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Digital diplomacy in the era of coronavirus pandemic

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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a joint video press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (off screen) at the end of the European summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on July 21, 2020.  (Photo by JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP)

Due to the advent of digitalisation of the media and most especially social media platforms, several endeavours and tasks of a plethora of professions have transformed from how they operated and functioned. And in the 21st century, this transformation has been largely digitalised. And diplomacy has not been side-lined in this digitalisation. Diplomacy whilst still retaining its core practice has gone digital and absorbed and still absorbing the new vistas being discovered in digital diplomacy.

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According to a detailed Observer Research Foundation report by Radhika Chhabra, titled: ‘Twitter Diplomacy: A Brief Analysis’ which is an ORF Issue Brief No. 335 and published in January 2020, Radhika Chhabra gave a detailed digital diplomacy definition and I quote her verbatim.

The craft of diplomacy has evolved over time. It has adapted to technological advancements from the advent of the Morse Telegraph or the emergence of radio broadcasting to the current environment that has given prominence to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook for leaders to not only interact with people at home or abroad, but traditional diplomacy is generally bound by decorum and formality; twitter diplomacy is not.

Twitter and other social media platforms allow government officials to broadcast their views on pertinent issues and developments in the public domain without the need for formal diplomatic channels or jargon. It also allows people to reach out to government officials more easily. Indeed, Twiplomacy breaks through the limitations of traditional diplomacy, which is hinged on a top-down bureaucratic approach when it comes to negotiation and the dissemination of information. The diplomatic services of many countries use Twitter to communicate directly with the people and lend a more participatory character to foreign policy debates. Twitter diplomacy, in that sense, has lent a degree of transparency to foreign policy debates.

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One of the Foreign Affairs Ministries to have taken the initiative and the lead in the digital diplomacy space and has adopted and adapted digital diplomacy in all its glory and ramifications is the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Israel. And for the third year running, the Foreign Affairs Ministry organised a Digital Diplomacy Summit which have always held in Israel. But due to the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions of travel, the 2020 edition was held virtually from Tuesday, June 23 to Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

Noam Katz, who is the Deputy Director-General for Public Diplomacy at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke on public diplomacy strategy and he believed in Digital Diplomacy’s power to create transformation. He stated that Digital Diplomacy enables Israeli diplomats to reach millions in the Middle East and according to Noam Katz, “even in states we have no presence.” During his introduction, he further opined that COVID19 is a powerful reminder for diplomacy collaboration. Digital Diplomacy in the past few months had moved to Zoom. And that Covid19 has not changed the way diplomats do diplomacy but what diplomats do afterwards and has accelerated the pace diplomats use digital technology.

On Digital Diplomacy and Corona; Yiftah Curiel who is the Director, Department for Digital Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel revealed that the ministry produced Arab translated versions of corona virus-related materials; which were viewed a lot in the Arab world. In times of crisis, he stated that the audience wanted interaction with Israeli diplomats, so AMA was created. A.M.A is an acronym for Ask Me Anything on Twitter, and he revealed that the digital department received a lot of feedback. Another innovation was centred around religion. The three religions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism which have Holy Sites in Israel and which were locked and could not be visited during the corona pandemic lockdown instead; the ministry created virtual tours which became available. He also stated that another initiative was to express official solidarities (a lot of countries were not well off as Israel in terms of casualties.)

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Yiftah Curiel concluded his speech by opining that the coronavirus pandemic was a defining moment. It made Israel foreign ministry’s channel sharper and more efficient. And covid19 brought out the positive side of creativity on social media.

The head of Public Diplomacy, Embassy of Israel, Washington DC, USA; Tammy Ben-Haim talked about mission work during Corona. She highlighted several present realities which were not so in 2019. For example, physical touch (handshakes etc) is now not a good idea. Tammy Ben-Haim in her presentation online stated that this period is a good opportunity for strategic partnerships for foreign affairs ministries and diplomatic missions. Also, a good opportunity for people to register for diplomacy-themed events which would have to be virtual/online. She also stated that due to the global lockdown, less money would be spent and is being spent on inviting speakers to speak at events since these events have gone online and are now live stream events. And she also revealed that the best results came from personalised emails (that is, sending emails with the name of the recipient.) According to Tammy Ben-Haim, we are no longer bound geographically or by budget. We can reach out to a much larger audience.

