Digital diplomacy – between transparency and credibility

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Diplomacy is often considered theatre, a metaphor in which diplomats orchestrate performances meant to create mental or sentimental images. For example, a summit of world leaders after a terrorist attack wishes to transmit safety. If we talk about social media and the image created by ministries of foreign affairs on social networks, diplomacy seems theatre judging by the multitude of the photos shared from global summits on Twitter. However, sometimes, digital diplomacy actually offers a short glimpse into what happens behind the scenes, where the real activity of international relations is taking place, as do the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the US State Department.

The sociologist Erving Goffman split the realm of social life in two distinct spheres: one in which people are playing roles and the other which is behind these roles, where the true character lies. On this matter, he also argues that credibility is the key factor for fulfilling these roles and maintaining a certain image.

Some of us may consider such type posts on social media as a form of transparency of diplomacy, but if we apply Goffman’s theory, we may think that it is just an illusion to maintain credibility. In a world more and more digitalized, like any person, institutions need credibility in order to maintain their image in the online realm.

On the same matter, Corneliu Bjola, Associate Professor in Diplomatic Studies, University of Oxford, realized a quantitative analysis that argues why retweets are endorsements which also can mean keeping up a certain amount of credibility.

Professor’s Bjola analysis has in its center follower engagement. The number of followers reflects inactive or passive consumers of information, whilst retweets point to engagement with the audience. An interesting aspect is that engagement is simpler to obtain and the specialist shown that a simple link towards a photograph may increase retweets rate up to 35%.

This characteristic has the ability to stimulate followers’ engagement. The higher the number of retweets, the more efficient the digital strategy is, but it cannot measure how much engagement there is. In other words, the number of retweets is a quantitative metric useful to see if the message reaches its audience, but in absence of a qualitative measure we cannot say  exactly if the audience support or disapprove the message. To resolve this limitation, professor Bjola introduces two concepts from Goffman’s theory of symbolic interactions and frame analysis – lamination and keying – as qualitative metrics of retweets analysis of digital diplomacy.

According to Goffman, lamination refers to “layers” of activity which modifies or transforms a specific frame by which a social situation is interpreted.  For example, when a diplomatic summit is reported in mass-media, the original frame of what has being discussed is rarely reproduced ad-litteram. Usually this is altered and transformed by successive layers of media reports and by re-tweeting or commenting ads other layers. The way that lamination appears is via keying which refers to context interpretations by which audience is being signaled preferred modes of interpretation of the original message. For example, a retweet can “spin” the meaning of original message and in other direction from the initial tweet.

Tweets are not all equally important. While the number of retweets is an instrument used to measure the efficiency of digital strategies, the qualitative feature of retweets makes the difference by reinforcing the core message of the original tweet.

In an era in which the access to information is in continuous growing, institutions must adapt in order to maintain credibility in online. Engagement with audience is vital and communication strategies will have to be more interactive and, why not, more creative to produce a dialogue with the citizens.


Article drafted by Mihai Bogdan Mocanu, intern @ Institute for Digital Government. Mihai is a recent graduate of an MA in Diplomacy and Negotiation (SNSPA Bucharest) and a passionate about photography. He has competencies in the realm of institutional communication, having completed internships with the UK Embassy in Romania, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as other volunteering projects.

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Andreea Hanganu

Peste 6 ani de experienta in comunicare si relatii publice, organizare de evenimente si comunicare online. Timp de 4 ani am coordonat strategia de comunicare in social media pentru una dintre cele mai mari reprezentante diplomatice din Romania, Ambasada Marii Britanii la Bucuresti.

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