Digital diplomacy in crisis

I suppose I should be flattered, out on the road promoting a new book about winners, that people still ask questions about ‘spin’ as though it was invented by New Labour. There are two points to make. First, my favourite sound bite of all time is ‘veni, vidi, vici’, which predated Tony Blair by many centuries. Second, there is a gruesome propaganda campaign currently being waged that makes the Blair machine look antediluvian by comparison. The so-called Islamic State (IS) digital campaign is perhaps the most brazen use of communications technology in war since Lord Haw-Haw was broadcasting, using mass media to frighten the public into thinking that the game is up, the enemy is too powerful.

I have asked Western journalists whether they would take the chance to become ‘embedded’ with IS fighters, knowing what IS does to those who fail to share its extreme view of the world. Some say no, straight out. Others say yes, but unconvincingly. The reality of the scale of brutality and terror means that IS operates free from normal media restraints, even more so than Putin.

The use of social media by IS has been crude, blunt, but vividly delivered using high-end Go-Pro-style technology. It has been as effective as it has been shocking and repulsive. The battle for hearts and minds is being played out on shared social media platforms, and messages travel further and faster than ever before – from Syria and Iraq to communities across the world, acting as influencers, recruiters and frighteners on both sympathisers and enemy.

Using Twitter as an amplifier, YouTube and Instagram as illustrators and Ask.fm and WhatsApp as discussion tools for potential recruits, IS has created a propaganda network that alarms targets and excites sympathisers in equal measure. And all this while a steady stream of recruits make their way to Syria via Turkey and into a network of real-life connections. This is not dissimilar to how the Barack Obama and Narendra Modi election campaigns, the two most effective in recent times, used social media: to spread the message and win support, and ultimately to turn their supporters into activists.

But terror groups can operate by different rules to leaders of democracies. Just as Mexican drug cartels gain and hold power by showing how depraved and brutal they can be to their rivals, so IS knows that to keep and maintain its hold on the public psyche it must find new levels of barbarism, to ensure terror levels stay high among opponents, and inspiration levels high among true believers. As with Putin, there may be a danger of over-reach, but we are kidding ourselves if we think IS has got there yet.

Our civilised Western eyes might look away in disgust and find it impossible to imagine, for example, how women could be anything other than revolted by the images being shared on their social networks. But around 50 British women are believed to have headed to Syria as ‘Caliphettes’, lured by social media but cultivated by physical, human networks.

That same technology makes it relatively simple to avoid counter views, to turn off the voices of reason and liberalism and to live in a world of digitised, normalised brutality. And where are the voices of Western authority and reason? Where are the digital diplomats? Strangely quiet. Certainly not reaching the media outlets that these would-be recruits are likely to be using.

For a while, digital diplomacy has basked in its own Golden Age, with Western politicians especially using digital and social media for digital pronouncements, policy engagement and two-way conversations as a mechanic for gathering support and understanding around often complex areas of foreign affairs. It’s all been very smooth and just a little bit self-congratulatory. Though there are some who get this better than others. I have always liked the social media activity of the British Ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, a former colleague in Downing Street. Likewise it is possible to find one or two politicians in most advanced democracies who stand out for the right reasons in a sea of mediocrity and complacency. But they are the exceptions that need to become the norm.

We seem to have hit a wall, and hit it hard. There seems to be no coherent response to the challenge posed by the terrorists’ use of social media. The voices of diplomacy have offered formulaic outrage, rather than any cohesive arguments delivered to the right target audience. We seem to have found, for the moment, the limits of where digital diplomacy can take us.

Digital diplomacy was supposed to be adept at operating in fluid, stateless environments like this. Instead, diplomats have stayed firmly under the parapet while groups with no obvious hierarchies, but very obvious digital presences, operate openly. That’s not so say there isn’t other anti-extremism work going on digitally, or important work by the security services. But the diplomatic community, supposedly equipped to deal with this new world, have found that their theories remain untested in the real world.

Of course, all kinds of diplomacy are failing in the face of IS. Given the near-impossibility of reaching out to these people, and the unacceptability of their demands, it is not hard to see why. But digital diplomacy seems especially lightweight – neither embracing the communications brief nor making the digital connections that may, in the end, be necessary for a peaceful outcome. Is it now the case that digital diplomacy is a peacetime-only activity? That the digital battleground is to be left to the security services and blunter forms of propaganda?

Does this matter? In the great scheme of things, perhaps not a lot. The world of digital diplomacy could retreat back into communications-only mode and admit that it’s an indulgent model driven by vanity, not by hard outcomes. But it could step up and begin, as promised, to re-define the boundaries and participants of diplomatic relationships in a way that begins to make a difference against the most sophisticatedly unsophisticated media campaign of our age. A campaign which, whether we like it or not, is achieving its objective of using propaganda to spread terror and recruiting new supporters to spread it even further.

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