At a seminar on “Challenges and Opportunities of Digital Diplomacy” in Jakarta recently, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called for the increased use of social media to carry out foreign policy. This makes sense given that the Internet has become an all- pervasive communication tool.
According to the 2018 BCW’s Twiplomacy Study, Twitter is the key channel of communication for digital diplomacy, with 97 percent of all 193 United Nations member states holding official Twitter accounts. Of the 951 accounts identified, 372 are personal and 579 are the institutional accounts of heads of state and government, including the foreign ministries of 187 countries.
Facebook leads Instagram as the second-most popular network among government leaders and it is where they have the biggest audiences. This is why Indonesia can’t afford to be left behind by the information technology revolution. In fact, Indonesia is among those countries that are increasingly using digital technology in the conduct of diplomacy.
According to the 2017 Digital Diplomacy Review, Indonesia ranks a commendable 38th out of 210 countries surveyed, the highest in ASEAN but still lagging behind other Asian tech-savvy countries like Japan and India, which rank in the top ten.
For good measure, President Joko Widodo is in the top 10 list of the most followed leaders with more than 10 million adherents. The top digital communicator is none other than US President Donald Trump with 52 million followers, followed by Pope Francis with more than 47 million.
If the goal of sending messages through social media is to reach citizens of other countries in a short amount of time, then it is doing its job. Modern-day-diplomacy, after all, is no longer restricted to simple bilateral relations. Issues today are global in nature, such as climate change, terrorism, migration and cross-border crime. That means the Internet is the best obvious tool to make a message both more immediate and less formal.
The question is whether digital diplomacy can be effective as a tool of foreign policy. Can it resolve conflicts, prevent wars, negotiate agreements? Will open, no-holds-barred pronouncements be as effective as traditional face-to-face, behind-closed-doors dialogue? Can nations resolve territorial or trade disputes in this manner?
Addressing sensitive issues, like the South China Sea or de-nuclearization on the Korean peninsula would still need certain protocols and the exchange of restricted information. So where the digital media would be most effective would be in public diplomacy. The more transparent the exchanges, the easier it would be to instill public understanding and acceptance of the problems involved.
But a full transformation towards an entire system of digital diplomacy may not be as simple as it looks. A way must be found to judiciously and effectively manage the flow of data from social media. Instant dissemination of information about events can sometimes prove to be detrimental. In other words, digital diplomacy has its risks, including information leakages, hacking and the anonymity of internet users. Wikileaks is a good case in point.
It is important that foreign ministries and their embassies are properly equipped to handle the flow of information. Foreign ministries should create a special task force to develop a social media campaign and come up with the strategies needed to disseminate infographics about a country’s commodities, investment opportunities and tourist destinations. That could then be dispatched to all diplomatic and consular missions. This concerted effort will enhance the effectiveness of disseminating information to global audiences.
Digital diplomacy will not and should not replace face-to-face diplomacy. Together, they should co-exist and complement each other, rather than act in competition. But most of all, the Internet can greatly assist in projecting a state’s foreign policy positions to both domestic and foreign audiences. After all, as the late British prime minister Winston Churchill, the purveyor of wicked wit, aptly put it: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”