Americas

Digital Diplomacy in the Age of WikiLeaks


The 24-hour news cycle has not been kind to many individuals who have had their private correspondence hacked, and foreign policy leaders are not, unsurprisingly, exempt. The latest victim, former four-star General and Secretary of State Colin Powell, handled the scandal with aplomb, telling BuzzFeed News “Okay, bye bye,” when they reached out for comment, and was dubbed “Your Bitchiest Friend” by New York Magazine. Interestingly, the new outlets commenting on Powell’s foreign policy philosophy are not just the traditional heavy-hitters expected to be interested in theories about Obama’s ISIS policy (the Washington Post, New York Times, and so on), but also sites known for clickbait articles and gossip. On one side, this represents a triumph of sorts for advocates of digital diplomacy: sites popular for entertainment news and “listicles” are spreading information on foreign policy doctrine. On the other side, however, it may be considered the “celebritization” of a political figure, with the more “juicy” aspects of his emails, such as his digs at Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, overshadowing everything else. With email hacking, leaks, and digital public shaming becoming more prevalent, political figures will face the challenge of capitalizing on the benefits offered by digital diplomacy while avoiding the pitfalls that may arise if their private communications are released—or if they make a misstep in their public communications.

Image courtesy of DoD News Features, © 2014

Image courtesy of DoD News Features, © 2014

The digitalization of diplomacy allows individuals, organizations, and even states to communicate directly with a global audience through channels like Twitter, Facebook, and other digital media outlets. Over the last fifteen years, everyone from corporations to religious organizations to governments has been incorporating new practices in order to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the internet age. For foreign policy actors, this process of digital diplomacy has opened a new channel for the use of soft power—primarily concerned with shaping preferences through attraction or appeal. The State Department, for example, established the Office of eDiplomacy in 2003 to leverage innovations in technology and thereby advance knowledge-sharing and statecraft. Most political figureheads and foreign offices have Twitter and Facebook accounts, used to share their thoughts with individuals around the world. Non-traditional actors have also taken advantage of digitization: the Arab Spring’s spread is often credited to the populace’s use of Twitter.

Digitalization is a double-edged sword, though. Social media and international news outlets can be powerful tools for spreading influence and shaping global perception, two crucial aspects of diplomacy; however, leaks of private information and the ease of public shaming online can destroy the reputations eDiplomacy practitioners have worked to build. Global public shaming is notoriously effective at destroying lives, though it is typically used against people who are not already in the spotlight, such as Justine Sacco, who tweeted “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before boarding a flight to South Africa, and Walter Palmer, who unknowingly hunted a beloved lion named Cecil. Sites like WikiLeaks (though not involved in the Colin Powell email leak) allow for the exposure of classified or restricted documents penned by politicians and other internationally known figures, and dozens of these leaks have received international media scrutiny.

Luckily for Colin Powell, the release of his emails does not seem to have made him into a villain like Sacco or Palmer, and, as he is already retired, he is in no danger of losing his job. Powell has faced a different issue. The policy discussions and theory descriptions provided in his emails have been largely overshadowed by the way in which his critiques were written, with his apparent “scorn” for Trump, “talent for bitchiness,” and “blasts” of Hillary Clinton topping the headlines. His thoughts on the effects of the Brexit vote and Israel’s nuclear arsenal appear lower on the docket. Powell is getting his 15 minutes of fame from his colorful turns of phrase, rather than the substance of his communications.

Digital diplomacy is certainly not going away, nor should it. Social media has proven to be an effective medium for soft power. Did you know Sweden and Denmark have a charming Twitter rivalry? Vox does, and the number of social network users is estimated to grow substantially over the next few years, making it an ideal platform to reach a large number of people around the world. It is also, though, an effective medium for widespread public shaming, and statements are often stripped of context to create click-worthy headlines. Leaks and hacks of private documents can also easily find a global audience. Foreign policy actors looking to build their digital presence—as well as anyone in a position of power, really—will have to shape their narratives by taking great care in how they phrase everything they write, whether it is a public Twitter post or a private email to a colleague. The likelihood of this happening seems slim, though. In that case, we will have to wait for the next email hack to see more juicy details revealed.

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