How to contend with social media violence? Three challenges facing online diplomats


On June 9th 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign shot back at Donald Trump. In a “tweet heard around the world”, Clinton advised Trump to delete his Twitter account after the Billionaire attacked President Obama for endorsing Clinton. Many congratulated Clinton for this attack which was viewed as a testament to her determination and strength. Others saw it as the launch of her campaign to beat Trump in the upcoming elections.


Yet to me, Clinton’s Tweet was another example of online violence.  It demonstrated yet again how violent social media rhetoric has become. Clinton’s Tweet did not address Trump’s arguments, or highlight his use of violent rhetoric or even challenge him to an actual debate on the issues facing America. It was a punch. A well timed punch, yet a punch none the less. Clinton is right in asserting that Trump’s rhetoric promotes violence. She is even right in asserting that the Billionaire uses social media to incite violence.  Yet instead of leading the charge against this, she emulated it.

As social media becomes more and more violent, so does the digital diplomacy landscape. In this post I outline three challenges facing diplomats and MFAs.

Challenge number one: Violence towards online diplomats

In the age of digital diplomacy, diplomats are no longer in the trenches. Encouraged by their MFAs, their peers and scholars, diplomats have ventured outside the Embassy walls in order to engage with social media users. Yet the more I talk to diplomats, the more I learn about their feeling of exposure and the abuse and violence they suffer online. The migration of diplomats to social media has positioned them at the front lines of diplomacy, and it is on these front lines that they encounter an abusive and unpredictable online demos.

The question that follows is how can MFAs best support online diplomats who are exposed to online violence?

One answer may be in training. Studies have suggested that there is a difference between asking a question online and stating one’s opinion. When people ask questions online they often do so with the goal of receiving an answer. Moreover, once they have asked a question, social media followers are likely to evaluate the answer provided. The same cannot be said for statements of opinion. Social media followers who voice their opinions often fail to take into account the response they receive. Moreover, some social media followers are likely to disregard the response they received and simply re-state their opinion yet in a more violent manner. At other times statement of opinion may be used to lure diplomats into heated arguments.

As such, MFAs may train diplomats to allocate more resources to answering questions rather than commenting on statements of opinion. Training may also enable diplomats to identify red lines that, when crossed, should mark the end of an online exchange. Finally, simulations may be employed to help diplomats develop online skills for identifying those social media followers who want nothing more but to hurl abuse.

Secondly, as pointed out by Prof. Corneliu Bjola at a recent lecture, MFAs need to offer front line diplomats better support. Here I refer to emotional rather than technical support.

Challenge number two: Breaking violent echo chambers

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter often serve as echo chambers. Given that their algorithms analyze users’ preferences, social media users are more likely to be exposed to content published by likeminded individuals which validates their world view.  As such, social media is not a town square in which issues are debated but, rather, a political rally in which the user with loudest megaphone prospers.

Thus, Facebook and Twitter have become breeding ground for political extremists of all shapes and sizes. Some use it to denounce immigrants, others to denounce ethnic groups while still others rail in favor or against religions.  From terrorist movements to zealot politicians, the social media landscape is now populated by populists.

The challenge for diplomats is how to fracture these echo chambers? Some MFAs have attempted to use social media to counter the narratives spread online by terrorist groups. Yet such channels often become tools through which MFAs converse with journalists and their domestic population rather than radicalized publics. Other governments have taken to blaming Facebook and Twitter for violence. According to a senior Israeli minister, Facebook is responsible for the deaths of Israelis by Palestinian terrorists. Yet such statements are also meant for domestic politics rather than actual impact.

In order to overcome this challenge, MFAs may need to develop a new toolkit, one which enables them to effectively fracture the iron dome of hate under which online publics now assemble.  To this end, MFAs may need to seek outside council from academics, computer experts and the social media companies themselves. This, however, will a raise and additional challenge in the form of definitions. What is hate speech? Who is an extremist? And what opinions should be countered online? In the time of Trump and La Penn, this challenge may be greater than it seems.

Challenge number three: Diplomatic violence

The final challenge facing digital diplomats is the use of social media by governments to spread violence.

For instance, some governments now employ troll armies tasked with attacking foreign countries and foreign leaders online be it verbally or in the form of cyber-attacks. Several reports indicate that Russia now includes social media in its hybrid warfare against other states. Likewise, some governments employ Bots to automatically spread online content thereby warping the public discourse in foreign countries and possibly influencing political processes.

Other MFAs have utilized Diasporas in order to influence political events in foreign countries. In some cases, Diasporas are recruited by MFAs to spread disinformation on social media. Such information campaigns can de-stabilize foreign governments. In other cases, Diasporas are utilized to instigate political unrest in their country of origin through their social networks.

Thus, digital diplomacy has also become a tool through which violence is encouraged, rather than fought.

Addressing the challenges outlined in this post cannot be achieved by an individual MFA. Rather, they require a coalition of MFAs, diplomats, civil society organizations and private corporations. Fortunately, these diverse networks can all still be brought together via social media.