Towards a Public Diplomacy+ In the Age of Cyberspace

GD-website-bannerDaryl Copeland in his seminal work “Guerilla Diplomacy” (GD)[1] discussed how conventional diplomacy is losing its monopoly on intergovernmental communications across borders. Deconstructing the span of control over information, the public is no longer at the receiving end of news and information. The public rather than assuming the role of content-consumer, has literally transformed to content producer; citizen journalist. Diplomats are no longer agents of privileged information. In the digital age, overseeing unpredictable turn of events and managing predictable public opinion has never been easy.

Now many believe in the idea of ‘the death of authority!’ as Fareed Zakaria wrote in his ‘The Future of Freedom’, deciphering the code behind Billy Graham’s lingering effect in America’s politics- he waxed us brilliant Latin Vox Populi, Vox Dei  (the voice of the people is the voice of God).

Dichotomically speaking (of infotainment), setting aside the entertainment world, the information world (the media and the cyberspace) became grand tool for the public to ‘bust’ hypocrisies and show the “foxholes” of politicians, statesmen and diplomats and pressure on policies by being non-hierarchical, viral, 24/7 via “the network of networks- the internet.” Therefore, the new diplomat should not only be a knowledge worker but a net worker. The organizational silos should get altered: Demarches to Digits, Protocols to Persuasions. Perhaps militant, Daryl’s assertions even extend to the suffocation of what he called a Guerilla Diplomat, if confined to organizational silos and the drowning of the diplomat, if submerged under the waves of a very rigid bureaucracy; the new diplomat should be endowed with the quality of Guerrilla warfare as agility, improvisation and self-sufficiency via cyberspace. S/he has to adapt new operating environments which were alien to the diplomatic practices before; digital media and digital space. S/he has to transform from closed meeting rooms, grand hotels and Embassies to internet chat-rooms, the worldwide web and social media holes: from prestige to ‘prattle.’  Daryl used the ‘scaring phrase’- Guerilla Diplomacy or PD+ to describe this.

The 2015 and 2016 Digital Diplomacy Review which ranked Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs 3rd from Africa in its use of the cyberspace as an instrument of diplomacy defined PD+ as a means to “understanding disruption.” In an era of disruptive innovation, reads the review, “rapid technological change, ubiquitous connectivity, big data, machine learning, algorithmic governance and digital literacy; diplomats, leaders and ministries started adopting what the digital zeitgeist necessitates: transformation. In the process of digital transformation, some political leaders and MFAs which are early adapters, geeks and quick learners seem to lead the way.” The texts shared that even classical IR concepts such as multi-lateral recognition and negotiation is now shaped by new forms of diplomatic tools: hashtags, emojis, likes, RTs, pins, vines, snaps etc.

The journey from ‘International’ to ‘Internetional’ is in the making, writes the magazine. Even diplomats now talk about “hacking sovereignty, augmenting democracy, flipping diplomacy and crowd-sourcing governance.” When Ethiopia hosted the first ever Munich Security Conference Core Group Meeting, what squeezes the minds at the Roundtables proved to be this fact: “Cyber Security: More Connected, Less Secure? Protecting Africa’s Digital Transformation.

Ethiopian Foreign Affairs on Track?

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The Ministry has become increasingly conscious about this new fact, and is insistently working on it very recently.  Through major departments engaged with the cyber-tech: Foreign Media and Digital Diplomacy – new perceptions are emerging. From launching a new website with new features (security, accessibility, graphics, synchronization, up-to-datedness, etc) and new social media outlets (presence, engagement, agility, improvisation) – encompassed some of the PD+ features Daryl Copeland pinpointed. This is done not only with the public environment but also with another important node, diplomatic missions abroad; creating important triangulations between the Public, the Ministry and the Diplomatic Mission.

The other – interesting fact is that it is not only through the stories the ministry disseminates that an image is built, revamped or created but showing a “digital presence” at the global stage in itself is image building. For instance, more than 100 media corporations have disseminated the news of the Ministry’s digital presence via the worldwide web and millions have accessed it on Twitter and Facebook.

Still a Long Way Ahead

  1. Our social media presence is still limited – diversification is needed – from the mainstream Facebook and Twitter to other assets the Ministry should take the proactive step to extensively evaluate social networks like— Google+, LinkedIn, Flickr, Periscope, Instagram, Storify, Soundcloud, Weibo, to mention only the major ones.
  2. Adding flexibility and connectivity of the web – see Alexa’s global website ranking – to enhance a synchronized two-way communications between the Ministry and its publics. This could in turn serve as a means through which a responsive social media outreach and campaigning strategies could be designed cognizant of the reactions and the responses of its respective public.
  3. Proliferating the use of “transnationalizable stories” like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – a unique story with a clear shape and direction with an element that is based on shared perception among the various segments of the public worldwide. Culinary Diplomacy could be mentioned here.
  4. The urgent need for the Government to work in increasing internet penetration of the country and narrowing the digital divide. This would shoot the Ministry into a new level of cyber diplomacy record. Ilan Manor in his “In Digital Diplomcay: Narrowing Digital Divides” disclosed that Kenya has an internet penetration rate (% of population) of 47.3%, other African countries still lag behind the rest of the world. These include the Ivory Coast (4.2% penetration,) Rwanda (9.0%) while Ethiopia has only a (2%) penetration level. It was against this hard truth that the Ministry excelled all these countries in cyber media for diplomacy.
  5. The need to focus on reliable and authoritative social media influencers – companies and personalities – in order to expand the current scope of the Ministry’s social media outreach through networks of entities with a considerable audience.
  6. The need to make necessary time-conscious adjustments to the way information is provided to the public at large, i.e. the need to form a kind of conversational, dialogue-based rapport than a unilateral news reporting, which actually is a job that has already been the domain of the already incumbent journalistic mainstream media.
  7. Using contemporary, state of the art, social media utilities within the limits of its contingent budget and feasibility studies so that it could better appeal to the hearts and minds of its target public.

[1] Daryl Copeland. 2012. Guerilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations.


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Benyam Ephrem Betrewerk is a Diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has tremendous interests in African Issues and Pan-Africanism and the nascent world of Digital Diplomacy. He can be reached via zioneph@gmail.com.

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One comment

  1. Good piece and well done #Benjamin.Tip: The sophistication in ICT and subsequent emergence of Social Media is a ‘god-sent’ opportunity to advancement of Public diplomacy, hence must be utilized effectively.The ministry’s achievements need to be hailed in this regard. The Minister (Personally) is one of the few public figures in Africa that highly invest in public diplomacy via social media such as Face book and Twitter. I think this should be bench-marked so that the general public can directly reach and breath to their representatives without strict bureaucratic bottlenecks.

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