2018 in review: top 10 digital diplomacy moments

It is that time of the year to compile “best of” lists and make an assessment on where we are and where we’re heading.

Year after year, the world of digital diplomacy evolves and adapts quite fast. New trends form, best practices are set, and new actors emerge. However, content and behaviors of world leaders, governments, and political figures tend to overwhelm the news cycle and timelines obfuscate a bit what happens on the policy side of digital diplomacy.

In 2018, social media is still the most visible side of digital diplomacy — a fact that is reflected in this very 2018 in review list: a lot has been said about the use of Twitter by U.S. president Donald Trump; about occasional viral content on social media platforms; live videos and selfies; and new best practices and inspiring moments. This list only mentions a few examples.

But foreign policy, not just public diplomacy and diplomatic communications, has seen new momentum, with a renewed focus on tech for good; the techplomacy movement initiated by Denmark; censorship; the role of tech platforms in countering hate speech and terrorism.

As always, your feedback is more than welcomed. Add your comments to this story to highlight other top moments in digital diplomacy and complete this list.


So, here they are! My top ten moments in digital diplomacy in 2018 (in no particular order):

1. WORLD LEADERS LOVE SELFIES

2018 has made clear that selfies are one of the best tools to engage with audiences around the world, even for world leaders. And even for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

On the eve of his summit with President Trump in Singapore, the man that Trump himself denounced as “little rocket man” was spotted downtown “taking selfies with local leaders and drawing crowds of bemused onlookers,” as the Wall Street Journal reported in the summer.

While touring the city state, Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan took a selfie with the North Korean leader and posted the photo on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, totaling around 40,000 between likes and retweets on all social media platforms.

“Such public exposure in a foreign country is unusual for Mr. Kim, whose visit to Singapore was just his fourth trip outside of North Korea since he took power in late 2011,” explained the Wall Street Journal.

But Kim Jong Un’s first-ever selfie was not the only selfie of 2018. Other notable selfies are Theresa May’s with French President Emmanuel Macron during a UK-France summit in London in January, and a selfie with CanadianPM Justin Trudeau, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the British capital during the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April.

And finally, one of this year’s most talked-about selfie was one posted by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a large group of Bollywood actors,including Randhir Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Sara Ali Khan, Imtiaz Ali, Madhur Bhandarkar, Nikkhil Advani, Abhishek Kapoor, and Subhash Ghai, during a visit to Mumbai, India. The photograph was taken by industry veteran Amitabh Bachchan.

“Will my Bollywood selfie beat @TheEllenShow Hollywood selfie at the Oscars?,” Netanyahu tweeted, referring to Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie at the 2014 Oscars, the second most retweeted tweet of all time.


2. WORLD LEADERS RESPOND TO TRUMP’S TWEETS

“How Donald Trump’s use of Twitter has changed Diplomacy,” states the 2018 Twiplomacy study. In terms of numbers, the US President is the most followed world leader on Twitter with close to 60 million followers. The Pope and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi complete the top 3, both with a bit over 40 million followers.

What was interesting to observe in 2018 was the way world leaders respond to tweets by President Trump. The way they engage and react varies and most of the times they rarely use the same platform to respond directly.

“Most world leaders have decided not to reply publicly on Twitter to the undiplomatic tweets of @realDonaldTrump, probably afraid to pick a Twitter fight and not to sour relations with the most powerful and most followed world leader on Twitter,” told us Matthias Lüfkens of the Twiplomacy study. “By ignoring his diatribes and bullying tactics, world leaders are conducting a dangerous policy of appeasement, which allows the U.S. President to always have the last word or tweet,” he continued.

“It is time for world leaders to rebuff Donald Trump publicly with a coordinated Twitter reply,” Lüfkens said.

French President Macron is one of the latest heads of state and government to respond to President Trump after one of his tweets. Trump’s tweets came two days after returning from France, where he had attended ceremonies hosted by Macron commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

While not responding directly on Twitter, Macron addressed Trump’s tweets during a televised interview.

“I do not do policy or diplomacy by tweets,” Macron said.

