Governments & Social Media Monitoring: Spying or Learning?

Ever since the Snowden affair on the NSA and the subsequent revelations, there has been a lot of questions raised on how much spying is too much.┬áBut the elephant in the communications closet or a gorilla in the WiFi router if you will, is government monitoring and analysis of social media for purposes other than espionage. And I believe there’s a lot of benefit to be gained. What do you think?

Remember, It’s Public Information
When a government department monitors social media and other online channels around a specific issue or to ask certain questions it is only public data they’re accessing. I’ve worked with enough government departments in Canada, America and Britain among a few other democratic countries to know privacy concerns are topmost on their minds. When people openly share on Twitter, there is no “auto exclusions”, same with a blog post or Google+ post, unless you as a user specifically lock them down.

The Benefits of Social Media Monitoring & Analysis by Government
There are a number of ways and areas that monitoring, researching and analysing social media can help all levels of government. In all, the overarching benefit is that a government (democratic) is there to serve the people. For many decades, governments have conducted polls, surveys and street surveys to evaluate programme and policy effectiveness and planning. Social Media analysis and research simply adds a new layer; when only public information is accessed. Following are some benefits of researching and analysing social media for public digital diplomacy;

  • Research in developing and planning new policies
  • Evaluation and monitoring of government programmes
  • Analysis of foreign citizens views on bilateral and multilateral trade issues
  • Identify emerging citizen concerns
  • Research for planning stakeholder relations communications

Stale Methodologies With All The Usual Suspects
In many areas of state, provincial and federal departments when it comes to planning or even evaluations, they reach out to the same old network of contacts and organisations as they have for decades. The relationships and positioning are always essentially, the same. Reaching out to citizens through the usual forums and focus groups brings little fresh ideas and again often deals with the usual suspects. By listening to citizens and groups concerns via social media and other online channels, government departments, IGO’s and IFC’s among others, gain more ground-level, fresh insights and understanding.

How To Understand A Changing World Faster
Many in government departments at all levels, realise that the world is shifting and changing. They complain about keeping up and understanding these shifts. There is still significant empirical value to traditional surveys and research and there always will be. By adding the layer of social media research and analysis however, they can get more grassroots and civil society group insights faster, since such analysis can take less than half the time of traditional approaches.

This approach requires a significant shift in thinking for many in government and an understanding of how to implement such new methodologies. And they should be well thought out and designed to compliment and support traditional programs of research, analysis, monitoring and evaluation. Nor is it as simple as accessing a social media monitoring program; those software products are designed for marketing of products to consumers and tracking consumer sentiment…not issues of civil society.

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The Legacy Factor In eDiplomacy Messages

It’s not a topic I’ve found any discussion around as of this posting (put a link in the comment section if you know of one) and that is the legacy of online content. As in once it’s out there, you can’t really take it back. A blog post might be taken down or a Twitter account deleted, but if someone else has copied it, taken a screen shot or re-tweeted, there’s little to nothing that can be effectively done.

This hasn’t seemed to raise it’s head yet in a negative way for any senior diplomats or officials, but as with everything online, it’s only a matter of time. There was an issue in 2009 when two of then Secretary of State Clinton’s young aides got a mild wrist slap from American media on a trip to Syria; but that’s been about it. Most communications and messages sent out by diplomats are well considered. Even Iran’s President Rouhani’s tweet about his phone call with President Obama went around the world and made mainstream news media. There is some bashing politically within a country, but that is domestic, not international.

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One can be sure such an issue is covered in training and diplomats understand very well the use of words. One might suggest when it does happen it will likely come from a more junior staffer.

Do you know of any instances? Do you think it will happen?

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What Is Digital Diplomacy?

The concept of “digital diplomacy” is still quite new, but in Internet years might be considered not so new! Our view is that generally, the concept of what it is, it’s value and purpose, are still being defined. What we certainly don’t know yet is if it is effective. But effectiveness will depend on how a government or organisation defines their measure of effectiveness; but that is another blog post entirely and one we will soon be getting to.

General Web Definitions:
There are no clear definitions based on our research. Definitions range from that found on Wikipedia to various institutions. The concept of digital diplomacy has also been called eDiplomacy or cyber diplomacy and 21st Century Statecraft, the Canadian government calls is “Open Policy” and others have adopted the term “ediplomacy” such as the EU government. Below are some links to the various definitions. Regardless, it can be distilled down to the use of social media and online channels for the use of communicating a country’s message to another country’s general population or to diaspora within a host country in the hopes that message will impact relations with the target country (see diagram below.)

