conversations over long periods of time? An additional limitation is that no study to date has investigated if generational gaps also influence an MFA’s process of digitalization? We address the aforementioned gaps through the concept of digital nativity.

1.3 Digital natives vs. digital immigrants

The term digital natives relates both to one’s environment and his/her ability to utilize digital technologies. Indeed, the central argument behind the concept of digital natives is that individuals born in the last four decades have interacted with digital technologies since birth. Prensky (2001) defined this younger generation, born circa 1980, as digital natives given that they are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet (Helsper & Eynon, 2010; Palfrey & Gasser, 2016). Prensky refers to people born before 1980 as digital immigrants. While immigrants may learn to use new technologies, they will forever be trapped in the past, unable to fully understand the natives. Prensky likens this to the difference between learning a new language and being a native speaker. Characteristics of immigrants include: a reluctance to use the internet as a primary source of information, printing and correcting documents rather than editing on computers and reading manuals rather than mastering new technologies through trial and error (Barak, 2018).

However, a growing body of research has questioned the validity of the digital native concept (Dutton & Reisdorf, 2017; Hargittai, 2010). Studies indicate that there is a significant proportion of young people who do not have the level of access to computers or technological skills predicted by proponents of digital nativity (Helsper & Van Deursen, 2017; Wilkin et al., 2017). Additionally, such generalizations about a whole generation risk focusing attention on technically adept youngsters while ignoring the impact of socio-economic or cultural factors (Bennett et al., 2008; Hargittai, 2010; Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017). Thus, there may be as much variation within the digital native generation as between generations (Bennett et al., 2008). Scholars have also argued that with experience comes tech savviness. Digital immigrants who use digital technologies on a daily basis may therefore narrow operational gaps between themselves and natives.

On the other hand, scholars have also argued that there may be conceptual gaps between natives and immigrants. This argument is supported by three key findings. First, unlike immigrants, digital natives perceive the Web in terms of networks of individuals that generate content through two-way interactions (i.e., dialogue; Pekker, 2012). Second, natives perceive the Web as a space where information about life and work may be shared with clusters of friends (i.e., engagement). Finally, natives are more likely to perceive the Web as a space for opinion exchange (i.e., listening) (Pekker, 2012).

Differences between generations may have an important impact on an MFA’s process of digitalization. Specifically, such gaps may explain why some diplomats fail to use SNS towards relationship building. For example, if immigrants do not perceive the Web as a network for sharing information they may fail to foster two-way interactions with followers. Similarly, if immigrants do not perceive the Web as a platform for opinion sharing they may have little regard for comments posted by SNS users. As such, generational gaps impact the process of digitalization and even hamper digital activities.

This study analyzed the online activities of 133 natives and immigrants all of whom were responsible for managing their Embassy’s SNS activities. Through this sample, the study was able to examine if frequent and daily use of digital tools narrows operational gaps between generations and whether conceptual gaps still exist.

For the sake of clarity, the study explored three dimensions of the ‘new’ public diplomacy: dialogue, engagement and listening. Engagement, according to some scholars, refers to the need to communicate with publics assembled in various SNS (Metzgar, 2012). Listening may refer to the use of SNS to understand foreign publics and shape foreign policy accordingly (Metzgar, 2012). Dialogue refers to all forms of two-way interactions between diplomats and SNS users including online conversations, answering questions posted online, supplying request information or addressing criticism from followers (Hocking & Melissen, 2015; Pamment, 2013). Notably, this study focused on these three dimensions as they best capture conceptual and operational differences between digital natives and immigrants.

2 RESEARCH QUESTION AND HYPOTHESES

This study sought to answer the following research question: Do different generations employ digital technologies in different ways and can these differences limit an MFA’s ability to leverage digital technologies towards public diplomacy ends?

Based on the literature review, and possible differences between Digital natives and immigrants, three research hypotheses were formulated:

H1.As opposed to immigrants, digital natives will perceive digital diplomacy and relevant practices in terms of social media engagement.

H2.As opposed to immigrants, digital natives will perceive digital diplomacy and relevant practices in terms of social media listening.

H3.As opposed to immigrants, digital natives will perceive digital diplomacy and relevant practices in terms of social media dialogue and two-way interactions.

 

3 METHOD

3.1 Measures

Participants were all asked to complete a questionnaire designed specifically for the purpose of this study and comprised of fifteen questions (see Figure 1). The first part of the questionnaire included questions used to differentiate between digital natives and digital immigrants according to existing literature. Previous scholarly work suggests that digital immigrants send less text messages than natives, print out and proof read a document before sending it, gather news from offline sources and send emails from their personal computer as opposed to other digital devices (Palfrey & Gasser, 2016). Questions also examined when respondents first created an SNS profile as with experience comes digital savviness.

Details are in the caption following the image
Original study questionnaire
The second part of the questionnaire included 10 open ended questions that investigated differences in the conceptualization and practice of digital diplomacy. Each cluster of questions corresponded with a specific research hypothesis.

