Journeys in Digital Diplomacy: The Indian Experience / Vikas Swarup

 Vikas Swarup, Former Official Spokesperson, MFA India / High Comissioner in Canada

If the 20th century was primarily about the clash of ideologies, the 21st is being defined by one word – information. The new digital age has not only brought with it a new way of understanding the world, it has given us the tools to recast it. Traditional diplomacy was premised on the principle that states would talk to each other, behind closed doors. The digital era has transformed that assumption, and has made possible public forms of communication, both amongst states as well as between states and the public at large. It has enhanced the speed and scale of discourse, while adopting many of the techniques of mass media, in order to package the rather dull art of statecraft into an interactive and interesting experience.

Prime Minister Modi was one of the earliest leaders to appreciate the potential of social media. Today he leads the way with a following of over 26 million on Twitter and close to 40 million on Facebook, making him the 2nd most followed political leader in the world. Our External Affairs Minister is not far behind with a followership of over 6 million making her the most followed Foreign Minister in the world. We at India’s Ministry of External Affairs have also been early adopters to new technologies in the digital space. We were among the first Foreign Ministries to have an active presence through our Public Diplomacy accounts, aiming to demystify the rather arcane world of foreign policy, and to narrate, in as many ways as possible, the India story. What began in 2010 with a single tweet has now traversed significant ground. In the rather intangible world of foreign policy, social media is one of those rare things that can be quantified and analyzed, providing feedback on one’s communication strategies; weighing in on one’s appeal. Led by the Foreign Minister Ms. Sushma Swaraj, who has earned international accolades for reaching out to Indians across the world through social media, the Ministry’s numbers really speak for themselvesThe year 2016 was remarkable as we saw accelerated growth across platforms. On Facebook, the Ministry’s page  now accounts for 2 million plus followers. My official handle (@MEAIndia), carried on from one Official Spokesperson to another, is well past a million. Our Public Diplomacy account @IndianDiplomacy , has been performing equally well, having touched 1 million followers as well. All this has been made possible through organic growth (as opposed to paid promotions). On Youtube, MEA and ID videos have crossed 40 million minutes watched and subscriptions to the channels are more than 45,000.  We are also on G+, SoundCloud, Flickr. Last year, we made an entrance on Instagram, and have already crossed 20k followers. Just in terms of numbers, our collective followership exceeds 5 million (excluding our Missions and Posts), and weekly impressions (views, profile visits, etc) are usually five times as much.

Over the last year and a half, we also have brought almost all of our Missions and Posts on Facebook and Twitter, and have standardized and verified the accounts under the “India in” label. That’s a total of 166 Missions and Posts on Twitter, which you can find here, and 172 on Facebook, which you can find here. We thought a great deal about ways in which we could harmonize and converge lists and bring them on one platform – we so designed an app within Facebook that provides the full picture of our digital presence – FB, Twitter, Youtube and Website. In the meantime, the Missions’ social media outreach has really grown – reaching out with innovative videos, graphics and competitions. Some FB accounts are well past the 100K mark.

In India, the Foreign Ministry is also responsible for the issue of passports, and abroad, it coordinates with our Missions for consular grievances and for assistance in cases of emergency relief. The use of social media to address queries, follow up on suggestions or rescue Indians have all been part of a radical, new restructuring of our engagement with the Indian disapora that numbers more than 30 million. Today the MEA is seen as a Ministry that seeks to reduce the distance between the citizen and the Government, whether abroad or at home. Late last year, in partnership with Twitter India, the Ministry launched #TwitterSeva wherein any distressed citizen can pose their query on the social media platform and be assured of a quick and effective response.

One of the key challenges on the digital side is staying ahead of an extremely steep curve. Of content genres that have proved the most successful on social media is the new form of the video – not the traditional documentary, but the short snappy ‘docu-mercial’. We’ve been experimenting with forms of these –here is,

for example, something we did during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Belgium on launch of a new Optical telescope that got a lot of attention, and this is an animated video on the Prime Minister’s African sojourn.

A landmark journey!Retracing PM Narendra Modi's visit to Africa; rekindling warmth in ties#Flashback2016

Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India paylaştı: 29 Aralık 2016 Perşembe

For an audience with decreasing attention spans and increasing visual appetites, the dilemma is how to find the balance between attractive content without diluting value. We have also used video to tremendous impact with traditional formats like the Press Conference – When India broke the news of a surgical strike on terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, its Facebook Live garnered 1.9 million views, reaching 11 million users. Apart from breaking news, the Official Spokesperson’s press conferences and other important events are live streamed on Facebook and YouTube. We also create dedicated handles/accounts for big ticket events we host – from   the 8th BRICS Summit to India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS-III) and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Diaspora Convention).

The Ministry of External Affairs of India has always been at the vanguard of efficient and cost-effective communication strategies, leveraging digital tools for maximum impact. As in the past years, our effort in 2017 will be to adapt to technologies and genres that have a significant presence – from Whatsapp to video – and identify mechanisms to incorporate them into the diplomatic toolkit. The future remains charged with possibilities, even as we seek to remain ‘on message’ about India’s extraordinary story.


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