Twiplomacy: Using Canada's Voice in the Age of Digital Diplomacy

Renee Filiatrault on the importance of maintaining a disciplined voice online.
By: /
October 17, 2012

On Oct. 2, the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office used Twitter to ask followers for comments to help the ministry formulate an official digital strategy, which it will write over the course of the next several weeks, and expects to release in December. The Foreign Office is essentially crowdsourcing on how to make diplomats better use the Internet to solve foreign-policy problems. This innovative thinking comes as no surprise.

Under the stewardship of Foreign Secretary William Hague, the U.K. is already a leader in digital diplomacy. It has moved its human-rights reporting online to make it a more frequent and two-way conversation, and its diplomats are personally tweeting to explain their work and occasionally set the record straight. This surge toward social media is happening not only with the U.K., but also with many of Canada’s other partners, particularly the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has become the leading champion of digital diplomacy by ensuring that all foreign service officers get trained in social media to leverage their negotiations, better understand their partners, and exert influence. Digital media is a tool that Canada, lacking in its own formal digital strategy, would be wise to consider more ambitiously. 

Twitter brings the power of direct response, as well as tactical and strategic engagement, to public diplomacy. Americans have been taking advantage of this to both encourage partners and discourage enemies. Through Twitter, for example, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, encourages the Security Council to condemn Syria’s aggression on a daily basis. Furthermore, the State Department recently shared a new alias for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AAS) on Twitter while freezing worldwide assets and issuing a travel ban and an arms embargo. While new terrorist designations are not new, the State Department went on to add in an attachment, “AAS is simply AQAP’s effort to rebrand itself, with the aim of manipulating people to join AQAP’s terrorist cause.”

This shows the dubious nature of these types of organizations’ attempts to rebrand, and a willingness on the part of diplomatic services to try to get ahead of the message. For its part, the U.K. Foreign Office explains why it is so keen to get ahead of the message in digital diplomacy: “Because we have to. Those whose ideals and objectives we oppose are active and highly effective at using the web. If we don’t take up the digital debate, we lose our argument by default.” 

While it seems obvious to respond in this way, some have drawn the opposite conclusion about new media. Yet, while mediums have changed significantly, the role of electronic information in international relations and security is not new. Almost 50 years ago, but with prophetic accuracy, Canadian communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan discussed the growing place of electronic media in world affairs: “It is really an electronic battle of information and of images that goes far deeper than the old hot wars of industrial hardware.” 

McLuhan’s prediction about the influence of information was tested and confirmed on the battlefield in Afghanistan, where Canada learned first-hand the power of message. By all accounts, on conventional footing, the Taliban have always been outweighed militarily. Yet, if the “medium is the message,” the Taliban have found a highly effective medium – violent attacks on high-profile civilian and military targets. Insurgents have intentionally sought to amplify the effect and fear caused by these attacks (even the failed ones) in both traditional and social media. This undermines the Afghan people’s faith that the government can protect them, while nightly headlines about improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, and assassinations undermine the political will of the international community. Canada’s Afghanistan experience made clear the influence and reach of asymmetric attacks in the information age. The challenge of dealing with insurgencies is instructive in the civilian world.

Extremists have become increasingly sophisticated at targeting their audiences and fragmenting vulnerable populations. With literacy rates low in Afghanistan, insurgents spread fear among average Afghans by word of mouth, threatening reprisals, for example, for those who accept aid. Threats directed at Afghan government officials are issued through texts, or through “night letters” quietly slipped into plain sight. Messages intended to undermine the will of the international community, such as claims of success on suicide bombings, appear on websites, Twitter, or via a simple phone call to international reporters. Open-source analysis and information operations are things militaries have had to become better at to remain tactically effective on the ground, and, recently, the Pentagon went public with an approach to respond aggressively on Twitter.

The lesson in the context of diplomacy is this: The only logical way to contend with voices that seek to divide and conquer audiences by spreading fear and perpetuating violence through every possible medium – including Twitter – is to respond with equal force using the same mediums to spread the facts. Canada, as the quintessential voice of reason, is well positioned to do so. That requires an ambitious agenda of openness, transparency, and support for digital inclusion for nations lacking.