  • H1 (questions 1–3): conceptually, SNS have led diplomats to place an emphasis on creating relationships with online publics so as to facilitate the acceptance of their nation’s foreign policy (i.e., engagement). In practical terms, creating relationships necessitates that diplomats use SNS for two-way interactions with followers. To explore the conceptual dimension of SNS use, respondents were asked to define the terms digital diplomacy and online engagement. To examine the practical dimension, respondents were asked how often they engage in two-way interactions with connected publics.
  • H2 (Questions 4–7): digital diplomacy has been concetualized as consisting of two elements: listening and dialogue. To examine the listening component, respondents were first asked how they decide which topics to address online and how they identify MFA communications priorities. Both questions were meant to evaluate if, and how, respondents balance their MFA’s communication priorities with the informational needs and desires of their followers. Next, respondents were asked if they re-phrase MFA content and if followers’ comments impact future content. Both questions explored if respondents tailor online content to the informational needs of followers. Lastly, the questionnaire examined if respondents attempt to incorporate follower feedback into the foreign policy formulation by forwarding comments to an Embassy or MFA.
  • H3 (questions 8–10): examining two-way interactions was achieved by asking respondents if SNS interactions were an important component of their work. Relationships building was analyzed by asking respondents if they interact online with critics of their nation. Finally, to examine if respondents value their online followers, respondents were asked if SNS interactions enable a diplomat to understand how his nations is viewed by a foreign population.

3.2 Participants

The study sample consisted of digital natives and digital immigrants from six MFAs: Australia, Canada, India, Israel, New Zealand and Switzerland. These MFAs were selected for four reasons. First, all six MFAs migrated online nearly a decade ago and have thus undergone a process of digitalization. Second, all six MFAs extensively use SNS at the MFA and embassy level and they offer their diplomats digital training (Bjola, 2018; Manor, 2019). Thirdly, in all six MFAs there is a designated individual charged with managing SNS activities at the embassy level. It was thus assumed that participants from these MFAs would have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to employ SNS in the practice of public diplomacy. Finally, these MFAs constitute a diverse sample with regard to geographic location, institutional cultures, communicative cultures and relative size of MFAs. This would enable some generalization of the study’s results.

In all six MFAs, directors of digital diplomacy units were contacted and invited to partake in a study that examines differences between digital natives’ and immigrants’ use of SNS. Directors were asked if their Embassies are active on SNS, if their diplomats undergo digital training and whether diplomats enjoy a level of autonomy with regard to selecting what information to post online, or when to interact with followers. Next, digital diplomacy directors were asked to recruit at least ten participants who manage Embassy SNS profiles, five below the age of 35 (i.e., digital natives), and five above the age of 35 (i.e., digital immigrants). The final sample consisted of 133 participants (see Table 1). Natives’ average age was 29, while immigrants’ was 44. The sample included both diplomats and locally trained staff.

TABLE 1. Study participants
Nation Natives Immigrants
Australia 39 18
Canada 1 4
India 9 6
Israel 12 8
New Zealand 11 10
Switzerland 8 8
Total 80 53

Participants were grouped based on year of birth (i.e., before and after 1980) given a desire to examine whether practical gaps between natives and immigrants have narrowed and whether conceptual gaps endure. The questionnaire was disseminated to all respondents via their respective MFAs. Respondents had three weeks to anonymously answer an electronic questionnaire.

It should be noted that the study’s sample suffered an over representation of Australian diplomats and under representation of Canadian diplomats. That said, the number of diplomats from the remaining four MFAs was similar. Given that this was an exploratory study, the authors felt that the sample was diverse enough and large enough to identify possible differences between natives’ and immigrants’ use of SNS.

3.3 Procedure

3.3.1 Data analysis

Respondents’ answers were analyzed using thematic analysis and following the roadmap offered by Braun and Clarke (2006). The first phase of analysis examined all the answers provided by digital natives to a single question. These answers were categorized based on overlying themes. For instance, when asked how they identify topics that are important to the MFA, many natives stated that they visit the ministry’s SNS profiles. Thus, a theme of ‘Ministry Social Media Profiles’ was created. Natives also argued that they rely on audience feedback to identify issues that should be prioritized. Thus, a theme of ‘Audience Feedback’ was created. In the second stage, all natives’ answers were reviewed yet again to identify themes that may have been missed. This led to the formulation of several additional themes.

Next, all answers provided by digital immigrants were reviewed and categorized into the themes expressed by digital natives. When immigrants’ answers differed from those provided by the natives, new themes were created. For instance, immigrants stated that they rely on Embassy meetings to determine which topics should be addressed online. Thus, a theme of ‘Embassy Working Routines’ was created. Finally, the themes identified in the answers of digital natives and digital immigrants were compared to identify differences in the conceptualization and practice of digital diplomacy.

3.3.2 Statistical procedures

The association between each of the four outcome variables and age was analyzed using a t-test (having a social media profile, sending texts, printing and emailing from multiple devices). The association between the four outcome variables and both age and MFA (e.g. India, Switzerland) were examined by logistic regression models.

4. RESULTS

4.1 Quantitative analysis

The sample consisted of 133 participants – 53 (41 per cent) digital immigrants and 80 (59 per cent) digital natives. The ages of participants ranged from 22 to 70 (mean 35.6 years, SD = 8.6 years). Ninety-five per cent of participants stated that they have a social media profile; 20 per cent stated that they send a high volume of text messages; 52 per cent indicated that they print a document before sending it while 95 per cent stated that they send emails from multiple devices.

