Digital Diplomacy: How is the Canadian government faring on social media?

Global Affairs Canada reaches 2.5 million people online. But can the government turn Facebook likes and retweets into something more substantive? 

Global Affairs digital diplomacy
Total number of Global Affairs Canada's English-language accounts in each region. Infographic: Zameena Dadani Software: Piktochart

Since taking office, the Liberal government has focused on openness as a principle for all government action. Some months into the Liberal mandate, discussions about what this openness implies in terms of concrete policy must be happening, but have not been made public. An embrace of digital diplomacy with a focus on the use of social media and other technologies to engage stakeholders in Canada and abroad is a strategic option for increasing openness in the conduct of foreign policy.

In prioritizing digital diplomacy, Global Affairs Canada did not have to start from scratch. The Department has had a presence online for some time and visibility was stepped up significantly in the last year of Foreign Minister John Baird’s tenure, when many Canadian missions abroad set up social media accounts. Such “Twiplomacy” received a further boost through early statements by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, empowering Canadian diplomats to speak on Canada’s behalf publicly, including on social media. As a result, there has been a noticeable increase in visibility of diplomats and missions in traditional and social media.

But, for “Twiplomacy” to succeed – that is, for stakeholders to become engaged in policy-formulation and implementation – communications must find an audience. Is anyone listening to Global Affairs’ communications and, if yes, who is paying attention?

Social media snapshot

To gain a broad snapshot of what Global Affairs accounts are doing online and who is interacting with these accounts, our group at the University of British Columbia surveyed the Canadian missions with social media accounts as listed on the Stay Connected” page of the Global Affairs Canada website. We analyzed Facebook and Twitter accounts managed by Canadian missions abroad, some department accounts (Government of Canada, International Trade Canada and Foreign Policy Canada), state-level accounts in the United States, and supranational accounts (i.e. OECD, WTO, NATO and UN). Our snapshot analysis was of a one-month period from October 2 to November 2, 2015. We measured engagement for Twitter and Facebook through the number of followers, number of posts, and the forms in which audience interaction took place.

A long reach: 2.5 million engaged

Global Affairs Canada’s social media accounts have strong international reach. Across all Global Affairs Facebook accounts there were 2.5 million likes and across all Twitter accounts there were 520,000 followers. Accounting for some portion of fake, inactive and overlapping accounts, we estimate that Global Affairs Canada accounts reach a total audience of 2.5 million readers on these two platforms alone.

The average number of likes/followers per account is 16,914 on Facebook and 3,390 on Twitter, respectively. However, as the engagement chart below reveals, some accounts received far more likes or mentions on posts in a one-week period than many accounts received over all. We generally found a great deal of discrepancy across accounts between user interaction, with some having only a handful of likes or followers, and others having large and engaged audiences. Surprisingly, on Twitter the accounts that received the most interaction were the Government of Canada department accounts, with half the total number of retweets. Specifically, the Government of Canada account received 41 percent of the total retweets, despite only posting 0.3 percent of the material.

On Facebook, country level accounts received more interaction than any other type of account (worth noting are Burma, Netherlands, Philippines, United Kingdom and India, as shown in the engagement table below). These five accounts received 25 percent of the total page likes, and also have high levels of user engagement. Also excelling on Facebook is the Ukrainian account, which holds 55 percent of the total likes per post and posts frequently with 15 percent of the total posts. On a regional basis, the majority of accounts were concentrated in Europe, Latin America and Asia, with Asia being a particularly active region. 

Twitter
Infographic: Zameena Dadani Software: Piktochart

Regional Analysis: Success in Asia

Asia includes some of the world’s most active online nations; Asian users were very engaged with Global Affairs accounts. The department’s Twitter engagement in Asia is twice as high as its global average. Interaction on Facebook is even more noticeable, with 131 likes per post, while the global average is only 51.

The follower-base of accounts in Asia is not limited to individuals living in the region. Rather, country-specific accounts, such as the Canadian embassy in the Philippines’ Twitter account, enjoy a large follower-base around the world. On average, 13 percent of embassy Twitter account followers in ASEAN countries reside in-country, 19 percent in Canada and 68 percent elsewhere in the world. 

Missed opportunities

The size of the potential audience makes for ample opportunity for meaningful interaction with followers that goes beyond the broadcast of information to aim for actual exchange of views, policy proposals, etc. The most-followed GAC accounts have huge potential to promote Canadian regional and country specific agendas, as well as promote Canadian values such as human rights, indigenous rights and environmentally conscious development. However, the engagement we did find was mostly centred on pictures of patriotic staples and “fluff.”   

Recommendations for an improved online presence

During our 30-day study of the Canadian government’s social media footprint, we saw that many accounts lacked immediacy on prevalent matters, content was often inconsistent, and some accounts were even left untouched.

Our analysis led us to consider three general recommendations to steer governmental organizations towards the goals of digital diplomacy. First, accounts need to have a clear strategy – content should be goal-driven, valuable to the audience (Canadian citizens and stakeholders in Canada and abroad) and timely. Second, accounts should consider thematic content when curating their Facebook or Twitter feeds. A common concern was repetitive information between accounts and a lack of theme within an account. Finally, we found that diversifying content with visuals and infographics is a key strategy to displaying complex policy information to a general audience.

Many thanks to the following for their assistance in data collection: Talia Ahmad, Kiran Alwani, Denea Bascombe, Simone Bridgewater, Corrin Bulmer, Andres Delgado, Fernando Rodriguez, Raphaël Roman, Sonia Takhar, Bryan Taylor, Petrina Torgerson, and Cecilia Ye.

Julian Dierkes will be moderating a discussion entitled “Digital Diplomacy Strategy: Are Canadians Engaged?” at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research on Thursday, Feb. 11. More details about the event can be found here.