Digital diplomacy needs to become a voice with a sense of purpose / Alberto Nardelli

Alberto Nardelli
Europe Editor, BuzzFeedUK 

When I first took an interest in how politicians use Twitter some time in 2009 all the rage was about MPs, world leaders and governments needing to be authentic. Back then, all the chatter was for politicians to be interesting and genuine on social media. The advice to politicians was to use platforms like Twitter to break their own news or get their point of view across.

Well, on the surface of things, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed would seem to meet quite a few of those criteria. The problem of course is that authentic Trump means that many of the things the president posts are divisive and, put simply, untrue. More broadly, a tweet a foreign policy does not make. There is a real world seriousness and complexity that 140 characters will never be able to convey – and believing they can is actually dangerous as we (or  most of us at least) are now learning.

Social media has changed greatly over the past five or so years. Just think about Twitter, and how hate speech, trolling, disinformation and the use of bots are all widespread problems on the platform today. In 2010 there was this romantic, and probably naive idea that social media was exclusively a force and space for good. This has proven to be self-evidently untrue.

As social media sites have grown they have become more representative of the real world, for better and for worse. Twitter and Facebook do not operate in a vacuum. Many parts of the world are more anxious than they were some years ago. Our debates have become more polarised and hyperpartisan. Trust in institutions, politics and media has dropped. A culture where facts are increasingly fragile and looked upon with suspicion has emerged. Divisive rhetoric has taken hold. And all this has taken place both online and offline. At times it is difficult to define where one ends and the other begins, if it’s the online that feeds the offline or if instead the opposite is true. Reality is probably a mix of both.

But the openness and consecutiveness that social media enables is still a force for good (even if not exclusively so).

The challenge for digital diplomacy today isn’t simply to use the tools or to speak with a genuine voice to those that mostly agree with us, or are prepared to listen (or to journalists whose job it is to listen). It is, in my view, far deeper, and in many ways cultural: how do you reach and influence those that don’t trust you, that believe, even when presented with clear facts, that what you say is fake? And, vice versa, only seek information that confirms their world view shying away from any debate that may contradict it, and all too often believe whatever it is their side claims, even when it’s demonstrably false.

It seems to me that politics is increasingly less about traditional dividing lines, like right vs left, but about open vs closed societies. The added role of digital diplomacy today (beyond the now established role of social media as an additional government communications channel) is to make a dent on all this. Digital diplomacy shouldn’t just be a voice, but needs to become a voice with a sense of purpose.