A statistical analysis examined the association between age and four outcome variables (having a social media profile, number of texts sent daily, printing and proofing materials before sending them and emailing from multiple devices). The results of this analysis may be seen in Table 2, indicating that this association is significant for social media profiles and volume of text messages sent.

TABLE 2. Association between outcome variables and age
Outcome Age

Mean (SD)

t (df), p
Profile
Yes 35.3 (8.5) 2.09 (131) 0.018
No 43.0 (9.8)
High volume of texts
Yes 32.1 (7.3) 2.40 (131) 0.008
No 36.5 (8.8)
Print before sending
Yes 36.1 (9.8) 0.68 (131) 0.248
No 35.1 (7.1)
Email from multiple devices
Yes 35.5 (8.6) 0.63 (131) 0.264
No 37.6 (9.3)

In addition, a logistic regression model examined the association between age, respondents MFA (i.e., India, Switzerland) and each of the four outcomes. Regarding having an SNS profile, age still had a significant effect on the likelihood of having an SNS profile after adjusting for MFA (p = 0.049) whereas MFA did not have a significant effect. With respect to volume of texts, both age and MFA each had an independent significant effect on the likelihood of sending a high volume of texts (age p = 0.01; MFA p = 0.04). For printing and proofing materials and emailing from multiple devices no significant associations were detected.

In summary, no difference was found between digital immigrants and natives with regard to having SNS profiles, sending high volumes of text messages, printing and proofing a document and sending emails from multiple devices. Notably, the digital natives were younger than the immigrants when first joining SNS (mean age of immigrants was 32.1 and among natives 17.2 years). This was statistically significant (p = 0.049). Lastly, MFA (i.e., India, Israel) only influenced the number of texts sent by participants.

The aforementioned results demonstrate that the hard distinction between digital natives and immigrants as born before and after 1980 does not account for variance in the use of digital technologies. However, age does account for such variance. This suggests that the distinction between natives and immigrants based on year of birth may no longer apply. We postulate that in our sample, differences between natives and immigrants were reduced as all participants use digital technologies on a daily basis and belong to MFAs that have established a formidable digital presence. This hypothesis is strengthened by the finding that the MFA did not influence variable outcomes with the exception of volume of text messages sent daily.

4.2 Qualitative analysis

 

H1.As opposed to immigrants, digital natives will perceive digital diplomacy and relevant practices in terms of social media engagement.

 

To validate H1–H3, all respondents were asked ten questions. The following section presents the thematic analysis while using quotes from the questionnaire which best illustrate respondents’ answers.

Q1: How do you define the term digital diplomacy?

As can be seen in Table 3, when asked to define the term digital diplomacy the majority of digital natives emphasized the use of ICTs and SNS for ‘interacting’ or ‘engaging’ with publics (terms used by respondents) and building online relationships. Many natives also spoke of the ability to target and influence specific audiences, while emphasizing the open sharing of information with followers. Additionally, natives defined digital diplomacy as the use of various ICTs (internet, smartphone) in place of traditional face-to-face diplomacy. Lastly, only seven natives suggested that digital technologies are used to help manage a nation’s online image.

TABLE 3. How natives and immigrants define the term digital diplomacy
Thematic category Prevalence Example quotes
Digital natives
Engagement and relationship building 20 responses Digital Diplomacy is the use of online tools and other ICTS to advance the diplomatic effort of the country and engage openly with a foreign public (Israel)

Use of social media to promote a country and develop relationships (Switzerland)

More open and more targeted diplomacy 18 responses It’s the shift from interpersonal diplomatic relations into the more open cyberspace with all its tools, not as elitist and accessible to more interested parties (Switzerland)
Leveraging full range of ICTs 12 responses Public diplomacy through digital channels including TV, radio, websites, blogs and social media (Israel)
A substitute for face-to-face diplomacy 8 responses Outreach to the public, and official persons, via online means rather than old-fashioned face-to-face means (Australia)
Using digital tools to manage national image 7 responses The use of online platforms, particularly social media, to promote a country and its foreign policy agenda to key influencers as well as to the masses (New Zealand)
Digital immigrants
Use of social media to promote national goals and influence publics 22 responses Use of digital media like internet and social media in propagating our point of view, creating good image of India and for disseminating information (India)
Using digital tools to manage national image 14 responses The use of the internet and other technologies to inform about the activities of a government in order to have a better image and communication with other audiences (Israel)
Extending diplomats reach 6 responses Using digital tools to extend the reach and influence of traditional diplomacy (New Zealand)
Engagement and relationship building 4 responses Creating and maintaining relationships and the transfer of information using social media (Canada)
More open and more targeted diplomacy 2 response Communicating an intended diplomatic message to a specific audience using digital tools (Australia)

By contrast, the majority of immigrants defined digital diplomacy as the use of SNS to influence publics or advocate in favor of their nation’s foreign policy goals. Immigrants’ definition also centered on the use of digital tools to manage the national image. Only two immigrants used the terms ‘engagement’ or ‘relationships’ in their definition, only two conceptualized digital diplomacy as a more open form of diplomacy and only four viewed digital diplomacy as resting on two-way interactions. Finally, unlike the natives, a minority of digital immigrants stated that digital technologies help extend the reach of diplomats’ messages. Only three thematic categories, identified in natives’ responses, were also identified in immigrants’ definitions. These are highlighted in italic.

