The Covid-19 Crisis and the Rise of Digital Diplomacy
“Physically apart, digitally together”: the head of the Digital Diplomacy division in Israel's MFA explains how the Ministry adapted its practices during the pandemic, and what the future holds in store
What are we talking about when we talk about Digital Diplomacy? We used to refer to it as that thing that junior diplomats do in their spare time, when they're not busy with the "real" diplomatic work carried out by ambassadors and political advisers; a type of harmless hobby, perhaps a new type of "PR". Yet recent years have proven to anyone who still subscribes to this notion how much the world has changed, and how fast.
These days, the digital ecosystem is, to a large extent, the place where the international agenda is set, by leaders, journalists, and a whole range of influencers. It's where we get our news, interact with friends and colleagues, and spend our leisure time. It's also an arena of fake news, manipulation, scams and propaganda, where state and non-state actors vie for influence in political and military fields. The global Coronavirus crisis which erupted in late 2019 has severely limited much of the physical interactions between people across the world. Consequently, it has become a force multiplier for digital activities, that became the only channels for interpersonal communication and news. Likewise, diplomacy has also migrated en masse to the web, and within a short time MFAs and their partners across the world moved their activities to this sphere. In this article, I will try and provide insight on how we at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs see Digital Diplomacy, its effects on the world outside the web, and the vectors in which it is taking us. Ancient profession, new methods The world of social media is driven today more than ever by technology. Algorithms decide what content will find traction, what we see on our feed, and what will be classified as problematic and hidden from our view. The ability of states to achieve their goals in this ecosystem depends to a large extent on in-depth knowledge and utilization of complex technological tools, in order to reach target audiences and increase the volume of their messages in a concerted manner, using their platforms and accounts. Meanwhile, the ability to analyze the massive amounts of information flowing through this arena requires solutions from the world of Big Data and AI, which MFAs around the world are now testing and putting into use. Digital diplomacy takes advantage of the unique characteristics of the virtual world in order to create influence and promote the mission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in nearly every area, whether political, consular or in the realm of public diplomacy. In this sense, the appearance of digital diplomacy hasn't changed the main goals of diplomacy, but promotes them via a new medium.
The modern diplomat uses digital tools to develop and nurture virtual communities in the country where he or she is stationed, directly and without filters
Diplomacy at its heart is about creating a network of meaningful connections in diverse fields, and digital diplomacy is a force multiplier for these efforts. It is also a tool for bypassing traditional media for intelligence gathering, and for serving as a dedicated, precise channel to reach relevant audiences. The modern diplomat uses digital tools in order to develop and nurture virtual communities in the country where he or she is stationed; these communities can have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of members, who connect directly, without filters. The digital tools also enable canvassing relevant fields of interest, searching for opportunities for engagement and points of potential danger. The amount of data involved is huge, and the OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) tools necessary to analyze it are used today by media organizations, intelligence agencies and business outfits, as well as MFAs. What, then, is the relationship between these virtual activities and the "real world"? One way to measure influence is in terms of the ability of digital diplomacy to create effects in the physical world – for example, using digital influence to bring about a statement by a political entity, like a condemnation of a hostile third party or a show of support for Israeli policy. A relatively straightforward example of digital work of this nature can be seen in the activity of our channels during the incessant rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza at Israeli communities over the past years. MFA channels retweet and strengthen international condemnations of Hamas, as well as statements of support for Israel, while tagging Foreign Ministries and media outlets. This creates a momentum that translates into increased support, in a bottom-up process that begins with the digital operator at a foreign mission in Israel, sending a message to his HQ with a recommendation to deliver a statement on the attacks. In this way, influence is gained not via a direct request, but by bolstering voices of support and creating "virtual peer pressure" to act. Digital influence can also be measured by looking at the translation of a desired message/narrative from the digital sphere to traditional media, for instance by setting a goal of a certain number of news reports in print or broadcast media, which will take place as a result of the digital activity. In other cases, the parameters for success remain within the digital medium, measured in terms of number of viewers, reach, and engagement levels. The world in which digital diplomacy operates is borderless, and traditional diplomatic norms and practices often do not apply. In April 2019, Israel's official Persian-language Twitter account tweeted a message to the Iranian people after the taking down of Qassem Suleimani's Instagram account and the U.S. designation of the IRGC as a terror organization. In the tweet, we wrote that Iranian officials were now having "a taste of their own bitter medicine", as they themselves were heavily censoring social media within Iran. The tweet created an interesting dynamic: Iran's communications minister replied (quote tweeted) to the official Israeli account, and was then answered back by our account, both in Persian and in English. This direct exchange, between countries regarding one another as enemies, is significant in two ways: Firstly, it speaks to the strength of the medium - the Iranian minister realizes that if he wants to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who follow the Israeli accounts, he must engage with the "Zionist entity" on its own digital turf. Secondly, the exchange exemplifies how diplomatic norms have become more public and more direct in the digital realm.