“At each important moment in our history we have been allies, and between allies there is respect and I do not want to hear the rest,” the French President said after detailing French-American mutual support since 1776, when the Marquis de Lafayette fought with the struggling 13 colonies in the Revolutionary War — an alliance that has lasted through today’s war on terrorism.

Mr. Trump’s tweets were aimed at his domestic constituency, Mr. Macron said. He is “doing American politics,” Mr. Macron said.

Macron is not the first government official to respond to Trump’s tweets.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan took to Twitter to respond to statements released by Trump during an interview on Fox News. Trump said: “We’re supporting Pakistan, we’re giving them $1.3 billion a year, which we don’t give them any more by the way, I ended it, because they don’t do anything for us, they don’t do a damn thing for us.”

In the summer, Trump reacted on Twitter to Justin Trudeau’s press conference following the closing of the G7 summit in Charlevoix.

Trudeau’s response came in the form of a statement, released on Twitter by Cameron Ahmad, Deputy Director of Communications at the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.


3. A PEACE THREAD

This is the most brilliant use of a Twitter thread.

It was started by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, followed by tweets by Twitter, the UN, the UN Youth Envoy, the UN Refugee Agency, UNICEF, the FAO Newsroom, and many others.

“When we first suggested the Secretary-General tweet one word ‘peace’, it actually was just mentioned in passing, kind of a joke,” explained Nancy Groves, head of the social media team at the United Nations in New York. “We had been talking a lot with him and his advisors about how shorter tweets can often be more effective, so a one-word tweet was pushing the ‘shorter is better’ mantra to the extreme. So we were surprised that he liked the idea.”

Groves continued: “We expected it would get some attention, but the idea for Twitter to respond was all on the Twitter Public Policy team. That took us by surprise, but it was really fun to see others join in. The response was so positive. It was a nice change from so many other depressing things you see when you spend so much time on social media.”

According to groves, the response to the tweet “also gave our social media team a little burst of energy since #PeaceDay came right in the midst of our very busy preparations to welcome world leaders to the UN Headquarters the following week.”


Video via Bloomberg on Facebook.

4. THE FIRST BABY OF NEW ZEALAND GOES VIRAL AT THE U.N.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made history this past September in New York as the first world leader to attend the 73rd United Nations General Assembly with her baby in tow.

Ardern appeared with her three-month-old daughter Neve Te Aroha at the UN before giving a speech at the Nelson Mandela peace summit. While she spoke, Ardern’s partner Clarke Gayford held the three-month-old baby on his lap.

Neve went viral on social media and the New Zealand Mission to the UN even “whipped up” — to use Clarke Gayford’s words — an un-official ID badge for the “first baby.”


5. DIGITAL DIPLOMACY ON FACEBOOK

Facebook’s Politics and Government Outreach team has put together a guide titled Digital Diplomacy on Facebook.

The guide shows “why Facebook is the ideal place to leverage soft power resources and inspire respect and affinity on the part of your public through your country's cultural assets, political ideas, and policies.”

The guide, presented to the Washington diplomatic community in November, and earlier this year in Mexico and India, includes best practices and instructions on how governments, world leaders, and diplomats empower the platform to engage with audiences around the world. As of 2018, 91% of world governments are on Facebook, 109 heads of state have a presence on the platform, 86 prime ministers, and 72 foreign ministers.

“Facebook plays an important role in this new age of Digital Diplomacy,” the guide reads. “Facebook provides a window into Foreign Ministries, Embassies, and the diplomatic world that did not previously exist. We give diplomats an opportunity to showcase their work and their countries — from its economic strengths to its natural beauty — and speak directly with people of different backgrounds.”

A look at Facebook’s 2018 Year In Review shows that issues that are often part of a foreign policy agenda, like women’s rights around the world, are something that Facebook users care about and talk about on the platform.

“For the second year in a row, International Women’s Day on March 8 was the #1 most talked about moment of the year,” writes Sheida Neman, research manager at Facebook. “But in 2018, IWD conversation was about more than the day itself. Women and men around the world discussed a wide range of topics, issues and causes related to women.”


6. DANISH TECHPLOMACY 2019–2020

Following the appointment last year of Casper Klynge as the first-ever tech ambassador to Silicon Valley and the global tech industry, the Danish Government has now launched a new Foreign and Security Policy Strategy 2019–2020.