Q2: How do you define the term online engagement?

A sizable majority of natives defined engagement as ‘interactions’ or ‘dialogue’ with online followers, with some emphasizing continuous interactions over long periods of time, as shown in Table 4. Digital natives were also likely to view the term engagement as a form of real-time communication that can vary on a scale from ‘likes’ to actual conversations. Another prevalent dimension was the ability to create connections with stakeholders. Finally, for natives, ‘engagement’ was a dynamic form of communications and a means of reaching digital publics.

TABLE 4. How natives and immigrants define the term online engagement
Thematic category Prevalence Example quotes
Digital immigrants
Dialogue and two-way communications (e.g. dialogue, discussions, queries) 20 responses A two-way dialogue between content creator and audience (New Zealand)
A scale from likes to conversations 14 responses Online engagement is the transition of consuming content online to interacting with it. It can take many forms including conversations, casual likes or shares (Canada)
Online interactions and connections 9 responses The volume of audience interaction with digital products developed and promoted by our agency (e.g. blogs, social media platforms and website) (Australia)
Dynamic and active communications 9 responses Dynamic and instant communication (Israel)
Continuous interactions with audience 8 responses Conversing and participating in relevant online conversations, trends, and events (Israel)
Reaching digital publics 8 responses The number of people who interact with the High Commission/Embassy/New Zealand Government through digital mediums (New Zealand)
Digital immigrants
Dialoguer and two-way communications (e.g. dialogue, discussions, queries) 17 responses Direct engagement with clients on web-based platforms (Canada)

Interaction using a web-based system with the possibility of two-way communication of some sort (New Zealand)

Resource intensive 8 responses Amount of time and efforts spent on interacting and communicating via online platforms (Switzerland)
Dynamic and active communications 6 responses Being active on FB, twitter, engaging with followers, fans (Israel)
Continuous interactions with audience 6 responses Keeping ongoing interaction with an online audience on a regular basis to raise their interest and awareness of the brand you are representing (Switzerland)
Image management 6 responses Building a brand image in the minds of online audience interactively (Australia)
Online interactions and connections 4 responses Connecting with stakeholders and broader audiences through social media (Australia)

As was the case with digital natives, the majority of immigrants also defined online engagement as a form of ongoing, two-way interactions between diplomats and SNS followers. Yet unlike natives, immigrants stressed that engagement was resource intensive. Also, only a minority of immigrants defined ‘engagement’ as continuous interactions. Another distinction was that immigrants often spoke of engaging with ‘clients’ as opposed to ‘publics.’ Four thematic categories, identified in natives’ responses, were also identified in immigrants’ definitions. These are highlighted in italic.

Q3: How often do you find yourself engaging/interacting with followers (answering questions, supplying information, commenting on online content published by other social media users)?

The majority of digital natives stated that they engage/interact with followers on a daily basis, as shown in Table S1. However, natives also argued that these interactions amount to answering questions or responding to direct messages as opposed to continuously conversing with followers (21 responses). Crucially, nearly one quarter of the natives stated that they rarely engage/interact with followers be it due to limited resources or a fear of online trolls (21 responses). Finally, one quarter of natives stated that they engage/interact with followers on a weekly basis, while only four stated that they never engage/interact with followers.

Like natives, immigrants asserted that they answer followers’ queries or respond to direct messages on a daily basis (18 responses in total). Like the natives, digital immigrants also stated that they rarely engage/interact with followers (18 responses). Notably, all thematic categories identified in native’s answers were also found in immigrants’ answers.

The results presented in this section suggest that there are conceptual differences between natives and immigrants. While natives view SNS based-public diplomacy as a more open form of diplomacy that rests on two-way interactions, immigrants conceptualize SNS as mediums for one-way message dissemination and image management. While both generations conceptualize the term engagement as resting on ongoing, two-way interactions, natives believe that engagement also entails dynamic interactions. However, both generations practice engagement in a similar manner- responding to online questions and direct messages.

H2.As opposed to immigrants, digital natives will perceive digital diplomacy and relevant practices in terms of social media listening.

 

Q4: How do you decide what topics to address online? How do you know what topics are regarded as a priority by the ministry?

The majority of natives answered that they publish material that will be of relevance to their followers and that not all MFA communication will be of interest to local publics, as shown in Table 5 (23 responses). Relevant content could deal with issues discussed in the local news. Many natives stated that they rely on follower feedback to determine what topics to address online. Natives also actively search for, and identify MFA priorities by visiting MFA SNS profiles. A small number of natives stated that they rely on MFA instructions or Embassy meetings to identify topics to address online.

