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Blog Post | An asset or a hassle? The public as a problem for public diplomats

It is undeniable that the public is central to the practice and study of public diplomacy. Indeed, this field is known as *public* diplomacy.

Yet the role that the public plays in public diplomacy has dramatically altered throughout the years due to geo-political shifts, technological advancements, as well as broader sociocultural changes. The question that we seek to examine is whether a combination of these trends are leading to another change in the public’s role in public diplomacy, with diplomats and states increasingly viewing the public as a problem that needs to be managed.

In the early stages of the 20th century, all direct communication between the government of one country and the citizens of another was barred by international law, and seen as a breach of sovereignty. Governments spoke to other governments, not other populations. Yet, the use of the radio by Communist Russia and Nazi Germany during WW2 to instigate popular uprisings in neighboring states altered this norm. By the end of the war, the question was no longer whether or not governments could communicate directly with foreign populations, but how and why they should do so.

During the Cold War, the public was a prized asset. Both Western powers and the Soviet Union used international broadcasting in an attempt to sway public opinion and win the Cold War. Occasionally, those interventions were framed on behalf of values and issues considered more important than national sovereignty –a relatively novel idea at the time–, such as freedom, social justice, human rights as well as racial equality. Yet this era of public diplomacy was characterized by the fact that states talked at, rather than with, foreign populations. In other words, foreign populations were perceived as passive audiences, who could embrace ‘our’ messages but had to be protected from ‘the other’s propaganda.

The end of the Cold War and the demise of the bipolar system saw a declining interest in the public. If all publics became capitalists and wished to carry favor with America, as the thesis of the end of history claimed, public diplomacy was unnecessary. This scenario was of course altered dramatically following the 9/11 attacks and the advent of the so-called “new” public diplomacy. A geo-political shift (the rise of extremist terrorism), technological innovation (launch of social media), as well as an increasing visibility of identity politics (with a greater number of individuals demanding recognition and political participation) brought about a shift in the public’s role. Public diplomacy was no longer limited to speaking at foreign populations, and focused on speaking with foreign populations instead.

The “new” public diplomacy thus envisioned the public as an important stakeholder in international affairs, with its own interests, needs and agendas. While diplomats still sought to influence digital publics, the way to obtain influence morphed, at least nominally, from monologue to dialogue. Scholars urged diplomats to foster relationships with foreign populations through online exchange and shared action. Using social media, blog sites and smartphone applications to communicate with digital publics, diplomats could extend their reach and interact with both local and global publics assembled in these digital spaces.

However, the growing concern about fake news sites, targeted advertising on social media, as well as propaganda bots have led diplomats in Europe and elsewhere to approach the public as a potential hassle rather than an asset. Instead of fostering engagement through new communication technologies, diplomats seek to shape the digital environment in order to shelter their citizens from accessing misinformation online. One way to do so is through cyber accords that designate disinformation campaigns as foreign interventions. Another is to regulate social media, and a third is to actively combat disinformation. The British Foreign Office, for instance, has created a Big Data Unit tasked with monitoring and disabling fake social media accounts, while the Israeli MFA has created its own algorithm meant to decrease the spread of hate speech.

The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened some of these challenges and brought about new ones. Diplomats and states are weary of misinformation campaigns that spread both inaccurate data about the pandemic, as well as incitement to resist vaccinations. The public thus becomes a problem to be managed both locally and regionally. For instance, the EU and its member states are weary of Russian attempts to undermine faith in Western vaccines. The Indian government, on the other hand, has sought to limit domestic criticism to its handling of the pandemic, fearing loss of government support and real harm to India’s national image. To this end, the government has demanded that social media companies silence domestic criticism.

India is but one example of a broader trend in which domestic opposition and protest movements are seen as a problem. The popularity of the concept of nation branding among policy makers has created a reality in which protest movements are viewed as a national threat. These movements can undermine government-led public diplomacy campaigns, bringing attention to issues that embarrass governments or highlight governments’ policy failures. Can “Incredible India” be incredible if it cannot even provide oxygen for its sick? Is Brazil still a rising BRICS nation if it digs mass graves for Covid victims? Is China a superpower and a strategic competitor to the US, if it cannot control student activists in Hong Kong? The broad acceptance that national brands can be managed further positions the public as a problem for the nation-state.

We contend that viewing the public as a problem has immense consequences for the practice and study of public diplomacy. First, managing the public is contradictory to the view of the public as a stakeholder. Second, if diplomats view their own citizenry as a problem, this could lead to a dramatic shift in modes of government. Diplomats would no longer seek to serve the public’s need, but to control or silence it. Third, viewing the public as a problem inverses the relationship between governments and individuals. The public may soon be regarded as a menace that must be met with brute force, be it clubs and tear gas or shutting down social media networks. Finally, viewing the public as a problem suggests that brands trump reality, leading governments to focus on effective communications, rather than effective policies.

We are at a critical moment for both the study and practice of public diplomacy. The public as a problem is a conceptual and practical shift that warrants the attention of scholars and practitioners, and may dominate debates in time to come.  

Ilan Manor is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Communications at Tel Aviv University. He obtained his PhD from the University of Oxford where he researched diplomats’ use of digital technologies in times of crises. His research areas include public diplomacy, digital diplomacy and the digital society.

César Jiménez-Martínez is a Lecturer in Global Media and Communications at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture. His research interests include Media and Nationalism, Visibility, Public Diplomacy, Nation Branding, Social Movements and Globalisation. His research examines how nationhood is mediated, for both domestic and foreign audiences, in order to advance political, economic and cultural goals.

Alina Dolea is Lecturer at Faculty of Media and Communication, Bournemouth University, UK. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and her research themes include public diplomacy and strategic communication (nation branding, public relations), political and public communication. Dolea is Chair of the Public Diplomacy Interest Group of the International Communictaion Association (ICA).

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