The Broader Definition of eDiplomacy
Broadly defined we posit that digital diplomacy can be stated as using the Internet and new communications technologies (i.e. the social media) to help international diplomatic objectives. Some have argued this to be a form of “soft power” in the Joseph Nye Jr. form; perhaps under culture as a soft power? Here are some who’ve ventured definitions:

European Union diplomat definition

The Economist (an article from 2012; still has some instrinsic value)

DIY Diplomacy ( a very astute blogger)

Digital Diplomacy in the Asymmetrical Communications Environment
The “symmetrical communications environment” harkens back to the day when communications channels (public) were quite clearly defined and understood; print media, radio media and television. It was far more challenging say, for a British or American senior diplomat to get “air time” in a foreign country. Usually that was only when there was an international “issue” or “crisis”. Those senior diplomats, whether a country ambassador or senior visiting minister, had limited “air time” and had to fit into the relevant news cycle. Today, we live in an asymmetrical communications environment”, meaning that we must include online media channels into the communications mix – that means diplomats have the ability to communicate their country’s views, opinions and stance any time of day to the world. It also means that anyone else, including opposing governments, may also express their views using those channels. This is an asymmetrical environment for communications.

Foreign and Domestic Digital Diplomacy
Based on past and current research, we see Digital Diplomacy as having four primary aspects to it; direct foreign engagement with a target country, domestic awareness of foreign policy, domestic public diplomacy (domestic matters where government engages with citizens through digital channels) and engagement of diaspora communities at home and abroad.

Digital Diplomacy Architecture
We express this (sans domestic public diplomacy) in the following communications architecture for digital diplomacy, which we will expand upon on in later analysis. This diagram is meant to show how digital diplomacy is applied. The dash lines mean that the primary message may be edited or adapted by the initial recipient before reaching the true target audience. Always, the true target audience is the foreign government in power at the time (or perhaps the potential government in power?)

Digital Diplomacy or eDiplomacy

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Diaspora Groups & Digital Diplomacy

Diaspora communities can and are playing a role in Digital Diplomacy. In conflict situations, trade issues and other international relations activities. We put forward that they will become increasingly important in this area in the future.

Digital Diaspora In Conflict Situations
The Syria conflict underway is a prime example of the role and importance of diaspora communities on both sides. In America, Canada and the UK for example, there are Syrians and sympathisers who support and oppose the Assad government. These groups create and publish content across a number of social media channels, seeking to gain the support of citizens and the government of their host countries. In addition, some Syrians have acted as information coordinators, gathering intelligence to share with rebel groups in Syria or helping facilitate the exit of people who are threatened. Similar actions have taken place in Sudan (now and in the past), Israel and other countries.

Natural Disaster Engagement
When a country such as Haiti is hit with a natural disaster, diaspora communities in Canada and the United States engaged online. Their objectives were to connect with local news media and citizens of their host country to keep awareness of the situation at the forefront to drive aid support. They also connect to groups at home in order to facilitate dialogue with aid organisations from their host country.

General Issues Awareness
In Canada and the United States for example, there are a number of Chinese diaspora who leverage social media and online tools to create awareness of issues of concern in China. These are around trade, human rights and the environment. They use these tools to connect with Canadian companies who may want to do business in China and also to help awareness for example with Canada’s department for International Trade. Similar actions are taking place in the United States. Increasingly, we are seeing evidence of diaspora communities in Canada and America coordinating their messaging on their views and lobbying agendas.

These are just some of the ways diaspora communities are engaging in digital diplomacy activities in their host countries. As our world is increasingly interconnected, it is likely that these communities will join together in neighbouring countries to better coordinate their messaging and activities.

What do you think? Do you agree? What would you add?

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Thinking Beyond Twitter for eDiplomacy

The pundits define the use of Twitter for diplomatic communications as “twiplomacy”, clever, certainly and much better than “twerking.” Based on our past and current research, Twitter is the primary, international social media channel of choice and engagement by diplomats, senior government officials and all the other various groups that engage in eDiplomacy, including the dark side of terrorists and hackers. While using Twitter is key for these purposes, those engaging in digital diplomacy however, will have to start thinking beyond 140 characters and the odd blog off their foreign relations website. Getting local will count in the future.

Deeper Local & Cultural Engagement
While Facebook may be the world’s largest social network, there are many others. Hundreds in fact. And a large number are specific to a culture, region or country. For example, CaribShout which is one of the key social networks for those in the Caribbean. In Russia, Vkontakte is the preferred choice over Facebook. It is these more focused social networks that foreign governments will find better for deeper engagement and outreach.

The Value of Forums
One of the oldest forms of social media that grew out of the bulletin boards of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s are forums. They remain massively popular around the world for everything from hobbies to political discussions and beyond. For foreign diplomats this may get them deeper into the “trenches” than they might prefer, but in some cases it may be necessary, especially if they are trying to reach out to areas torn by conflict or a natural disaster when trying to reach ex-pats living in that country.

Macro or Micro Strategy
Embassies, consulates or missions will at times be faced with developing a micro engagement strategy; that is, developing a presence within these smaller social networks. Establishing a presence now can help them in times of crisis when outreach will be critical. Or if they just want to develop a deeper dialogue with citizens in another country. Our view is that they should be more aware of local social media preferences and at least have a presence, if not full engagement, which can be of value at certain times. Especially if they want to reach the non-elite members of society.

More Choices Are Coming
It doesn’t help of course, that new social media apps are coming. It’s hard to predict what they might be, but they will all have a mobile version and some may only be designed for mobile devices. Foreign services will need to keep an eye on these technologies as they develop.

What do you think? Is it even possible for foreign missions or ministries to be able to engage more deeply than just Twitter?

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