Challenges in the Age of Digital Diplomacy!

Written By: Shakeel Ahmad Ramay

Digital diplomacy can be used to create chaos, confusion or unrest. Additionally it has the potential to sabotage country to country relations if not used appropriately. The digital front is as important as others for those who deal with national security. Pakistan is experiencing this new onslaught these days!

Twentieth century was supposed to be the age of diplomacy when the Soviet Union and the U.S. representing communist and capitalist blocs respectively, started developing relations with other countries through the diplomatic means. Both the superpowers used different diplomatic tools and dynamics to make themselves aligned with the states, especially the developing world, to keep their ideologies and interests intact. In the second and third decades of 20th century, public diplomacy came into prominence and the world redefined the term diplomacy.

 

 challengesintheage.jpgRadio was used actively to disseminate national messages and agenda to influence people of the target countries. It turned successful and policy influence started appearing at mass level. With the USA and UK at the forefront, they were later joined by the Germans, Russians, etc. Voice of America and BBC were established by U.S. and the UK respectively with the aim to enhance their influence in the public diplomacy domain. 20th century ended with the introduction of new tools of public diplomacy like the Internet/cyberspace.

 

With the dawn of 21st century, a totally new system of change and transformation was developed which was based on digital space, information revolution, and use of ICT. Information revolution and digital space altered the way of living, diplomacy and warfare. Till the end of 20th century, the governments were the only legitimate players and any breach from outside was considered a crime. Today, everybody is a stakeholder and has the right to share information and ideas. Diplomats cannot live in isolation. To share information and seek guidance from the wider community, they opted for newer techniques of communication. Currently, more than two billion people are connected through the digital space. It has increased the number of stakeholders.

 

Going further, it is essential to understand digital diplomacy, its different aspects and methods of implementation. Digital diplomacy refers to the methods of engagement, sharing data, information and other materials of national interest. However, there may be deviations on the basis of individual preferences and methods of communication. Secondly, it is not a formal or traditional negotiation rather it is a way of engagement at a wider scale for a two-way communication.

 

Precisely, digital diplomacy is a new form of public diplomacy to influence the opinions, propagate agendas, build narratives and communicate messages directly to the governments and people simultaneously, etc.

 

Twiplomacy 2017 pointed out that 92 percent of the world leaders, diplomats and UN officials are connected through twitter. Apart from its merits and demerits, digital diplomacy can be used for inclusive development objectives at global and national levels. There are examples when foreign missions used digital space to communicate with people in conflict-hit areas. During the Libyan War and Arab Spring, embassies remained in contact with their people by using social networking websites. Digital diplomacy can be used to create chaos, confusion or unrest. Additionally, it has the potential to sabotage country to country relations if not used appropriately. The digital front is as important as others for those who deal with national security. Pakistan is experiencing this new onslaught these days!

 

However, it is vital to mention that digital space is a tool to propagate message and agenda by applying different traditional indicators like culture, economy, education and self-interpreted values. Diplomatic communities across the world engage people by sharing brighter sides of their culture and values, might of their economic and military power and supremacy in education and technology. Cultural evasion is one of the most effective tools of digital diplomacy. Its impact on psychology of nations is more sustainable than kinetic warfare. It has different tools like film industry, life style, ideological evasion and education etc. The West has successfully applied these tools to strengthen their supremacy and influence. Now India is also using this against Pakistan, as once Ms. Sonia Gandhi mentioned in her speech.

 

Today, everybody is the stakeholder and has the right to share information and ideas. Diplomats cannot live in isolation. To share information and seek guidance from the wider community, they opted for newer techniques of communication. Currently, more than two billion people are connected through the digital space. It has increased the number of stakeholders.

A bird’s eye view of the activities of the diplomatic community would clearly support the argument. Similarly, digital space is also used to propagate and demoralize other countries by creating confusion, chaos and targeting values and norms of other countries. In recent times, digital space has emerged as a new way of warfare.

 

The current U.S. President, Donald Trump uses digital diplomacy to create fear and to pursue U.S. national interest. He has given new meanings to digital diplomacy and communication with diverse stakeholders. He tweets about each and every thing and even threatened the countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan through his tweets. North Korea went on a “Twitter War” with President Trump and both sides bypassed the established norms of diplomatic channels. Trump’s recent tweet about Pakistan created a huge fuss and rang alarm bells among the diplomatic lot and peace-loving people of both the countries. Although Pakistan showed restraint, it tried to reply in the most appropriate manner. Now, diplomats and military officials from both sides are engaged in damage control.

