Australia’s digital diplomacy is in catch-up mode and 2016 has seen improvements to how the Australian Government connects with and engages the world online. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) launched a digital media strategy and the ‘DFAT blog’ in December 2016 and most overseas posts now have a social media presence. However, DFAT’s investments in expanding its digital capabilities have been small and new initiatives have been almost exclusively isolated to social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. One exception is Next Door Land, a mobile app game designed by the Australian embassy in Indonesia to engage children about Australia and Indonesia.
Other internationally-facing parts of the Australian Government, including the Department of Defence (and particularly the Australian Army), are also expanding their international reach via social media and other publishing platforms. Foreign policy think-tanks and universities are also investing more than ever in social media platforms, blogs and podcasting.
In 2017, the key for Australian foreign policy actors is shifting from seeing the Internet as a tool of communications tool to leveraging it as a tool of foreign policy. This includes taking greater advantage of growing social media audiences to more closely engage key stakeholders and explain policy decisions. Using social media accounts as merely bulletin boards while avoiding conversations and difficult policy issues won’t influence international outcomes the Australian Government seeks to achieve. Social media is not the Internet and with Facebook and Twitter engagement in decline and Facebook page reach falling by more than 50% in 2016 a move beyond western social media accounts is long overdue.
Populations in the Asia-Pacific, where Australia’s foreign and economic priorities lie, are spending less time on social media and more time using chat apps, chat bots, live-streaming platforms and augmented reality apps. The Australian Government needs to quickly adapt to these developments and ensure it doesn’t get left behind again. With the bulk of Australia’s customers, inbound tourists and students originating from Asia, it can’t afford to remain inflexible to Asia’s fast-moving and mobile-dominate cyberspace. The forthcoming 2017 Australian foreign policy whitepaper provides a unique opportunity for the government to look at the type of cyber influence the government needs to start cultivating to remain influential over Australia’s place in the world.
Danielle is a PhD scholar at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. She blogs for and works with the Lowy Institute on several projects and is a Google Policy Fellow attached to the Harvard University incubated Digital Asia Hub in Hong Kong.