In the digital age, knowing what is being said on all platforms, including Twitter, is the starting point for proportional response or change in posture. Incidentally, a proportional response sometimes means not legitimizing certain messages with a response at all. In many circumstances, discipline is what is required.

As the recent messiness of tweeting from Cairo following protests against the anti-Islam trailer indicated, maintaining a disciplined voice can sometimes be a challenge in the accelerated world of new media.

For Canada, the key to ensuring a unified front is to trust in the premises that have always been part of effective public diplomacy: Stay in your lane, communicate the facts, and support Canada’s values, and those of international convention. 

A formal digital strategy would further ensure this. A natural tension between policy in Ottawa and perspective from the field has always existed. However, if we are to be effective strategically in the age of electronic media, ambassadors must be trusted with the delegated authority to speak on behalf of Canada’s interests in real time.

Some foreign-policy traditionalists have argued that Twiplomacy could undermine the place of secure, structured, bilateral dialogue rooted in relationships-based diplomacy. Yet, it is wrong to assume that these are mutually exclusive. Ironically, in an increasingly chaotic social-media landscape, diplomacy built on relationships and dialogue is likely more secure than ever. Diplomacy involves listening to myriad competing voices and agendas, some more reliable and straightforward than others. The way to ensure legitimacy has always been to ground policy in the information gathered by our diplomats, the best of whom have spent time abroad building relationships face to face. 

Recently, the Red Cross issued data indicating that 76 per cent of people expect emergency help three hours after posting a request for assistance on Twitter. In short, evidence shows that people are now using Twitter to call for help. Nations are as well. While the full role that Twitter played throughout the Arab Spring continues to be debated, there is no doubt that citizens filled a coverage gap before most mainstream media were able to arrive in the country, and that this accelerated events. Whether trying to stabilize, provide aid, or accelerate open government, social media should not be an end in and of itself, but should instead be a starting point for effective action.

To be connected supports Canada’s interests and values by example, and is vital to the conflict-stabilization efforts for which we have traditionally been so proud. Whether an ongoing situation leads to direct intervention will, as ever, rely on many factors. However, it seems clear that Canada, as a traditional broker of a middle way, can only act proportionately if we are part of the conversation.

During his last television appearance on TVOntario’s public-affairs program in 1977, Marshall McLuhan concluded the following: “All forms of violence are quests for identity. Terrorists, hijackers, these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.” 

It is reassuring to watch our partners rally behind every possible means – including Twitter – to try to aggressively respond before violence goes viral. Canada, as a responsible member of the international community, is ideally suited to start responding in kind, as well. There is reason to be optimistic. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has appointed a new Director of strategic communications and new media. Also, shortly following his visit to Canada, William Hague announced the Centre for Global Cyber-Security Capacity Building, and called for a new international consensus on ways to protect and preserve effective co-operation between states in cyberspace and support digital inclusion. In a joint statement with the U.K. following Hague’s visit, the Canadian government indicated that it strongly supports the process of building consensus and openness in our networked world. To begin, let’s formalize our own open digital strategy.

“Whenever you watch someone being oppressed, raise a voice against it.”

– Malala Yousafzai

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Also in the series


Why It's Tough for Embassies to Get Social Media Right

Brian Fung on why the 21st century is a tough time to be a control freak.

Social Media, Diplomacy, and R2P

Sean Aday on the power of social media as a witness to atrocities.

Twiplomacy: Worth Praising, but with Caution

Philip Seib on the good and the bad of Twiplomacy.

Social Media as a Tool for Public Diplomacy

Jennifer Charlton on the reach and transparency of social media.


Twiplomacy: Theoretical Challenges, Practical Realities

Fergus Hanson on the challenges of a wired, real-time world.

E-Diplomacy Beyond Social Media

Andreas Sandre on how technology as a whole is changing diplomacy.

From Diplomat to Twiplomat

Danish diplomat Karen Melchior on learning how to be a Twiplomat.

What It Takes To Become a Twiplomat

Anja Türkan on getting your government’s message heard by foreign audiences.

Who is DFAIT Following on Twitter?

How is the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade using social networking?