TABLE 5. How natives & immigrants decide what topics to address online
Thematic category Prevalence Example quotes
Digital natives
Relevance to followers (e.g. local news, current affairs) 23 responses We check the national and international news… other pages of our representations abroad and select topics according to what we are currently working on, what the current interests are (Switzerland)
Follower feedback 17 responses On social media we track our likes, reactions, shares we can see which are the most popular. We try and cater to our audience interests but to also articulate Government priorities (Australia)
Visit MFA sites 14 responses The Ministry website and social media channels provide pointers on the topics that are regarded as priority (India)
MFA instructions 10 responses We take our cues from the Ambassador, from ministerial media releases and Secretary’s messages (Australia)
Embassy meetings 7 responses The Embassy has a concept note developed for Facebook. The topics are decided on the basis of the concept note (Switzerland)
Digital immigrants
MFA instructions 27 responses We create a social media calendar that includes: events/visits; world event; DFAT upcoming priorities and work out how to leverage these to promote core messages (Australia)
Embassy meetings 14 responses The Ambassador and the deputy head of mission are making the decisions (in what are the communication priorities) (Switzerland)
Visit MFA sites 3 responses I follow the ministry website/twitter/FB carefully and am actively engaged with my colleagues & MFA Digital Diplomacy team constantly (Israel)
Relevance to followers (e.g. local news, current affairs) 2 responses We usually address the issues that are under our pillars as guided by the ministry. The Ministry gives us the priority areas which we focus on and do the ad hoc postings as guided by the Ministry (Canada)
Follower feedback 1 response Post priorities filtered by public interest (New Zealand)

Conversely, the majority of digital immigrants said that they rely on ministry instructions when deciding what topics to address online (27 responses). Moreover, only a handful of immigrants answered that they try to meet the interest of their SNS followers. Only one immigrant said that s/he considers follower feedback. As opposed to natives, only three immigrants stated that they actively use ministry SNS profiles to identify relevant topics. Moreover, only two immigrants said that they publish information about issues making local headlines. Many immigrants did, however, state that their priorities are set during Embassy meetings. All thematic categories identified in native’s answers were also found in immigrants’ answers.

Q5: Do you re-phrase Tweets or Posts formulated by the ministry or do you simply re-publish them? Why do you re-phrase them?

As Table S2 indicates, the majority of digital natives answered that they re-phrase content to tailor it to their SNS followers (49 responses) in three ways: natives translate tweets and posts to local languages; re-phrase content to make it more colloquial and re-phrase content to tailor it to local contexts by using local hashtags, adding local vernacular or addressing issues of local concern.

Interestingly, identical results were found among digital immigrants. However, unlike natives, immigrants also answered that they re-phrase content to ‘grab’ the attention of online publics. All thematic categories identified in natives’ answers were also found in immigrants’ answers.

Q6: Do comments you receive online impact future content? For instance, do comments on Tweets influence what Tweets you will publish in the future?

The majority of natives answered that followers’ comments influence future content, as exhibited in Table S3 (53 responses). Specifically, content which is well received is analyzed and repeated. Natives argued that followers’ comments can help embassies tailor content to the interests and needs of followers. This, in turn, can help an embassy foster closer relationships with online publics. Additionally, natives argued that by identifying followers’ interests, embassies can increase the reach of their online content. Natives also rely on the tone and volume of comments they receive from followers. Importantly, nearly a quarter of all natives stated that comments do not influence future content given that embassies have pre-determined what issues to address online (18 responses).

The answers of digital immigrants were markedly similar. First, a substantial number stated that follower comments do not impact future content (18 responses). Second, immigrants stated that content that is well received is likely to be repeated. Third, immigrants stated that the volume and tone of online comments enables one to tailor content to the interests of followers, thus extending his digital reach. All thematic categories identified in natives’ answers were also found in immigrants’ answers.

Q7: Are comments you receive online sent to relevant departments in the Embassy or the foreign ministry?

As Table 6 shows, many natives answered that they tend to forward online comments to relevant departments at the Embassy or the MFA with the hope that comments will influence the policy formulation process (35 responses). However, natives also stated that they tend to focus on negative statements and online criticism. Lastly, natives indicated that they are likely to send comments to the ministry when they encounter a large volume of comments on a specific policy.

TABLE 6. Do natives and immigrants send comments to embassy or MFA departments?
Thematic category Prevalence Example quotes
Digital natives
Yes, may impact policy formulation 35 responses Comments received through our social media channels are incorporated into regular reporting. Comments pertaining to the activities or policies of other agencies and Departments are forwarded for their consideration (Australia)
Not applicable/don’t receive many comments 13 responses There hasn’t been an occasion yet to do this (Australia)

We haven’t had any comments that we’ve considered warranted telling headquarters (New Zealand)

No 11 responses No. We handle almost everything locally (Israel)
Emphasis on negative comments 8 responses Only negative comments are sent to the MFA. Internally, we discuss reactions to certain comments/questions (Switzerland)
Depends on volumes of comments 7 responses Yes, when I see a trend on a specific issue/policy, I share the details with the diplomat at the mission who is in charge, and let him inform headquarter (Israel)
Digital immigrants
No 19 responses Comments/criticisms aren’t that highbrow! Haven’t had to contemplate any worthy of forwarding…yet (New Zealand)
Yes, mostly consular 14 responses Yes, but I must point out that over 90 per cent of comments pertain to visas and we have developed a set of standard responses on this in collaboration with our colleagues working in the immigration section of the embassy (Canada)
Not applicable/don’t receive many comments 6 responses Have not experienced this (Australia)
Emphasis on negative comments 6 responses Yes, if there was negative comment about government policy, we would notify the relevant area of DFAT (Australia)
Depends on volumes of comments 5 responses The majority of comments are positive, and when we have received negative comments we have sent to the ambassador if these comments are too many (Israel)

As opposed to digital natives, nearly half of the immigrants stated that they do not send online comments to the embassy or the MFA as comments are usually not sophisticated enough (19 responses). Immigrants also asserted that comments will be sent to the ministry if they are of a violent nature. Thus, immigrants seem to focus their attentions solely on negative comments.

