When the telegraph was first introduced as a new communications technology, it was viewed as threat to diplomacy’s very existence. Then, with the emergence of the internet in 1983, a new concept known as “computerphobia” was pervasive, whereby people experienced severe anxiety at the very thought of interacting with computers. Despites these past misgivings, we now live in an increasingly interconnected and digitized world. Nearly all data is virtually stored, and diplomatic relations between states can be uprooted in under 140 characters. For better or worse, digital diplomacy is now a part of the diplomatic repertoire.
Traditionally, digital diplomacy was understood simply as a mechanism for “public relations and communications.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, digital diplomacy became the central means through which world leaders, and their diplomats, engaged with the world. Diplomatic events that were once held at grand venues, were now housed on servers.
Digital connectivity allows a greater number of people to be reached over a variety of platforms, making diplomatic efforts, and as a result, world leaders, more accessible. This, in turn, allows us to better conceptualize the policymaking sphere as one which should garner input from stakeholders and, therefore, must be accountable to the community at large. This conception veers away from the traditional understanding of diplomacy as a place for the few and the privileged who were “gatekeepers” of this domain. Thus, this “opening of diplomacy” causes us to re-evaluate assumptions of diplomacy being guarded and secretive.
This accessibility, however, is dependent upon a reliable internet connection and a secure network.
With increased connectivity there is an increased risk of “data breaches; information leaks and other breaches of confidentiality.” As such, cyber security risks are a very real threat to international relations. In 2021 for example, the United States government accused Russia of interfering with the results of the 2020 election, a claim which Russia denies.
Conversely, this same accessibility and amplification of messaging is also available to authoritarians state leaders, and can be used to spread misinformation. In so doing, digital diplomacy can be a tool for state repression and a vehicle through which violent extremists can coalesce. The QAnon conspiracy, for example, gained significant traction from yoga groups on social media, and the January 6th attack on Capitol Hill was primarily coordinated on social media platforms.
That said, social media platforms can also be leveraged by state representatives to project their values and better coordinate based on shared interests. Historically, Canada’s department of foreign affairs was considered “late to the game” in this respect but Canada has been catching up. During the pandemic, for example, the Canadian Government convened a virtual diplomatic channel to address global concerns regarding Venezuela. In doing so, Canada was able to convene an “informal” gathering of like-minded states to bolster “policy coordination efforts.”
Those who feared the technological advancements of the past would likely quake at the enormous influence of technologies in our globalized world. Yet, whether for good or ill, it’s clear that digital diplomacy is a tool that will continue in use and will likely have a lasting impact, not only on communications efforts, but on our very way of thinking as to how and why diplomacy is conducted.
Jillian Hawley is an Associate Editor at iAffairs Canada. She is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where she specializes in security and defence policy. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa, where she specialized in conflict studies and human rights. During her undergraduate studies, she acted as an Editor of the Undergraduate Journal of Politics, Policy and Society and conducted field research in Northern Ireland. Her professional experience includes working as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada.