2017 in review: top 10 digital diplomacy moments

From tech ambassadors to countering terrorism online, 2017 shows that digital diplomacy is evolving.

These are my picks for top moments in digital diplomacy. They don’t necessarily reflect how most see digital diplomacy — the use of social media for diplomacy and foreign policy.

Certainly, social media is the most visible side of digital diplomacy. And it continued to be in 2017.

However, slowly but surely, digital diplomacy has been evolving into a true policy tool beyond the real of communications and public diplomacy.

  • In 2017, countries like Denmark and France appointed so called ‘tech ambassadors’ with Denmark even opening an tech embassy in Silicon Valley with satellite offices in Copenhagen and China.
  • Also in 2017, the fight against extremism online intensified: the international community discussed the topic in many multilateral fora and tech companies formed the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.
  • In a complex ecosystem where online threats to democracy and cybersecurity are important priorities, the collaboration between government and civil society is key, as the launch of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace shown.

In 2017, social media and social media best practices remained an important element in the development of digital diplomacy as a practice, with prime minister Justin Trudeau of Canada consolidating his digital stardomship.


Here are my picks:

1. A NEW ERA OF TECH DIPLOMACY

Earlier this year, WIRED featured Casper Klynge, Denmark’s new ambassador to the tech industry, possibly the world’s first-ever envoy to Silicon Valley and technology companies. Explaining the novelty, Chris Stokel-Walker of Wired writes: “What’s different is who he’s lobbying” — as opposed as another country, like a bilateral ambassador would do, or an international organization for multilateral ambassadors.

In the inaugural podcast podcast of a new series hosted by Mikkel Larsen of the Danish Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Klynge talks about his first few months in the new job:

The interest from other countries around Klynge’s new role and posting seems to be quite high and, in an interview with Politico, he said: “Judging from the interest from other countries, I’ll probably not be the last one.”

And he was right. France too has now appointed its own tech ambassador. In November, French president Emmanuel Macron and his cabinet named David Martinon “ambassador for digital affairs” with jurisdiction over Internet governance, cybersecurity, freedom of expressions and human rights. A key priority will also be building and nurturing “a direct dialogue with major American digital platforms on combating the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes.”


2. COUNTERING EXTREMISM ONLINE

2017 has been a key year for the fight against extremism online.

The topic was discussed both at the United Nations — during a high level meeting hosted by Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, French president Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Theresa May on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. It was also discussed at the G7 Summit in Taormina, Italy, and at the G20 in Germany.

Responding to calls from the international community, in the summer, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube are announcing the formation of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. It formalizes and structures existing and future areas of collaboration between companies in tech industry and fosters cooperation with smaller tech companies, civil society groups, and academics, governments and supra-national bodies such as the EU and the UN.


3. SOFT POWER SHIFT

The third edition of the Soft Power 30 index — the world’s most comprehensive comparative assessment of global soft power, compiled by Portland Communications and USC Center on Public Diplomacy — 2017 signaled a shift in soft power, with the US loosing its top spot and sliding down to third.

France secured the top spot in the index, while the UK maintained the second position.

“France’s greatest strength lies in its vast diplomatic network,” the report reads. “It is unrivaled in terms of membership to multilateral and international organizations, as well as in its diplomatic cultural missions.”

The report also highlights how president “Macron’s digital savvy has been critical to France’s success” following in the footsteps of CanadianPM Justin Trudeau and Argentinian president Mauricio Macri, “who each used social media to galvanize their domestic and international audiences while riding a wave of popularity to electoral victory.”


4. A CANADIAN SUPERSTAR

In 2017, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau consolidated even more his digital superstardom, at home and abroad. He also made LinkedIn’s Top Voices for the year, the only head of state or government.

“Prime Minister Trudeau discusses the policies his government is putting in place to improve the lives of everyday Canadians — and why that matters around the world,” a post by Daniel Roth reads.

“In particular, he likes to share about his government’s business and economic ideas, which attract particularly high attention among professionals.”

Before heading to the annual G7 leaders’ summit this year, Trudeau spelled out the role of today’s leaders: “We live in a time of tremendous change,” he writes on LinkedIn.

We have a responsibility to share the benefits of an increasingly interconnected world, and to help those who are at risk of being left behind.

5. THE NEW GUARDIANS OF CYBERSPACE

Conflicts between states have now moved to the cyberspace. The peaceful use of the Internet and technology is threatened, putting our freedoms, economies, and security at stake. Given the plethora of actors and players, and the complexity of the ecosystem, in February, the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace was launched on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

It is a unique initiative that brings together key voices representing government, industry, academia and civil society. It aims to create policy recommendations and norms of responsible behaviors that are coherent and broadly supported by all stakeholders to enhance the stability and security of cyberspace.

The initiative was announced by the government of the Netherlands, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) and the EastWest Institute (EWI) with principal supporters including the Internet Society (ISOC) and Microsoft.

“Cyberspace is becoming increasingly exploited. It requires greater coordination among us all. It needs the development of norms to provide a stable and secure environment. So we can all benefit,” said Bert Koenders, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

We are on the threshold of a new era. It’s time to safeguard our cyberspace.