 

Pakistan is under target in digital space even for its purely development initiatives. Campaigns have been designed in the digital space to malign countries to create stumbling blocks for hindering the course of development. Best example for Pakistan is the undue criticism on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Most social websites and networks are flooded with disinformation and tempered statistics. These are being used to create misunderstanding and confusion among provinces and people. We can count the numerous times when wrong information and statistics were shared with people through social media and networks.

 

First, confusion was created on the route, then on SEZs (special economic zones) and now on repayment. Other example can be quoted from bilateral relations’ damage, which Pakistan is confronted with. If we analyze social media and networks, it seems that Afghanistan has the worst relation with Pakistan. However, the actual picture is altogether different. There are millions of Afghan who feel closely associated with Pakistan and the people of Pakistan.

 

This phenomenon does not stop here. Pakistan also faces problems at global level. Digital space is being used to malign Pakistan on different fronts. For example, Pakistan is being labeled as supporter of terrorists in Afghanistan and it is being propagated throughout the world. Although Pakistan has rendered great sacrifices both in term of lives and properties, the global community is not ready to acknowledge it because of the propaganda against it. This propaganda culminated at a very harsh and non-factual tweet by President Trump.

 

Apart from this, Pakistan is also targeted on charges of victimizing women, minorities, and marginalized groups. Fake news, videos and incidents are shared through social media and used to incite conflict against country. An old case of a video screening beating women by Taliban in Swat can be quoted as a classic example.

 

Data is another important area of digital space that is being collected and used without the permission of people. Facebook is one of the biggest social network website and it possesses individuals’ data whoever joins it. It is also true for other social network websites like twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Data is being used for economic, political and security purposes. In Europe and USA, political parties use this data to run their political campaigns. It is believed that it was used in Brexit and Donald Trump’s election campaign. Later, judiciary had to intervene to stop it.

 

Social network websites are also being used to propagate special messages and agendas. Pakistan has observed this in the past and is observing it so far as well. In recent past, some bloggers used these websites to spread material against Islamic and national values. These bloggers specifically targeted prominent personalities and Islamic beliefs, which created unrest among the people.

 

Digital space is also being used to instigate emotional outburst and violent protests by targeting sacred personalities. Few years back some controversial videos were uploaded on YouTube which targeted Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Islam. It caused protests and strong opposition by many Muslim countries. As a result Pakistan banned YouTube for a long time. Digital space has provided space for hidden messages and use of non-diplomatic communities to propagate national agenda. India is using some of the Baloch leaders and other people to portray a bad image of Pakistan.

 

In this context, Pakistan needs to pro-actively pursue innovations in the digital space and use it for public diplomacy–the most effective method to enhance its outreach and influence.

 

In order to devise a national strategy for digital diplomacy, there are a number of areas to focus on. Initially, the digital space can be used to highlight:

 

a.            Supreme sacrifices in the war on terror.

b.            Rich cultural heritage.

c.             Achievements in sports.

d.            Contributions in research and development.

 

To promote its soft image, Pakistan should develop a digital directory of the most ancient cultural sites, venues and activities. It is blessed with one of the oldest civilizations, which makes us distinct from the rest of world. Pakistan should promote these sites as venues of tourism and to create harmony among the people. We should also highlight our contribution to art, drama and music. Sports is another field, wherein the country has produced some of the finest players.

 

Pakistan is home to some ancient and new religions like Buddhism and Sikhism. It can attract international community, especially of these religions, in the light of religious tolerance and harmony.

Pakistan needs to formulate a comprehensive policy and strategy by applying matrix of DIMEC (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economics, Culture). Foreign Office can take the lead by setting up a portal to tackle these areas supported by the military and information, commerce & economic ministries. For this purpose, we also need to channelize the public diplomacy wing at the foreign office, as it is not well-equipped, both in terms of human resources and technical setup. On the other hand, a dedicated team of professionals from the field of digital world should be engaged. In a nutshell, we should take both active and passive measures to deal with this new dimension of diplomacy and warfare. On one hand we need to shield our masses from negative effects of digital space cleverly used by our enemies, and on the other hand we also take it as an opportunity and use the digital space to promote a soft and positive image of Pakistan.

 

The writer is a research scholar at SDPI with expertise in global diplomacy, climate change, Water-Food-Energy Nexus, and Track-II diplomacy. He teaches digital diplomacy, negotiation skills and conflict transformation at Foreign Services Academy.

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