By Keira Ndoumbe (Download pdf version)
Data diplomacy: Examining data’s Impact as a tool for diplomatic activities
When in 1960 Marshall McLuhan made reference to the world as becoming a “global village” no expert nor policy maker at the time had a clue of the extent to which the veracity of such a statement would be verified in the decades to come. From a single globalized marketplace to a large interconnected network and hub of information, globalization has not just impacted the way humans move and live but more importantly, the way nation states and international actors relate on the world stage. This gradual and rapid transformation of the society has led to the emergence of various disciplines such as digital diplomacy also known as e-diplomacy, or data diplomacy.
Data diplomacy is an arising cross-disciplinary field that addresses the role of diplomacy and negotiation concerning access to and sharing of information, as well as the effect of information on discretionary connections among nation-states and other international actors (intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, public figures etc). In more recent times, data has progressively gained ground in the conduct and practice of global diplomacy, now occupying the agenda alongside other key issues such as peace and security, development, climate change… In this way, data is now a significant tool usable and used in consular affairs, soft power and public diplomacy, strategic alliance building etc.
Thanks to technological advancement and the democratization of the internet society, the way diplomacy is conducted and presented has radically changed and distanced itself form its initially very opaque and elitist routes.
Data diplomacy initiatives have been positively portrayed by practitioners, laying an emphasis on the need for such moves to more directly address social and global challenges.
Often described as the new oil of the modern economy, data carries a vast set of opportunities but also comes with its fair share of challenges. Conducting foreign policy in the era of big data and the internet society therefore requires a specific set of skills to optimize the art and practice of an effective strategy by foreign ministries, governments and international actors.
The purpose of this article is to analyze how data in its digitalize form has impacted the conduct of diplomacy nowadays.
What is data?
First and foremost, let’s define what data is. Data may be a wide term in computer innovation, but it is frequently utilized to distinguish and isolate information from mere bits. In other words, it is a collection of processed information. Data is the raw material, diplomats are the processors of that material into a finished “product” useful for strategic decision-making and foreign policy choices. . In their daily work, they collect, analyze, and communicate data, information, and knowledge.
Information is at the center of international relations. Alliances are forms and broken based on the existing information and who controls that information. In that light, data has completely revolutionized the conduct of diplomacy, bringing in more light and transparency to the works of diplomats, characterized by secrecy and privacy.
The rise of data diplomacy
Over the past decades, four major events have shaped the rise of data diplomacy among others.
- Firstly, the American response to the recruitment strategy and online propaganda of Al Qaeda: In 2008, President Bush’s Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs launched “Public Diplomacy 2.0.” entailing, the use of Facebook by the State Department, as well as the launch of a blog to counter the extremist narratives of the jihadists and put in place the first ever US Digital Outreach Team (DOT). The DOT is a team of ten civil servants that has its own social media accounts (Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter), but mostly operates by posting messages on popular internet discussion forums
- Secondly, the leak of thousands of diplomatic cables between the US diplomatic missions and the headquarters in DC, known as the WikiLeaks scandal of 2010.
- Thirdly, the Arab Spring and its rapid spread facilitated by civil society activist posts on Twitter. The Arab Spring caused a profound shift in how governments and MFAs view the social media and its power vis-à-vis public opinion, political tensions and social unrest.
In the light of the democratization of diplomacy, a good number of public diplomacy scholars have argued that diplomats should move from one-way communication to a two-way communication model to be more effective. This view has seen early adoption from the US government and more recently African governments have joined the trail.
It is possibly arguable that data diplomacy kicked up faster in English speaking African countries due to their advanced political socialization and participation culture. Countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa have been trailblazers in sub-Sahara Africa. Whereas, the transition towards digital diplomacy is quite slower in French speaking Africa where many governments tend to have a rigid and static approach to the conduct of politics, public policy and consequently foreign policy. Breaking up with traditional approaches of written files that have to follow up the bureaucratic channels is thus a challenge in such countries. In addition, the fact that young civil servants and diplomats are more so inculcated with the view of their youth as a disadvantage and lack of experience as stumbling block for their contribution to diplomatic activities.
The impact of data diplomacy
It is worth noting that digital diplomacy does not replace traditional diplomacy but it can help strengthen the networks of relations amongst states.
Digital diplomacy provides data to influence audiences that are not reachable through direct contact and interaction. Diplomats and consular affairs officers have access to wider audiences of their diaspora and can reach them faster and more efficiently. In addition, data diplomacy has reduced the frontiers and time-frames. While in days of old diplomats had to travel miles and days to deliver a message as plenipotentiaries, emails and video conferencing have fastened the rate of interactions amongst state representatives.
The current global pandemic has shown a shadow of an intensified conduct of digital diplomacy, with the first-ever Virtual sessions of international gatherings such as the United Nations General Assembly. Digital diplomacy has proven to be a low-cost form of diplomacy, helping MFAs cut their budget on logistics and protocol demands. In addition, the cost of using new technology is dropping as more actors are going digital.
In conclusion, the work of diplomats and policy makers has considerably been transformed with the advent of the information technologies and more importantly the digital society. Early adopters of western nations have set the pace for the practice and conduct of diplomacy in the light of data. Diplomats tend to reinvent their tasks on a daily basis as they gain more knowledge and mastery of the tools at hand. On the other hand, security threats have become a major concern in the international community. Recent events of the “information war” for the search of a vaccine for COVID-19 is a perfect depiction of the previous argument. The Trump Administration has accused Russia of being responsible for the multiple cyber-attacks that their servers have suffered for the past weeks.
The foreseen risk for African economies is to be once more the last to join the train, the less equipped in the game of digital diplomacy. It is therefore of paramount importance that such nations prioritize the design of a digital diplomacy strategy and begin to incrementally include the operationalization of such a strategy in their budgetary provisions as well as the annual activities.
Jovan Kurbalija, (May 9,2017), “The impact of (big) data on geopolitics, negotiations, and the diplomatic modus operandi”. In Diplo at https://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/impact-big-data-geopolitics-negotiations-and-diplomatic-modus-operandi
Helle Dale (Dec 8, 2009) Public Diplomacy 2.0: Where the U.S. Government Meets “New Media” No. 2346, in Backgrounder at https://www.heritage.org/global-politics/report/public-diplomacy-20-where-the-us-government-meets-new-media
Khatib, Lina & Dutton, William & Thelwall, Michael. (2011). Public Diplomacy 2.0: An Exploratory Case Study of the US Digital Outreach Team. Middle East Journal. 66. 10.2307/23256656. At https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228194201_Public_Diplomacy_20_An_Exploratory_Case_Study_of_the_US_Digital_Outreach_Team