The Global Commission, to be based in The Hague, will be chaired by Marina Kaljurand, former Foreign Minister of Estonia, and will be comprised of over two dozen prominent independent commissioners, from over 15 countries, with the expertise and legitimacy to speak on different aspects of cyberspace.


6. A FAMOUSLY INFAMOUS SELFIE COMES TO LIGHT

While the most shared selfie of all times is the one taken by Ellen DeGeneres at the 2014 Oscars, the most infamous selfie of world politics was taken by former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa in December 2013. In the selfie also former US president Barack Obama and former British prime minister David Cameron.

But where was it posted?

Apparently, nowhere… Although there are photo of Thorning Schmidt texting or posting on social media.

“It was such an amazing day,” the former Danish Prime Minister told the audience at a Fortune’s Most Powerful Women event in 2016, describing the atmosphere at the Mandela memorial. “This was my first selfie and I had just learned it from my teenage daughters.”

“I kept asking myself if it was a good thing or a bad thing,” she said jokingly. “But because it made me so famous, I have to say it was a good thing.”

The original selfie taken by Thorning Schmidt was finally published and released to the public this past October in the tell-all book What Doesn’t Kill You(original title in Danish: Hvad Man Ikke Dør Af).


7. THE HASHTAG AT 10

Can you imagine any digital diplomacy social media campaign without hashtags?

Chris Messina launched the idea of using the pound symbol for groups in a tweet 10 years ago today. The hashtag was born August 23, 2007 — and forever it changed social media and the way we engage online.

Biz Stone celebrated the hashtag 10th anniversary with a blog post on Twitter saying “The hashtag was born on Twitter 10 years ago today, and it has become one of the most recognizable and widely used symbols of our time.”

When I interviewed Chris in April 2014 for my book Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy (via Rowman & Littlefield and Amazon), he told me: “Like most technologies, the hashtag itself is a neutral amplifier.”

Wielded effectively, it can spark conversations or revolutions, or can be used to mislead or obfuscate. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that social media is a reflection of the people who use it and the contexts in which they’re found.

And the hashtag has certainly shaped the way governments, world leaders, and diplomats have been engaging and communicating with their audiences.


8. FACEBOOK LIVE FOR DIPLOMACY

According to the latest Twiplomacy study by communications and public affairs firm Burson-Marsteller, Twitter is the most popular social media tool among world leaders and governments.

Facebook is only the second. It is, however, “where they have the biggest audience,” the study highlights.

The study shows that “the heads of state and government, and foreign ministers, of 169 countries are present on the platform, representing 88 percent of all UN member states.”

In 2017, Facebook Live in particular has seen an increased used by world leaders, politicians, and diplomats.

For example, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop went live on Facebook for a Q&A on Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper. The host asked her: “What do you try to achieve with a Facebook live event?.” She replied: “We think it’s very important to have as broad a consultation as possible about what Australian want to see about their foreign policy — […]to make foreign policy less foreign — so people can relate to how foreign policy relates to their day-to-day lives.”

Another example was a video selfie posted in June by Hollywood actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Facebook during a meeting with French president Macron in response to president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Accord on climate change: 100,000 likes on Facebook, almost 5,000 comments, 13,000 shares, and more than 1 million views in the first 24 hours!

“We will deliver together to make the planet great again,” says Macron standing right next to Schwarzenegger.

The live phenomenon in general has become more prominent in 2017, also on Snapchat, where the Schwarzenegger-Macron duo also posted during the One Planet climate summit in Paris celebrating the first anniversary of the climate accord.


9. THE POPE ON WHATSAPP?

Pope Francis is a powerhouse when it comes to communicating via social media. He is one of the most followed world leaders on Twitter and Instagram… But is he also on WhatsApp?

In December, Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke went to Twitter to deny rumors that the Pope was using the instant messaging platform. “He does not send messages or blessings through this medium,” he wrote.

The statement was in response to an announcement by the Pope Francis Foundation, a Catholic organization in Argentina, about the launch of Wabot-Papa Francisco, a chatbot that allows users to contact the Pope and keep up-to-date with his schedule.

“You can also have a simulated chat with His Holiness. Wabot technology allows the entire Catholic community or people of any other faith to interact with the Pope,” the foundation said.


10. THE HEADSCARF EMOJI

In celebration of World Emoji Day in July, Apple previewed some of the new emoji coming to iOS, macOS, and watchOS. Among them, a headscarf-wearing character approved by Unicode, a non-profit international consortium, back in November 2016.

According to Al Jazeera, 15-year-old Rayouf Alhumedhi submitted a proposal to Unicode in September 2016, pointing out that there was no image that represented her. Her online campaign, the Hijab Emoji Project, noted that some Christian and Jewish women also wear headscarves, along with hundreds of millions of Muslims.

“The new Emoji make it easier for users to express themselves with greater diversity, additional animals and creatures, new smiley faces and more,” Apple said in a statement.

And indeed, emojis have become an important way express ourselves on social media.


11. MY SPECIAL MENTION: ECA AT STATE

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the U.S. Department of State has been very active on digital platforms:

  • their #IEW2017 campaign in November brought people and embassies around the world together to celebrate International Education Week;
  • they’ve explored hip-hop diplomacy with an impromptu 360 video at Washington DC’s Ben’s Chili Bowl;