Photo: Maxime Bonzi (Flickr)

Photo: Maxime Bonzi (Flickr)

Australia's digital diplomacy failing

23 September 2015

To commemorate this year's anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Canadian diplomats in Hong Kong posted to Facebook: "Like Hong Kongers today, Canadians remember the events of June 4, 1989. The promotion of democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law lie at the heart of Canada's values and foreign policy priorities."

Reaching tens of thousands, this was deft digital diplomacy at its finest. The post avoided direct mention of China, Canada's second-largest trading partner, yet it powerfully and persuasively aligned Canada's democratic values with those of Hong Kong citizens attending a remembrance service for the pro-democracy demonstrators killed in Beijing in 1989.

Meanwhile, as Hong Kong citizens were preparing for this candlelight vigil, diplomats at Australia's consulate were uploading Facebook posts about their breakfasts.

Australia’s half-hearted attempt at digital diplomacy also severely misjudges the power of the internet.

Across the globe, Australia's digital diplomacy is all gum and no teeth, and Australia's new tech-savvy Prime Minister should be alarmed. He inherits a government that has continuously failed to embrace the internet as a tool of international influence. But now more than ever, being inept in the digital age doesn't just mean missed opportunity, it can also be dangerous. Without deft digital diplomacy, Australia leaves itself unable to respond to the risks that our citizens and exporters increasingly face overseas.

The rapid acceleration of digital technologies has been rupturing the conservative profession of diplomacy for the better part of a decade. Most countries embraced this disruption years ago, poaching expertise from the private sector and setting up dedicated digital diplomacy teams. Some countries are working with global technology firms, including Google, to help build online diplomatic strategies that best complement their international ambitions. All of this is to enhance – not replace – traditional diplomatic tactics.

In our region India leads the way on digital. Prime Minister Narendra Modi​ recently called on his ambassadors to "shed old mindsets" and "remain ahead of the curve on digital diplomacy". Despite a small foreign ministry and competing development priorities, India is experimenting with different ways to reach and engage local and overseas audiences through mobile apps, livestreaming video and a highly responsive social media presence.

Even China's media has praised India's digital diplomacy, claiming it's playing a constructive role in enhancing India-China ties.

India isn't alone; the foreign ministries of the US, Sweden, Britain, Israel, Norway, Kosovo and Germany also excel in this space, followed by a rapidly emerging number of countries, Canada included, which aren't far behind.

These foreign ministries have launched global digital campaigns using social media, video, memes and mobile apps to influence in the best interests of their citizens. They crowdsource new ideas from the public, take advantage of open data and collaborative mapping tools and translate content into multiple languages. Their diplomats are blogging and podcasting, and by emerging from behind their chanceries to join the public debate, they are reaching and engaging with new audiences.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop may spread emojis and enjoy engaging with the twittersphere but the rest of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is in broadcast mode only, using social media as just another channel to push official media releases and announcements. But few people are listening.

DFAT hosts 130 social media accounts (most are attached to embassies overseas) that attract about 1.2 million followers worldwide, but it is well behind the digital power of the Netherlands (600 diplomatic social media profiles) and the digital popularity of Canada (nearly 1.2 million followers from just a single diplomatic social media account in China).

DFAT is running its digital diplomacy from public relations playbooks more appropriate for Australian tourism in the 1980s and 1990s. Only light-hearted information is safe for Brand Australia. Policy or discussion of international issues trickle out rarely, and then only with bland announcements that have little advocacy, minimal context and no attempt at two-way dialogue.

Australia is well-promoted amid this lacklustre online offering, but its often-muscular foreign policy, evident in so many public arenas at home and around the world, is nowhere to be seen. Why our diplomats – with few exceptions – have developed an online passivity that it is disconnected from the realities of international diplomacy is unclear. What is clear is that this representation of Australia's place in the world is artificial and hazardous. It severely underestimates overseas audiences and the Australian public who wholly fund the diplomatic service. Both groups of stakeholders can handle and deserve to be exposed to far more than newsy soundbites and ambassador photo-ops.

Australia's half-hearted attempt at digital diplomacy also severely misjudges the power of the internet – and this is where it gets dangerous. By operating under the mistaken assumption that broadcasting is influential, the government has rendered itself largely ineffectual when online; an enormous strategic error, given almost half the world's population is connected to the internet and the majority of online users have social media accounts, most of which they are accessing through their phones.

New interconnectivity is giving states unparalleled access to previously inaccessible populations. This is opening up new spheres of influence and countries that are taking digital diplomacy seriously are reaping the benefits. But this phenomenon also exposes countries, and their markets, to great and often-unforeseen risks. For example, suppose false rumours spread across China's 659 million social media users that imported Australian food products were tainted (as has been experienced by other export countries). Is the Australian government adequately equipped to digitally counteract such misinformation in China? No, and the government shouldn't be waiting to find out just how bad the reputational and financial fallout would be.

Australia's toothless digital diplomacy is unacceptable for a country that our Foreign Affairs Minister describes as a "top 20 nation". Popular clickbait content – of which the koala remains king – will always have a role to play in promoting Australia to the world. But it should never be used to mask the policy positions Australia is taking on the international stage or to gloss over the complexities of our place in the world. Until it is given the tools, expertise and strategic direction it needs to operate in the digital age, our diplomatic corps is not fit for purpose. Because in failing to exploit the internet for foreign policy gain, the government is hampering its own ability to influence global events. In Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's pledge to drive digital transformation, there is no area more important than ensuring the government develop a digital diplomacy that is able to advocate and influence for our country's national interests in the 21st century.

Danielle Cave is a PhD scholar at the Coral Bell School for Asia and Pacific Affairs, ANU. This article first appeared in The Age.

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