It doesn't help that as a branch of public outreach, digital diplomacy -- the use of social media to talk to foreign peoples --
faces such high expectations as a supposedly revolutionary technology. There's no easy way to evaluate digital-diplomatic success -- or for that matter even to set targets for success in the first
place, as compared with traditional forms of diplomacy that involve results-focused bargaining and negotiation.
But the time is coming when governments will grow confident with their social media efforts; and when it arrives, the achievement is likely to go unremarked.
Part of what's driven the recent boom in digital diplomacy is as much an atmosphere of anxiety as of opportunity. Beneath the rhetoric about
making new connections with people is a constant uneasiness that if we don't get this right, we'll get left behind. Never mind by whom; the fear
alone -- of missing out on conversations, missing out on telling people what and how to think, missing out on the prospect of leveraging a nation's collective voice for strategic
purposes -- is powerful enough to get governments scrambling to figure social media out. "If we don't join that vibrant arena, we will become irrelevant," fretted U.S. State Department spokesperson Tara Sonenshine at the United States Institute
for Peace earlier this week.
That anxiety has its advantages: It raises the pressure and incentives for governments not to abandon the technology just because the path forward with it is
uncertain. But it does nothing to resolve the ambiguity over what social media can actually accomplish for diplomats. Few ministries appear to have figured
out exactly what to do with it. As a result, much of what ends up being touted as "innovation" in digital diplomacy is
actually just a digital twist on one or another page from the old-style diplomacy playbook.
One of the ways that digital diplomacy has benefited foreign missions to date is by enabling open-source intelligence. Where countries might
previously have invested capital in monitoring radio, TV, and newspaper products from another state, governments now have access to billions of digitally
connected citizens writing -- and in some cases creating multimedia -- about events in real time. Beyond expanding the number of potential sources available to intelligence analysts, the explosion of
social media analytics like Klout helps diplomats identify "influentials" in a given network and engage them.
Sometimes monitoring social media presents opportunities for direct engagement. In June, NATO's Afghan mission became embroiled in a Twitter spat with Taliban supporters. The encounter gave coalition forces the chance
to directly rebut the Taliban's arguments in a live, public setting.
Unfortunately, such opportunities for direct benefits from digital diplomacy are rare. More common are the indirect benefits. Presuming
for now that agents from one government are capable of using social media to stir up political will among citizens of another state, doing so could
produce game-changing effects when it comes to international negotiations. A government that's sensitive to its population's drummed-up opposition to a
proposed treaty may abandon the measure. Or, in a twist, a state whose citizenry is being pressured from the outside by another state could use that
pressure as cover to accomplish what might otherwise be politically infeasible.