Analysis | How to make public diplomacy more resilient to disinformation

E.U. and U.S. diplomats in Central and Eastern Europe offer valuable lessons.

The following blog post is based on a report the author researched and produced through the ISD Fellows in Diplomacy program. Read the full report.

Jonas Heering

A French protester holds up a cardboard sign, reading “Infirmier non-vaccine” in a crowd of other protesters.
French protesters at a rally against vaccine passports and vaccine mandates for COVID-19. (Image: Jordan Bracco on Unsplash)

As governments race to vaccinate their populations against COVID-19, several countries are using vaccine diplomacy to expand their influence. Some governments, however, are going even further than supplying their signature jabs and encouraging foreign audiences to take them; they also seek to discredit those vaccines supplied by others. In a recent report, the European Union’s diplomatic service warned that the Russian and Chinese governments are using “disinformation and manipulation efforts to undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, E.U. institutions and Western/European vaccination strategies.”

This finding highlights the broader challenge that disinformation poses to E.U. and U.S. public diplomacy: for democratic states, public diplomacy’s appeal and effectiveness are dependent on their ability to build and maintain public trust. Disinformation, defined in the E.U. report ass “false or misleading content that is spread with an intention to deceive or secure economic or political gain,” undermines that trust. In an increasingly competitive information environment, E.U. and U.S. public diplomacy will have to adapt to become more resilient and remain effective.

Soft power vs. sharp power

When dealing with non-adversarial countries, governments usually rely on soft power (as opposed to hard power). Soft power refers to a country’s ability to influence foreign populations through attraction and persuasion. Public diplomacy — the public-facing component of diplomacy — is a key tool to exert soft power. In the past year, it has become deeply intertwined with vaccine diplomacy. Democratic and authoritarian governments alike can exert soft power. But the latter are also increasingly employing a more pernicious type of power — sharp power — which seeks to “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information environments in the targeted countries.” Social media-enabled disinformation is a central vehicle of sharp power.

The proliferation of authoritarian sharp power threatens democratic soft power. Some have claimed that democracies “have little to fear in open competition with autocracies for soft power,” because sharp power does not foster cooperation and goodwill among the states and populations targeted. But that assessment fails to capture the intended effect of sharp power. Soft power relies on the appeal of democracy, which is built on trust in institutions, norms of openness, and the free flow of information. By exposing the vulnerabilities of this open democratic information environment, sharp power poses a fundamental challenge to democratic soft power.

Lessons from Europe

The good news is that democracies don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make public diplomacy more resilient to the effects of sharp power. Many E.U. and U.S. embassies across Central and Eastern Europe, where Russia has used disinformation campaigns to undermine Western for years, have already developed tools and strategies to do so. I interviewed nearly a dozen current and former E.U. and U.S. diplomats who have worked in (or on) Serbia and Ukraine to distill some of these strategies into recommendations.

First, public diplomacy campaigns should rely on clear and simple language and convey compelling narratives of their local impact. Disinformation thrives in an environment of uncertainty and ambiguity. By ensuring transparency of public diplomacy campaigns and removing technical language from communications with foreign audiences, public diplomacy officials can remove some of that ambiguity. Moreover, by featuring real stories of real people who have benefited from E.U. or U.S. assistance (rather than providing quotes from Western officials), public diplomacy campaigns can become more emotionally appealing and thereby more competitive with disinformation, which often employs emotionally charged language and imagery.

Second, E.U. and U.S. public diplomacy officials should work with local actors. Disinformation tends to be highly localized and, therefore, E.U. and U.S. public diplomacy strategies need to be tailored to local information environments. Local journalists and communications experts, for example, have a unique understanding of these information environments. In Ukraine, the European Union successfully leveraged local knowledge by engaging with communities, including religious leaders, and creating focus groups to develop messages that resonated with the local population. Similarly, supporting local media can improve coverage of E.U. and U.S. assistance to the host country in local media.

Third, while it may be tempting to respond to every false story, it is important to debunk selectively and creatively. Debunking false information risks giving these narratives “oxygen” and letting the purveyors of disinformation frame the public debate on an issue. The European Union and the United States should focus on debunking disinformation that is most damaging to E.U. and U.S. interests and that is most likely to be resonant among the local population. To understand which false narratives warrant response and how to do so effectively, all E.U. and U.S. diplomats should be trained in debunking disinformation.

Finally, the European Union and United States should share resources, deepen diplomatic exchanges, and coordinate pro-democratic messaging in the fight between sharp power and soft power. In regions where E.U. and U.S. interests converge on promoting a country’s integration with Western institutions, E.U. and U.S. governments should develop joint public diplomacy campaigns and avoid duplication of countering disinformation programs. Similarly, the United States and European Union’s diplomatic units for countering disinformation, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) and the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force, could draw on programs such as the Transatlantic Diplomatic Exchange Fellowship to facilitate recurring exchange between their staffs. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia and China have converged in their use of disinformation and influence operations. As authoritarian governments increasingly cooperate to deploy sharp power, Western governments must also coordinate their pro-democratic messaging more strategically.

These recommendations present a roadmap for E.U. and U.S. diplomats across the world on how to make public diplomacy more resilient to the impact of disinformation. Technological advances and the increasing adoption of Russian-style disinformation by the Chinese government are likely to exacerbate the challenge that authoritarian sharp power poses to democratic soft power. To counter it, democratic governments — led by the European Union and the United States — need to increase cooperation and design public diplomacy programs with the threat of disinformation in mind.

Jonas Heering is a Ph.D. student in International Relations in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He also holds an M.A. in German and European Studies and a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies from Georgetown. His research at ISD examines how E.U. and U.S. officials can use diplomatic tools to counter authoritarian “sharp power,” with a focus on disinformation campaigns.

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