Digital diplomacy, 140 characters at a time

Updated 22 October 2012
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Digital diplomacy, 140 characters at a time

PARIS: When Canada’s ambassador to China posted photos of his car on the embassy’s Twitter-like weibo page, the instant, mass response boosted his country’s image in a way that surely stunned many diplomats.
Hundreds of Chinese netizens posted comments marvelling that the Canadian envoy at the time — David Mulroney — was driving a relatively inexpensive car compared to the luxury vehicles favored by their own officials. In just one click, Ottawa had managed to engage a wide audience in a debate about corruption and transparency, using one of China’s hugely popular social networks.
“Digital tools — including social media — are being used by an increasing number of countries,” said Antonio Deruda, author of “Diplomazia Digitale,” a book on the topic.
“It is an important process that can be very useful for administrations... Through social media, the goal is to establish a dialogue with the foreign public.”
Dubbed “21st century statecraft” by the United States, the use of digital tools to help achieve diplomatic goals is on the rise in a world where the web has changed how people engage with each other and higher authorities.
Washington is at the forefront of this trend — led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was made painfully aware of the power of social media when she lost the Democratic nomination to a tech-savvy Barack Obama in 2008.
There are now around 300 State Department-affiliated Twitter accounts globally — which include those run by ambassadors or embassies — over 400 Facebook pages and 180 YouTube channels.
US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, for instance, has used the embassy’s Facebook page to post declassified satellite images showing troop movements in civilian locations, in a propaganda tug of war with the Damascus regime.
The State Department has also organized Google+ Hangouts — group video chats — to engage with people in Iran on issues such as sanctions and studying in the United States. “One of the benefits of using these technologies is we’re in places where we don’t have a diplomatic presence on the ground,” said Victoria Esser, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the State Department. Other countries have also got in on the act in a bid to improve their political clout, or attract foreign investment.
Widely regarded as a symbol of the modern Arab woman, for instance, Queen Rania is a key asset in Jordan’s soft power push. With Twitter, she is an even more powerful force, with each post reaching over 2.3 million global followers.
“Queen Rania is followed not only by people interested in Middle East issues and political issues, but by people who are more interested in what she buys in shops or where she goes abroad,” said Deruda. “This is a key point for digital diplomacy — the importance of reaching a broader audience, not just the same old people who usually follow foreign affairs.” As such, top diplomats are increasingly holding live, virtual chats on social networks to engage with people whom they would otherwise never meet.
British foreign secretary William Hague took this a step further earlier this month, meeting five of his 109,000 Twitter followers to discuss Somalia, Europe and other issues in an effort to bring online interaction offline. But for all its immediacy and accessibility, social media is a minefield where a misplaced comment can generate a whirlwind of controversy as fast as it takes to type 140 characters — the length limit for tweets.
Linda Sobeh Ali, the Palestinian representative to Canada, was recalled in October 2011 after she retweeted a video of a Palestinian girl reciting a poem that begins innocently enough, but later mentions “destroying Zionism.”
Social networks have also been used as platforms for public fighting matches.
In May, US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was severely rebuked on Twitter by Moscow about a speech he made on US-Russia ties.
Netizens watched with amusement as the Russian foreign ministry fired off nine consecutive tweets blasting McFaul, who was eventually forced to post a link to a blog post clarifying the message he had intended to get across.
Giuseppe Manzo, spokesman for Italy’s social media-savvy foreign ministry, acknowledged the risks involved.
“The outreach you achieve with social media is much greater — and thus the risks — but we’re still going through an adaptation process,” he said.
“I believe it’s indispensable to engage with the world out there... Why not exploit tools like social media networks to help us? That said, I believe traditional diplomacy remains key.”
But Deruda said it was also crucial for governments to act on this engagement.
“If you start a conversation and I tell you what I think about your policies, or about your image, your leaders... and then I see you don’t change anything, the dialogue is doomed to end,” he said.
“This is a key point for the future of digital diplomacy.”


Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

Singapore cityscape. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 October 2018
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Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

  • Singapore feels like a vision of the future
  • A dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies the city

AMMAN: More than anywhere else I’ve visited, Singapore feels like a vision of the future. Sure, there are cities with taller skyscrapers, faster trains and a more fervent embrace of LED lights, but there’s something about the uniform modernity, efficiency — and, yes, cleanliness — of the southernmost Asian Tiger that seems like a very particular glimpse of an imagined sci-fi world. There is certainly nowhere else on earth you can stroll through a simulated cloud forest, in the world’s largest greenhouse, and be back at the roulette table, or sleeping in a five-star hotel, within minutes.
All this is possible within Singapore’s ultra-modern waterside core, which radiates outwards from the skyline-hugging, S$8 billion, Marina Bay Sands resort — an imposing row of three skyscrapers linked by the 340-meter SkyPark. Such brazen disregard for the rules of nature have led to inevitable comparisons with the Gulf’s vertiginous post-globalized metropolizes (which are not always unfounded — the Sands bears more than a passing resemblance to Abu Dhabi’s The Gate Towers).


In front sits the ultra-modern, and excellent, ArtScience Museum, its curved outcrops shaped to resemble a lotus flower (or an open hand). Behind you’ll find the beguiling Gardens by the Bay, a 100-hectare stretch of exotic vegetation that has no business in a tropical climate, punctuated by giant dancing steel “supertrees” serving a nightly lightshow. The real freakery takes place inside two huge ticketed greenhouses, the technicolor splendor of the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, which eerily simulates climbing a mountain. If feels, of course, nothing like a real forest — but an imagined reconstruction by post-apocalyptic survivors.
But Singapore’s architectural and horticultural conjuring is only part of the story. A sense of post-national futurism feels stamped in the spiritual DNA of the place. Singapore has four official languages — but non-native English is the most widely understood, with 80 percent fluency. In this imagined future, a global tongue overcomes all tribalism.
Singapore’s fabled orderliness really is a thing. After a few hours in the country, spotting a discarded cigarette butt feels like proof of a minor insurrection. It’s notable that one selling point of the famed Long Bar at Raffles Hotel — established in 1887 and named after the Brit who founded the city — is being allowed, nay encouraged, to throw peanut shells on the floor, in some arcane colonial ritual. Fun has never felt quite so organized.
Leisure takes place where and when its supposed to, such as on Sentosa — a former POW camp brutally used by the Japanese in World War Two, now a resort island that’s home to 14 hotels, two golf courses, Universal Studios Singapore and the city’s second casino. A five-square-kilometer super-real whirl of primary colors, it’s hard to imagine a more artificial environment outside of Disneyland.


This dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies one across the city. Most unnerving is a visit to the much-hyped Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street — traditional neighborhoods which have been brazenly gentrified into sanitized tourist attractions. Strolling through the former, I look up at rows of brightly colored banners waving from every window of an apartment building. What looked like a vibrant display of individuality unraveled when I realized every banner was of a uniform size and placement.
But this could teach the Gulf’s rapidly modernizing cities a valuable trick: Rather than decimating low-income neighborhoods, often home to colorful communities — give them a clever name and market them as cultural destinations. Who wouldn’t want to visit Mini Manila or Little Lagos, after all?