Thriving on Twitter, Learning Tik-Tok Israel's MFA was one of the first in the world to recognize the power of a social media presence, and today has incorporated this field as one of its core activities, from senior ambassadors to diplomatic cadets. The Ministry operates the largest official social media presence in the country, rated in a top group of leading foreign ministries, according to Twiplomacy. The Israeli MFA has two main factors working for it: First off, Israelis as a whole work well in creative environments that promote freedom of action, and are quick to adopt new trends. Thus, while some European MFAs still operate relatively few twitter accounts and keep tight handles on information they are allowed to communicate, in accordance with diplomatic tradition, the Israeli MFA opens twitter accounts for its diplomatic cadets soon after they begin their training.
The MFA opens twitter accounts for its diplomatic cadets soon after they begin their training. These accounts will serve them throughout their diplomatic careers, in very diverse positions, languages and postings
The cadets begin using the accounts almost immediately after they join the ministry, under guidance from the training and digital diplomacy departments. These accounts will serve them throughout their diplomatic careers, in very diverse positions, languages and postings. The rationale behind opening personal accounts is that online success depends on authentic human interactions, and that audiences are interested in engaging with a person and hearing about their point of view on different subjects, rather than a nameless account spewing talking points. The second relative advantage has to do with the Israeli technological ecosystem, which places innovation at the heart of its work. Since Israel has a thriving high-tech ecosystem, the Israeli government enjoys many opportunities to form relationships with the leading forces of the digital world,, some of which are Israeli, and others that have in recent years deployed their R&D centers in Israel. Simultaneously, the MFA is also developing its own technological tools to support and empower the digital work of the ministry. The MFA's digital activity takes place on five main platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Telegram; and pilot programs on other platforms, such as TikTok, are also being carried out. MFA Headquarters in Jerusalem works in six languages on each of these platforms: English, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Persian, as well as serving as the professional go-to on digital diplomacy for over 100 missions/delegations around the world (embassies and consulates) that are active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In addition, roughly 250 Israeli diplomats employ Twitter as a working tool every day. All in all, the Israeli diplomatic network includes 800 unique accounts in over 50 languages, with an estimated 10 million followers. In order to assess how well digital tools are serve the MFA's mission, we employ monitoring mechanisms to measure success. We can locate the most successful posts on a given day, see what our diplomats with the most followers are tweeting about, or get an idea of a geographic trend or a specific mission whose activity we would like to emulate across the system. We try to make sure that Ministry-wide campaigns are being reverberated and that we are using our full capacity in an efficient way. Leaping over borders The digital operations are not tasked with "Hasbara", a long disused Israeli term translated into English as "propaganda". The platforms' goal is to exert influence – on targeted audiences, across continents, and on very diverse topics ranging from branding to hardcore political messaging. The MFA’s Public Diplomacy Directorate produces video content such as this year's virtual tour of Jerusalem's holy sites, meant to allow pilgrims who could not visit due to the Coronavirus to experience the city. Simultaneously, we also generate content on Iran's nuclear program, which we target towards people meeting in a specific building in a European capital, on a date when a relevant event is taking place whose audience we want to reach. The digital work serves the goals of the ministry's various departments, from the geographical desks to the strategic affairs and international organizations directorates. Thus, campaigns can vary widely in scope and targeting, from promoting the designation of terror groups, to highlighting bilateral and trilateral cooperation ahead of leaders' summits.
Screenshots of a series of images planned coordinated with the Cypriote and Greek MFAs ahead of a trilateral summit in 2018. The content was tweeted simultaneously by the three MFAs as part of a campaign that included video clips, official statements and other content on the summit
The digital activities enable us to do one more thing that was henceforth impossible: To reach wide audiences across the Arabic- and Persian-speaking region, including countries where Israel does not have diplomatic representation. The MFA's digital channels in these languages are among our most popular, followed by millions on Facebook (2.2 million alone on the Arabic-language page), Twitter and Instagram, with an average of over 20 million engaged viewers who see our content every week. On these platforms, we present an Israel that these audiences would never have seen on their local, often state-controlled and usually hostile, media outlets. The MFA channels show an Israel that is providing solutions to the region's challenges, Israelis themselves, the meaning of life within a democracy, and the hope for a peaceful future in the region. We also focus on the ties between cultures – Judaism and Islam, Hebrew and Arabic, the different communities across the region, and those that are thriving in Israel. Engagement on these channels is especially high, and reflects what we see as a strong and growing trend among the populations of the region - asking for information about Israel, seeking out business and travel opportunities, and more. We in turn do our utmost to provide information, answer questions and provide links to relevant sites.