The results presented in this section suggest, yet again, that there are conceptual differences between digital natives and immigrants and not practical ones. As opposed to natives, immigrants do not rely on public feedback when deciding which issues to address online nor do they bother to tailor ministry messages to the informational needs of local followers. Additionally, immigrants do not view public comments as an important source of information nor do they transmit public comments to the MFA. This could suggest that immigrants do not hold digital publics in high regard. There are, however, similarities in how natives and immigrants practice online public diplomacy as both rephrase content to meet the needs of audiences, and both use follower feedback to increase the Embassy’s online reach.

H3.As opposed to immigrants, digital natives will perceive digital diplomacy and relevant practices in terms of social media dialogue and two-way interactions.

 

Q8: Do you think engagement/interaction with social media followers is an important component of your work? If so, Why?

As Table 7 demonstrates, the majority of natives stated that interacting with SNS followers was a crucial component of their work (66 responses). Natives’ answers did vary with regard to why interactions are important. One group stated that two-way interactions were a means of disseminating information about Embassy activities and national policies. Others answered that interactions are important as they constitute a form of ‘dialogue’ with online audiences. Some natives stated that it is through interactions that diplomats can influence the worldview of followers. Lastly, natives stated that interactions are important as they enable an Embassy to attract new followers and offer insight into how an Embassy is perceived by the local population. Only a fraction of natives stated that online interactions are unimportant (13 responses).

TABLE 7. Do natives and immigrants think engagement is an important component of their work?
Thematic category Prevalence Example quotes
Digital natives
Dialogue and relationship building 21 responses Yes, engagement is the predominate reason to have a digital media presence. It serves as a surrogate for in person interaction as such we can only be successful by communicating directly (Canada)
Influence followers 18 responses Yes. We have around 50,000 Followers on Facebook – this presents an amazing opportunity to spread messages and influence target groups – for example Brazil is the largest source country for international students outside of Asia, we can directly influence young people interested in studying overseas, and sell Australia as a top education destination (Australia)
Extend digital reach 14 responses Yes, it is. It is a good barometer of how the Embassy’s efforts are being perceived by the local population. Praise as well as criticism is received in equal measure (India)
Information dissemination 13 responses Yes, because users rely on social media more and more to get their information about the mission and to inquire about services we offer (Israel)
No 13 responses At this stage, no. Our social media strategy is to be the platform for discussion rather than engaging in the discussion itself (Australia)
Digital immigrants
No 25 responses If engaging is replying or conversing with Facebook followers’ comments, then no, I don’t think this is that important, mainly because comments generally aren’t that ‘high level.’ I see engagement at a micro level of posting an item that generates interest – the reach determines how well it has engaged followers (New Zealand)
Does not extend digital reach 9 responses It can be but we do not see any major difference when it comes to the number of followers just because we engage with the extra during a few weeks (Israel)
Influence followers/image promotion 7 responses I think it is very important. People feel flattered when the Embassy of another country entering into a dialogue with them, answering questions, informed them about to events. It is good for the image promotion (Switzerland)
Information dissemination 7 responses Yes, it is. It allows us to connect with our clients, contacts and audience and enable us to provide them with instant information (Canada)

By contrast, the majority of immigrants answered that interactions were not an important component of their work given limited resources or their preference for face-to-face diplomacy (25 responses). Immigrants did not view interactions as a means for relationship building. Immigrants even viewed interactions as a method for making followers ‘feel important.’ Those immigrants that did place an emphasis on engagement viewed it as a tool for national image management.

Q9: Do you think it is important to engage/interact online with those who criticize your nations? If so, how often do you engage with them? (daily/ weekly/ never)?

Digital natives tended to state that interacting with critics was important (50 responses) so long as the criticism did not include verbal abuse, as exhibited in Table 8. Several natives argued that interacting with critics demonstrates that embassies are approachable and that nations can justify their policies (16 responses). Notably, natives also stated that interactions with critics enables embassies to correct misconceptions about their nations’ policies. However, when asked how often they interact with critics a large proportion of natives stated that they rarely do so as such exchanges can fuel negative debates (28 responses).