With the new strategy, the Government presents its plans for navigating Denmark through a changing world order:

  • Strengthen Denmark’s cyber and information security through international engagement
  • Promote EU leadership in a new digital world order
  • Build global alliances with the tech industry
  • Engage the UN and bridge the digital divide in developing countries
  • Leverage Denmark’s position as digital frontrunner from trade, research, and innovation

”The world today is a better place to live than ever before. But at the same time the world is far more unpredictable,” said Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen. “Global power relations are shifting, and the rules-based international cooperation that has been defining the global development is under pressure. These developments place great demands for Denmark’s foreign and security policy. We must engage in the world, fight for our values and actively pursue our interests. Only this way can we ensure that Denmark will continue to be among the world’s most free, safe and prosperous countries in the future”.


7. WEIBO AND CENSORSHIP

A 2018 report by Fergus Ryan for ASPI Cyber Policy provides an in-depth look at the increasingly sophisticated censorship methods being used on foreign embassies on Weibo and provides a series of recommendations for foreign governments, including Australia, to address these policy challenges.

“Since its inception in 2009, Sina Weibo — China’s souped-up version of Twitter — has provided a rare foothold for foreign governments in the PRC’s tightly-controlled media environment,” writes Ryan. “Yet while the PRC is allowed free reign to push its messages in Western media and social media platforms, Beijing’s censors have been hampering the legitimate digital diplomacy efforts of foreign embassies.”


8. TECH FOR GOOD SUMMIT IN PARIS

In May, French President Macron welcomed at Élysée Palace 60+ technology leaders and chief executive officers for the Tech for Good Summit to talk about how technology can contribute to the common good and how it can be leveraged around three topics — education, labor, and diversity.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame was among the guests, as were UNESCO Director Audrey Azoulay, Mitchell Baker, President of the Mozilla Foundation, and Jimmy Wales, Founder of the Wikimedia Foundation. Also in attendance Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Alexandre Dayon of Salesforce, Stewart Butterfield of Slack, and John Collison, co-founder and CEO of Stripe.

The full list of participants can be found on TechCrunch.


9. FIGHTING TERRORISM ONLINE

A new report by the Executive Directorate of the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (UN-CTED) shows how “the collaborative efforts of Member States, international organizations, the private sector and civil society have made it increasingly difficult for terrorist groups — particularly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh) and its affiliates — to exploit large social media platforms for terrorist purposes.”

However, the reports indicates that “measures to counter the overt social media presence of ISIL, and other terrorists and terrorist groups, has caused a shift in their use of the Internet and an increase in their use of smaller, less visible platforms to store and share their material.”

According to Tech Against Terrorism there are “more than 200 platforms actively used by terrorist groups to disseminate content” and it is estimated that between July and December 2017, terrorist material appeared for the first time on almost 150 online services.

“Many of these platforms lack the resources required to detect and remove it and are less easily monitored by Government agencies,” stated CTED.


10. THE FIRST G7 ON SNAPCHAT

Canada’s 2018 chairmanship of the G7 was the first-ever to bring the G7 and its work behind the scenes to Snapchat.

After becoming the first world leader to host a Q&A on Snapchat last year, Prime Minister Trudeau and his government opted to open up the G7 to younger audiences and use Snapchat as an official channel for the G7, alongside Twitter (the only social media profile to be passed over from one presidency to the next since 2015), Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and Flickr.

Stefano Maron, former social media lead for the 2018 G7 under Canadian presidency explained: “We used Snapchat to interact with youth. Snapchat was a platform where we could reach young people directly — we could speak to them in their voice and in their space. The result was engaging an audience that likely wouldn’t have heard from us anywhere else.”

“For many people, the G7 is a bit of a mystery. We wanted to change that,” Maron said.

“We wanted to demystify the G7 by making Canada’s Presidency the most transparent and accessible ever,” he continued. “That meant opening up the G7 to audiences that are sometimes less attentive to what their governments are doing. Every piece of content was created with that in mind. The goal was to build an organic relationship with our audience, so we only posted something if it was exciting and provided a unique perspective.”