Screenshot of A clip published on the MFA's Arabic language Facebook page, showing a street poll in which Israelis were asked to name a country or city across the Middle-East where they'd like to visit. Engagement stats for this post reached almost 20 million.
In addition to the general Arabic-language platforms, we also run a dedicated Facebook page for Iraqi audiences, as well as a Twitter which addresses the Gulf countries. In April, we wished a happy Nuruz to the Iranian people, as part of a "people-to-people" diplomacy meant to shatter years-long paradigms that portray Israel as a regional demon, but are steadily becoming obsolete as audiences across the region connect to the Web. Finally, the MFA also employs digital tools to reach Israeli audiences, digital tools enable us to provide information not only on our traditional websites, but in the places where travelers, tourists, and other Israelis spend their time – on social media. Many of the consular requests today reach us via the MFA’s Hebrew-language Facebook page, and we also try to reach out to relevant Facebook groups in order to publish information, from travel advice to natural disaster alerts to work/travel schemes. In recent months, most of our resources were invested in handling the Covid-19 crisis. Activity across our platforms has been closely coordinated with our Spokesperson's team and the consular division, in order to enable us to publish daily, real-time information on return flights to Israel, border closures and the medical protocols implemented by different countries. Our diplomats abroad have been urging Israelis to return home when flights were still available, to avoid being stranded abroad. At the same time, we published content related to Israel's handling of the crisis, solutions that could be used elsewhere in the world, and areas for potential collaboration. Over the past months, we produced at an average of 200 content items per week across our platforms, reaching tens of millions of people. We prioritized engagement, to make sure our platforms performed not as a one-way channel for communicating messages and information, but rather as a community for people who are interested in Israel, where they can express their opinions and receive feedback. Conclusion At the end of the day, our digital activity enables us to achieve, in this new and growing medium, the same goal that traditional diplomacy has always sought: Influence. Digital activities enable us to communicate directly to the public, to dispel erroneous or fake information, and to exert pressure on foreign actors and compel them to act. Simply put, Digital Diplomacy boosts our diplomatic influence: convincing a foreign official to make the decision that we need; opening a barrier on the way to the airport; quickly approving the purchase and delivery of medical equipment to a partner in need; winning a favorable vote in a multilateral organization. Oxford Professor Corneliu Bjola commonly refers to the myth that digital tools provide MFAs with "superpowers". He rightly states that digital activity provides a unique platform for exerting influence in a focused and efficient manner, but is not a source of influence in and of itself. Those who predicted the end of diplomacy on the grounds that "everything happens online", or because "leaders talk on the phone", need to remember that hours of preparations preceded those talks, and countless hours of work were put into implementing the directives that were agreed upon, on the ground, in both countries. In February 2020, as four ELAL planes were en route to Lima, Peru to bring home 1,100 Israeli tourists ahead of a planned state-wide quarantine, it was the Israeli embassy staff who carried out the operation. Their personal contact with security, airport, and countless other bodies were critical to the successful outcome - as is the case, always. Nevertheless, the Covid-19 crisis was a catalyst to an ongoing trend of the adoption of technology by MFAs. It’s hard to predict where we'll be a year from today, but it's clear that the use of digital tools will remain a top priority. These tools are already considered "must haves" for diplomats. And as the digital sphere grows and gains influence, diplomats will accordingly become more technologically savvy, and MFAs will devise increasingly sophisticated ways to exert influence in this sphere. Digital diplomacy has added powerful capabilities to the traditional diplomatic toolbox. Israeli diplomats are using this enhanced toolbox daily, with proven success. But we never forget that our absolute relative advantage has always been, and remains today, our ability to build authentic, meaningful and long-lasting relationships.
 The Iraqi community in Israel and its deep cultural connection to Iraq create a sound basis for developing engagement with the Iraqi people. The Iraqi Facebook page, created two years ago, has already amassed 360,000 followers.
 Corneliu Bjola, “Conceptions and Misconceptions of Digital Diplomacy,” Medium.com, July 10, 2018. Available at: https://medium.com/@CBjola/conceptions-and-misconceptions-of-digital-diplomacy-701aa9d65666
Yiftah Curiel is a career diplomat, currently heading DIGITAL at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously, Spokesperson of the Israeli embassy in London, Spokesperson in Buenos-Aires, and DCM in Addis Ababa. At Jerusalem HQ, Curiel served as Deputy Director of the Department for nonproliferation of WMDs. He holds a BA in Political Science, LLB in Law and MA in Arts, all from Tel-Aviv University.
(Photo courtesy of the author)