TABLE 8. Do natives & immigrants engage with critics?
Thematic category Prevalence Example quotes
Digital natives
Rarely 28 responses I rarely engage with negative comments. I delete them if they are inappropriate or hide them if I think they do not bring anything valuable to the discussion – (Israel)

Never. ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ (New Zealand)

Yes, correct misconceptions 19 responses Yes, this is important, especially to clarify any misperceptions or counter any outright misinformation/disinformation (New Zealand)
Yes, justify policies and make embassy approachable 16 responses Yes. Many times these critical views are highly entrenched and difficult to change, but at least engaging with such individuals gives us the feel of the pulse. Moreover, it shows the general public that Embassies are not inaccessible (India)
Yes, with the exception of hateful comments 15 responses I think it is important if it is justified/ moderate criticism. I usually don’t react to extremist comments as I don’t believe I will convince someone who is already at the extreme 5 per cent of the anti-pro-spectrum (Israel)
Digital immigrants
Rarely 27 Responses Tend to avoid this as don’t consider engaging with trolls to be productive or constructive (New Zealand)
No, does not lead to persuasion 10 responses It depends on the way of ‘criticising.’ Sometimes it’s a waste of time as some just want to get it off their chests and are not willing to hear counter-arguments (Israel)
Yes, with the exception of hateful comments 6 responses Whenever comments/remarks are posted and as long as the criticism is not inappropriate (Switzerland)
Yes, correct misconceptions 6 responses We would weekly answer some negative comment to correct misconceptions (Australia)

As opposed to natives, the majority of digital immigrants stated that they do not ascribe importance to interacting with critics of their nation (37 responses in total). Some stated that they tend to distance themselves from political discussions online while others argued that they avoid critics given a desire to remain impartial. Immigrants were also likely to view critics as trolls. Unlike natives, immigrants felt that interacting with critics was unlikely to change people’s opinions. Only two immigrants stated that they engage with critics, while another two stated that engagement with critics can correct misconceptions about states and their policies. While the thematic category of ‘Justify Policies and Make Embassy Approachable’ was only evident among natives, that category of ‘No, Does Not Lead to Persuasion’ was only evident among immigrants. These are highlighted in italic.

Q10: Do you think social media enables you to understand how your country is viewed by foreign populations?

Table 9 demonstrates that digital natives tended to argue that SNS can offer insight into how one’s nation is viewed by a foreign population and that it offers an informal way of gauging public opinion (47 responses in total). Natives were aware of the fact that their SNS followers constitute a biased sample consisting of young and connected individuals who already have an interest in a foreign nation. Only eight natives stated that SNS does not offer such insight.

TABLE 9. Do natives and immigrants believe that SNS enables them to understand how their country is viewed by a foreign population?
Thematic category Prevalence Example quotes
Digital natives
Yes 34 responses Yes, it’s a very good way to measure reactions in a considerable large scale (Israel)
Biased sample 17 responses To a degree, yes. Our FB audience demographic are educated young adults18–35 years of age, so this wouldn’t give us an accurate interpretation of the older generation of Malaysian and/or those who are less fortunate to receive higher education (which is unfortunately is a high percentage of Malaysians) (New Zealand)
Comments/likes offer informal gauging of opinion 13 responses Yes, I think this is very important and that it is one of the only direct and informal ways to know what people think about Switzerland. Social Media enables us to speak with people that we usually don’t meet at our events (Switzerland)
No 8 responses Somewhat… we are still working on building our audience base, especially with the local population. I have a better understanding of how our country is viewed by the local population through traditional means and measures (Australia)
Digital immigrants
Yes 24 responses Yes, it does. The benefit of social media is that it provides instant communication and feedback from the people of the host country. Analyzing the responses helps to understand the perception and views Indians have about Switzerland (Switzerland)
No 22 responses Understanding the country you are in, and how you are perceived requires much more being involved with people as people in the country. Being involved with real people, real activities, real causes and in different parts of the country. Overreliance on social media can be a risk, in particular because it can be a favoured outlet for the grumpy, the anonymous and the disappointed- (New Zealand)
Biased sample 5 responses To some extent; but it is not the primary measure by any means as use of social media is age biased (New Zealand)
Comments/likes offer informal gauging of opinion 2 responses Yes. In Egypt, millions of young people are plugged into social media on a daily basis and their comments are indicative of how they view the country (Switzerland)

Unlike natives, nearly half of the digital immigrants stated that SNS cannot help gauge how one’s nation is viewed from abroad (22 responses). Some suggested that one must rely on traditional diplomacy for such insight. Others stated that SNS actually demonstrate how little people know about other nations. When immigrants did view SNS as an information source, they also viewed their followers as biased samples in terms of age, interest and digital capabilities (five responses). Only two immigrants viewed SNS as an informal way of gauging public opinion on other countries. Markedly, all thematic categories identified in native’s answers were also found in immigrants’ answers.

The results of this section demonstrate important conceptual differences between digital immigrants and natives. Digital natives viewed two-way interactions as an important component of their work and a means toward relationship building and influence. Moreover, natives stated that interacting with critics was especially important as it could help nations justify their policies, correct misconceptions about policies and gauge how one’s nation is viewed by another. Digital immigrants, by contrast, viewed online followers as trolls looking to be pleased and uniformed audiences whose input cannot offer valuable insight. However, both natives and immigrants rarely interact with critics de facto.

4 DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

This study sought to address an important gap in public diplomacy scholarship by examining if generational gaps influence MFAs’ processes of digitalization. The study employed the concept of digital nativity while focusing on the ‘new’ public diplomacy elements of engagement, listening and dialogue.

