Twitter as Tool of Diplomacy: Lessons Learned from Other Foreign Ministries

In her keynote speech delivered in front of Indonesia’s largest blogger community on 9 October 2016, the Indonesian Foreign Minister Mrs. Retno Marsudi emphasized the importance of social media as a tool for diplomats to obtain timely information and represent Indonesia abroad. Mrs. Marsudi further said that “the biggest mistake is if we are not on social media to do diplomacy.”

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) indeed had realized the significant role of information technology in diplomacy since the early 2000s. As part of its organizational reform, the MOFA in 2002 established the Directorate General of Information and Public Diplomacy. The creation of this directorate general indicated that the MOFA had already developed clear vision on the way diplomacy would be conducted in the future.

Compared to foreign ministries in some other countries, however, the use of social media as tool of diplomacy by the Indonesian MOFA is still moderate. To understand this trend this paper focuses on the utilization of Twitter, one among the most influential social media platforms, by foreign ministries in selected countries. The US Department of State maintains ten Twitter accounts in ten different non-English languages namely Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Spain, Portuguese, Russia, French, and Turkey. With those Twitter accounts the US Department of States can disseminate information in a more effective way as the contents are presented in the audiences’ respective language.

Regarding the content, the Twitter account @francediplo_EN maintained by the French Foreign Ministry can be used as a good example. The account’s name indicates that the interface language is English. The use of English in this account also signifies the intention of the French government to better penetrate the wider global audience. This account has been disseminating various information about France from several perspectives, from France policies on certain issues to cheese varieties produced by that country.

Another example is @IndianDiplomacy, the Twitter account created by the Indian Foreign Ministry. This account has been disseminating various information about India. Like @francediplo_EN the language used in @IndianDiplomacy is English. The use of English as the interface language shows the intention of the Indian government to reach the wider global audience.

The other feature is the presence of guideline and code of conduct on the use of social media. The United States Department of State, for example, published Foreign Affairs Manual regarding to the use of social media. The manual contains guidelines for (1) conducting internal and external collaboration within the ministry as well between the ministry and other Federal Government agencies; (2) conducting diplomatic activities with non-U.S. Government organizations and individuals on controlled-access Web sites that are not available to the general public; (3)  using social media for official consular, public affairs and public diplomacy activities on Web sites that are available to the general public; and (4) using social media or engaging in activities that are of official concern to the ministry.

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) also published Guidance of Personal Use of Social Media for its members. The AFSA clearly mentions that they support the use of social media but, at the same time, emphasize that but any form of communication – via social media, telephone, e-mail, or just old-fashioned conversations – is governed by social norms and etiquette, and requires good judgment and common sense.

After reviewing how other foreign ministries use social media as tool of conducting diplomacy, three lessons learned can be drawn as follow:

  • Clear guidance on the use of social media is a defining element of digital diplomacy. Such a guidance is essential to avoid misuse of social media by employees as well as to enhance the effectiveness of its utilization in achieving the goals. It is interesting to note that the Indonesian MOFA has not published such a guidance.
  • Other foreign affairs ministries maintain more than one Twitter account. Each account has its specific contents, audiences, or even language. Disseminating various kinds of information through one social media account will raise question about effectiveness. The Indonesian MOFA, on the other hand, currently maintains only one official Twitter accounts at the organizational level.
  • The main objective of the use of social media as tool of digital diplomacy is to disseminate information to the global audience. Indeed, disseminating information to the domestic audience is an important element of transparency. The main target of any social media campaign, however, should be the global audience.

Based on those lessons learned, three recommendations can be proposed as follow:

  • The MOFA should develop a comprehensive guidance on the use of social media as tool achieve goals in diplomacy. This guidance should contain, among others, code of conduct for both official and personal use of social media; technical aspects such as standard of account’s name and nomenclature of official accounts; and sanctions for social media misuse.
  • The MOFA should create more than one official Twitter account. The current account can be used effectively to share information to the domestic audience. To reach the global audiences the MOFA should create another account with English as its interface language.
  • The MOFA should establish an inter-unit task force to develop contents of social media campaign and strategies to disseminate them. This task force regularly develops, for example, infographics about Indonesia’s commodities, investment opportunities, and tourist destinations. The task force then sends the said contents regularly to all Indonesia’s diplomatic and consular missions along with the timetable of uploading of the contents. This concerted effort will enhance the effectiveness in disseminating information about Indonesia to the global audiences.

The Foreign Minister – in the speech quoted at the beginning of this article – has laid the ground for the improvement of the use of social media as tool of diplomacy. Now it is the task of the related stakeholders in the MOFA to implement it at the technical level. Reviewing recent development within the MOFA, adopting the above policy recommendations will significantly improve the effectiveness of Indonesia’s diplomacy in this digital era as part of the effort to achieve goals in foreign policy.

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