Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age

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Written by Hannah Bergstrom

In the wave of digital innovation and technological advances, effective governance is drowning. Technology is changing faster than policies can keep up with, and we’re paying the price. In the last two years alone, we’ve seen unprecedented data breaches, meddling in elections, and the spread of misinformation. In the midst of this crisis one thing is clear: our digital era desperately needs public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy is a term that is often discussed but not always fully understood (especially as it pertains to the digital world). The University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) defines it as “the public, interactive dimension of diplomacy which is not only global in nature, but also involves a multitude of actors and networks.” Furthermore, “It is a key mechanism through which nations foster mutual trust and productive relationships and has become crucial to building a secure global environment.” Digital diplomacy is taking these same actors and networks and bringing them together to decide the best technological and digital practices.

Last month, CPD, the Embassy of Sweden, and the Digital Diplomacy Coalition convened representatives from the public and private sectors to discuss digital diplomacy for the digital future. During the conference, Senior Researcher Jacob Poushter at the Pew Research Center presented findings from the United States and around the world concerning trust in digital practices and governance. Some of this research was not surprising. For instance, surveys found that younger people are more likely to receive their daily news from social media than older people are. Additionally, people around the world reported being concerned about losing their jobs due to automation.

What’s surprising, though, was that people in the United States reported having lower levels of trust in tech companies to make the right decisions compared to other countries. They also reported low levels of trust in the government, and social media sites to protect their data. Furthermore, amongst many Americans—especially Republicans—there is a growing sentiment that social media platforms censor political speech. And even though Americans reported being distrusting of tech companies, they reported a preference for tech companies taking action to limit misinformation online over government action. It seems that a complicated paradox is arising when it comes to the balance between tech companies and the government in governing technology.

Businessman and diplomat Fadi Chehade further acknowledged the growing distrust in government and technology around the world. When it comes to the internet, the infrastructure layer is the most well-governed. The upper societal and economic layers are, on the other hand, difficult to govern. Part of the reason this could be is because, according to Chehade, the internet was not built for geopolitical borders. To resolve this, there needs to be global, cross-sector collaboration and cooperation to create effective solutions to govern technology in the modern world.

Collaboration on a global scale, while important, will not be easy. For one, there is an inherent contradiction when we talk about digital diplomacy: public diplomacy uses top-down methods to influence foreign policy, while the digital world operates from the bottom up. Moreover, there is little incentive for governments and corporations around the world to cooperate across borders.

Is there a way to meet in the middle and incentivize cooperation between tech companies and governing bodies? Moira Whelan, founder of Blue Dot Strategies, suggested that authenticity may be the solution to bridging this gap. “Authenticity is really a key component”, she remarked, “…we can’t look to governments to act like a tech startup and we can’t look at tech startups to have the concerns of government[s]. What we need to do is…be authentically who we are and look for those points where we can cross over and build new things.”

As public distrust grows and technology pervades every aspect of our daily lives, it’s crucial that we work together and find approaches to effectively govern technology. Without digital diplomacy, our privacy, and our democracy, are on the line.