On the topic titled Consular and Corona; Ambassador Chris Cantor who is Israel’s Ambassador to Colombia live from Bogota opined that the most effective platform utilised by the mission was WhatsApp. He said that; “it was essential for us to gather information using many Whatsapp groups, some of which we created and some of which we were invited to by Israeli travellers.”

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World-renowned diplomacy professor at Oxford University and the Oxford Diplomacy Group; Professor Corneliu Bjola delved into virtual diplomacy during Covid19. And he commenced by making the online participants realise that the reason why Foreign Affairs Ministries send diplomats out to foreign capitals is to engage personally and share confidences and confidential assessments. Building and relating on trust is about the hues and nuances that are not visible online.

According to Professor Bjola, questions to ponder on include: can virtual diplomacy deliver similar results as face to face diplomacy? The core issue when we talk about virtual diplomacy is the transition from human interactions to digital interactions. The question is: Can it be done? With the aid of a PowerPoint-esque presentation, Professor Bjola showed that diplomacy’s media richness is divided into images, texts, audio, video and face to face. And that certain media outlets are inherently more powerful than others.

In his closing remarks, he posited that if we have to run so many channels; we have to trust those who run the channels. We want our diplomats to have what we call a digital persona.

Improving the health of the public conversation on Twitter was the topic handled by Ylwa Pettersson who is the Head of Public Policy for the Nordics and Israel at Twitter. In a nutshell, she stated that Twitter’s daily work is making sure Twitter is a safe and open environment for healthy conversation. Iddo Moed who is the Cyber Security Coordinator at Israel MFA; spoke on Cyber Diplomacy: How can states cooperate to mitigate digital threats in the cyber domain? And he reeled out several pertinent technical details and concluded by stating that there are now new global challenges, standardisation and regulation. And that while Covid19 created a rise in cybercrime; multilateral cooperation is vital, so as to share policies and best practises and at the same time, learn from others.

Twiplomacy which is a leader in Digital Diplomacy and whose founder is Matthias Lüfkens talked about Digital Diplomacy: the global view.

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He opined that world leaders have used twitter to disseminate information. And he mentioned examples of global leaders who made corona-related visual content. He also gave kudos to the Government of Botswana for using a creative way to pass on information on coronavirus and wearing of facemasks. A mention of South Africa and Rwanda too. The Presidents of Ukraine, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Rwanda and a few were mentioned. The deft dexterity of the Digital Diplomacy as espoused by Ethiopia’s Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of World Health Organisation was also highlighted.
Mr Lüfkens advised that when a major event happens, those on social media who have interests in digital diplomacy ca

n change their profile picture on social media and if you can, include the hashtags. According to the Twiplomacy founder, the consequences of coronavirus for diplomacy are numerous but one major one is the end of the handshake. Others are the more video meetings, virtual cabinet meetings, bilateral video meetings, online presentation of diplomatic credentials, G7, G20, EU, UN, AU virtual summits, physical distancing diplomacy, virtual press conferences, virtual interviews. The Facebook Live by Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand) was mentioned as a classic case of what is to become the norm. And last but not the least, Mr Lüfkens’ advice to foreign affairs ministries was this: “the main mistakes of foreign affairs ministries on twitter are that they are too official and too boring.”

Case studies and the lessons learned from countries like Belgium, India, Lithuania, U.S.A were presented by officials from these countries. Laurens Soenen, who is the Communication Officer at the Belgium Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that during this crisis, Belgium MFA focused on two main things: repatriating Belgian citizens who were stuck abroad and another main task was reputation management for the Foreign Ministry.

Garima Paul, who is the Under Secretary (Digital Diplomacy) at the Ministry of External Affairs, India; stated that “the way we (India) use social media is to basically advance our foreign policy goals and articulate the core fundamentals of our relationship with other countries. We find social media platforms to be very effective in countering any misinformation which may be propagated.”

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Whilst Rytis Paulauskas, who is the Director, Communications and Cultural Diplomacy Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania stated that an important aspect for Lithuania during the coronavirus pandemic was to become the main source of information and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has managed to benefit from the coronavirus pandemic by strengthening their digital capabilities.

It was stated that digital diplomacy today is all about taking calculated risks and experimenting with the latest digital tools.

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