‘I’m not a big Twitter person.’
Carleton University Professor David Carment expressed a less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the Canadian government’s efforts at digital diplomacy during a segment for Radio International Canada. He echoes a general worry that complex discussions, such as matters of state, cannot translate into the more colloquial 140 characters of a tweet.
This worry is often shared by corporations and CEOs — that a tweet doesn’t carry the gravity or seriousness required in high-stakes, complicated situations. Moreover, they are afraid of the immediacy of responses. Often, you don’t have the time to allow for tweets to go through a ladder of approvals to reply and be active online.
But if bureaucratic agencies and world leaders are using social media to engage audiences on everything from security issues to an international refugee crisis, it’s safe to say the worriers are underestimating the platform.
What is digital diplomacy?
In its simplest form, it’s how governments use social media to engage in foreign relations with both state officials and everyday citizens. This is done with varying levels of success, but the intention is to embrace an open format and create another dialogue for diplomatic issues. However, without the formal boundaries and borders of traditional diplomacy, this dialogue often bleeds into other forms of dialogue that include civil society activism, policy development, and general public affairs communication with audiences both foreign and domestic.
Six years ago, Canada was considered a digital diplomacy laggard. We have since dedicated resources and time to exploring how our government can expand its social media presence. This includes an investment in the Digital Public Square at the Munk School of Global Affairs, an initiative that focuses on open online spaces for citizens living under repressive governments. The project started in 2013 by facilitating a dialogue between Iranian citizens and the Iranian diaspora in Canada, expanding beyond the traditional concepts of foreign ministries. In 2014, Canada was recognized in Twiplomacy, an annual global study of world leaders and governments’ Twitter activity, for having dedicated accounts for most of the country’s missions and embassies. The study also measures the online influence of global leaders by aggregating their tweets, retweets, and interactions on Twitter.
The challenge with digital diplomacy, and digital public affairs, isn’t that Twitter or other forms of social media lack sophistication. Anyone who has ever given a presentation knows that the difficult part isn’t the presentation itself; it’s the Q and A that follows. You need to be able to speak on your issue and also be prepared for the ways in which your issue can spread and create new topics and lines of dialogue.
The government gets it and you can too:
It’s not just getting your content on social media, how you do it matters just as much. The Internet is an open forum, and response, tone and nuance are all paramount in what should be approached as an ongoing conversation. That the conversation often involves memes or vines doesn’t make it any less effective — often the opposite — and anyone who thinks it unsophisticated does so at their peril. Take, for example, the Canadian NATO delegation’s quick ‘geography’ lesson for Russia.
— Canada at NATO 🇨🇦 (@CanadaNATO) August 27, 2014
The difficulty then is in actually embracing the open forum and creating content for participatory platforms. It’s understanding that you’re there to talk with people and not at them. To use it, you can’t think of yourself as bigger than the medium – dense jargon and opaque or vague descriptions don’t play well with others. It can be easy to forget that serious issues don’t necessarily require anything more than straight-forward conversations.
So if you’re not a ‘big Twitter person,’ perhaps it’s less about Twitter and more about your approach: it’s hard to be successful on social media without being, in fact, social.
Title photo: “tweet” by mozzercork