On the 20th of May, 2016, the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group (#DigDiploROx) held a one-day seminar at the University of Oxford focused on Diaspora diplomacy in the digital age. Convened by Professor Corneliu Bjola together with Jennifer Cassidy and Ilan Manor (both doctoral students at Oxford) the seminar aimed to analyse the impact digital tools have on the relations between diaspora communities and MFAs/embassies. Attended by representatives from twenty embassies to London and the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the workshop combined presentations on the topic with a roundtable on digital diaspora engagement. It also included two DiploHacks addressing the issues of crisis communication and online backlash. In this blog post we offer a series of policy recommendations that arose from the seminar’s deliberations.
A Conflict of Interests
The global proliferation of information technologies has had a conflicting impact on the practice of Diaspora diplomacy. On the one hand, digital tools enable migrants to maintain close ties with their country of origin. Migrants can use affordable applications such as Skype and WhatsApp to continuously communicate with family members, friends and communities back home. As such, it is possible that migrants are not as reliant on Diasporic communities and embassies as they once were. On the other hand, Diasporic communities may use digital tools and social media to self-organise and create vibrant virtual communities which are independent of embassies and MFAs.
These conflicting effects require embassies to adopt new strategies when practicing Diaspora diplomacy. First among these is online outreach to virtual Diasporic communities. Embassies now need to become active members of virtual communities through writing posts for popular Diasporic websites, by engaging in online discussion forums, offering analysis with regard to events happening in the country of origin and making embassy staff available for virtual Q&A sessions.
Secondly, embassies need to demonstrate the value of their own digital platforms for migrants. Embassy websites and social media accounts can serve as hubs for Diasporas only as long as they supply valuable information and services. Third, embassies need to migrate to the digital tools employed by Diasporas. WhatsApp or Telegram, for instance, can be utilized by embassies to create groups of interest. One group can consist of the embassy spokesperson and Diasporic journalists while another can include the trade officer and migrant business owners.
Finally, MFAs need to realise that the growth in Diasporas will accelerate the migration of power from the ministry to the embassy. As Diasporic communities grow, so does their potential impact on their host countries and the strain on embassies who service them. Engaging online with Diasporic communities therefore requires an investment in embassy digital skills and the digitalisation of embassy services.
Diasporas & Crises
The use of social media platforms during times of political crises was also discussed at length. During the DiploHack, embassies discussed possible crisis scenarios, where social media could be used as a tool to connect with citizens abroad, as well being viewed as a method to engage with relevant political actors and to have their foreign policy positions heard online. The primary points discussed were as follows:
- Choose the online channel appropriately: A MFA and an embassy must assess the crisis and decide on the social media channel deemed most appropriate for achieving their communication aims. Assessment should take into account which channel is the most popular amongst the citizens and political actors involved in the crisis, how much information can be posted on the channel (140 characters on Twitter versus extended status posts on Facebook), and what is the level of engagement and dialogue creation on the channel itself (Instagram: low levels of dialogue creation, versus Twitter: high levels of dialogue creation). Embassies and MFAs can use numerous channels to achieve a variety of aims but must be wary of the purpose and power of each.
- Check facts internally: Any information that is put forth on social media channels should be checked internally prior to online communication. If the information needs to be in real-time (such as consular service numbers, and emergency details) this should be regularly updated and checked so it is ready to go if a crisis is to occur. Regarding a MFA’s political leanings and their online publication, all embassies should be briefed on these positions and facts should be checked and double-checked before it is published online.
- Information overload: Although in today’s online environment, it is a constant task to compete for views, likes and shares, all of which increase as more material is broadcast. In times of crisis, there is such a thing as information overload where the user becomes overwhelmed with information, and fails to receive the information she or he needs. The MFA and Embassy should therefore avoid over-posting, instead transmitting a number of key points per day. Emergency and consular information should also be pinned at the top of the user profiles if the channels allow (Twitter and Facebook).
Dealing with Online Backlash
The increasing level of backlash and negative reactions experienced online by embassies and MFAsis a growing issue of concern for digital actors. In this instance, backlash was defined as a strong negative reaction towards a policy stance held by the government of the country of origin, carried out by online followers and directed towards online diplomatic actors. This may result from their position in respect of a conflict, unpopular domestic policies, or simply as result of their communication activities online.
During the DiploHack, embassies discussed possible scenarios where backlash could occur from diaspora communities and suggested a number of key points that a MFA and embassy should stick by when such situations might occur. The points are as follows:
- Avoid reacting too quickly: Online diplomatic actors should avoid immediately responding to a negative reaction, and instead take the time to consider it in a measured manner, preferably by directly correcting any false information, and by engaging with the audience, where possible.
- Don’t ignore: Linked to the point above, embassies are advised not to ignore completely posts that are inflammatory by nature, false or regarded as abusive to the embassy, MFA or other actors online. Ignoring such comments may allow false or incorrect information regarding the MFAs to remain online, and assists in distorting the MFA’s intended message.
- Counteract bad news: if dealing with increasing negative posts online crises, an embassy may seek to counter balance this with sporadic additions of more positive news online. Positive news story from back home may also be dispersed through the online feed. One thing to consider however, is that these posts should be seen as ‘too positive’, or making light of the situation, but simply there to keep the online feed as positive as possible. In other words, positive story telling should not cross the line into disinformation or propaganda.
Further details on #DigDiploROx activities and future events can be found here.