Results suggest that the hard distinction between digital natives and immigrants based on year of birth may no longer apply. The statistical analysis found that age did account for variance in personal use of digital technologies (e.g. high volume of text messages). However, there was no such variance between those born before and after 1980. Additionally, results indicate that there are few operational gaps between natives and immigrants practicing public diplomacy through SNS.

The study did, however, reveal important conceptual gaps between generations. While digital natives were more likely to view SNS as platforms for two-way interactions and relationship building, immigrants viewed SNS as tools for one-way information dissemination. They were less likely to value follower feedback or regard SNS as important diplomatic tools. Immigrants also focused more on national image management. Thus, this study finds that differences between immigrants and natives may now lie in their conceptualization of digital technologies rather than their use. By examining groups of educated individuals who utilize digital technologies daily, this study controlled for two variables associated with digital nativity – scope of digital use and education. Thus, the study was able to differentiate between operational and conceptual gaps.

This article’s contribution is three-fold. First, it provides empirical evidence that conceptual gaps can influence an MFA’s ability to utilize digital technologies. As they have little regard for online followers, immigrants are less likely to transmit local feedback to the MFA preventing the ministry from identifying contentious foreign policies. As they prioritize information dissemination over engagement, immigrants are less likely to amass a sizable following preventing the MFA form marketing new policies or influencing the perceptions of digital publics. Most importantly, immigrants do not believe that interacting with SNS followers is an important component of their work. This may prevent embassies and MFAs from building relationships with online stakeholders.

The article’s second contribution lies in ‘demystifying’ the terms engagement and listening by identifying what they mean to those diplomats tasked with managing SNS profiles. Among both natives and immigrants, the term ‘engagement’ refers to a scale of interactions that ranges from ‘likes’ to actual conversations with followers. Natives did emphasize that ‘engagement’ rests on continuous, real-time conversations. However, among both groups, actual ‘engagement’ takes the minimal form of responding to questions and direct messages. Thus, there is a substantial gap between diplomats’ definition of ‘engagement’ and its actual practice.

This is not the case with ‘listening.’ According to digital natives, ‘listening’ includes a host of activities such as relying on audience feedback when publishing information on SNS; tailoring SNS content to followers’ interests and local context and sending follower feedback to relevant MFA departments. Both immigrants and natives tended to identify contentious issues by examining the tone and volume of online comments. Thus, the gap between diplomats’ conceptualization and practice of ‘listening’ is rather small.

The article also contributes to the debate surrounding the ‘new’ public diplomacy. While some scholars assert that the goal of the ‘new’ public diplomacy is to build long-term relationships with connected publics (Cull, 2008; Melissen, 2005), others maintain that the ‘new’ public diplomacy still prioritizes influence over relationships (Pamment, 2013). These diverging opinions were evident in gaps between natives and immigrants. For natives, the term ‘digital diplomacy’ is closely associated with building relationships through online interactions and using digital tools to substitute offline diplomacy. Immigrants, on the other hand, view ‘digital diplomacy’ as the use of SNS for one-way information dissemination and influencing their nation’s image abroad. It thus appears that more senior diplomats still prioritize influence over relationship building.

Notably, conceptual differences between generations were found in all MFAs and across all MFAs. Thus, the results of this study indicate that MFAs looking to leverage digital technologies must address generational gaps. One way of doing so is through digital training. For instance, SNS training could elucidate the importance of listening to online audiences and valuing their comments. For while tailoring increases one’s audience size, feedback offers a wealth of information on how a nation is viewed abroad. Moreover, training should highlight the variety of goals that can be obtained through digital technologies. In this study, digital immigrants focused on managing their nation’s image. Yet SNS could also be used to cultivate relationships with travel bloggers or interact with diasporas. Digital immigrants may lack the vision required to employ digital technologies in innovative ways.

An important question relates to agency or whether the surveyed diplomats had the agency necessary to determine what content to publish online and when to engage with followers? Notably, we deliberately surveyed diplomats from MFAs that offer their diplomats autonomy when communicating online. Moreover, respondents from all MFAs demonstrated high levels of agency in their answers. Respondents searched MFA SNS accounts to identify communication priorities and tailored SNS content with respect to language and context. MFA instructions were found to influence only immigrants’ online content. As such, we assert that diplomats’ in our sample enjoyed the agency necessary to leverage SNS towards public diplomacy goals.

However, digital natives were more likely to seize on their autonomy. Unlike immigrants, natives were more likely to decide what content to publish on SNS and when to engage followers. This could suggest that agency is comprised of two elements: having agency and seizing that agency to advance public diplomacy goals.

Finally, it is important to note this study’s limitations. First, while our sample size provided a rich research corpus, it may have been too small to fully capture conceptual differences between natives and immigrants. Moreover, personal interviews, as opposed to questionnaires, may have afforded a deeper understanding of these conceptual differences. Lastly, the sample was limited to nations that practice digital diplomacy in English. Future studies should be more inclusive.

5 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Azrielli International Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Biographies

  • Ilan Manor is a digital diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University and a member of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group. His 2019 book, The digitalization of public diplomacy, was published by Palgrave Macmillan as was his 2020 co-edited volume Public diplomacy and the politics of uncertainty.
  • Ronit Kampf is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She studies computerized simulations as a learning tool for youth in conflict regions and social media as a tool for social change among youth in divided societies.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1758-5899.13095

 

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