Digital diplomacy during the Ukraine crisis

Lucy Edwardes Jones

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Protests in Kiev’s Independence Square. Photo source: Ivan Bandura via Flickr Creativecommons

Ukraine’s pro-European protest movement has been shaped by social media. Facebook and Twitter tracked the path of protestors and provided a mouthpiece for their demands. The digital  #EuroMaidan movement did not merely report on-the-ground developments, but actively influenced them. Future protest locations were organised online, while social media slogans were featured on protestors’ signs. Yet the digital domain is no longer reserved for young, anti-establishment voices. Governments are becoming increasingly aware of social media’s huge potential as a means of immediate and direct communication with an international community. Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, officials from all sides have taken to Facebook and Twitter to communicate their views. However, as diplomacy plays out in this new digital arena, new opportunities are offset by an array of new challenges.

On 16 March a referendum on Crimea’s future declared that 97% of voters favoured joining Russia. Days later, the British Embassy in Moscow tweeted ‘Russian armed forces installed pro-Russia puppet administration and rail-roaded through referendum vote illegal. #Crimea #Ukraine’. The Russian Embassy in London replied ‘The people think otherwise, dear colleagues! Will of people comes first, does it not?’. This cutting Twitter exchange swept away traditional notions of diplomatic delays and ambiguities. Both sides were able to present their view of Crimea’s annexation instantly and concisely. In a conflict which has drawn such global interest, the borderless worldwide web has provided a crucial platform for communicating with both domestic and international populations.

While this new medium of exchange holds huge benefits for governmental spokesmen, the sphere of discussion is greatly compressed. Two polarised sides are pressured to present their stances immediately and in just 140 characters. An extended analysis of the crisis’ complexity does not make for a pithy statement which can be retweeted and shared across the web. There is little room for a prolonged consideration of compromised solutions in this digitised war of words.

Washington was not far behind in communicating its stance to the Twittersphere. The US State Department launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #UnitedForUkraine. Twitter users were called upon to share their support for the people of Ukraine. Far from representing an act of international unity, this was a statement of Western unity against Russia as violence persisted between pro-Russian and pro-Ukranian forces. The campaign undoubtedly provided a clear, shareable message, but was met with a fierce online backlash. Bloggers and tweeters seized upon a photo posted by State Department spokesman Jen Psaki, holding a sign reading #UnitedForUkraine.  The overriding criticism was that a hashtag is a weak substitute for real military intervention and financial support; congress’ approval of an aid package to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia was largely overlooked in the outrage over ‘high-school’ social media tactics.

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David Cameron tweeted a selfie of his discussions of the crisis in Ukraine. Photo source: The Prime Minister’s Office via Flickr Creativecommons.

This represents a broader perception that governmental social media efforts have trivialised the gravity of the crisis in Ukraine. David Cameron famously tweeted a stern-faced ‘selfie’, taken during a phone call with President Obama about the situation in Ukraine. The image was captioned ‘We are united in condemnation of Russia’s actions’. Yet the seriousness of this condemnation was trampled by the ensuing Twitter frenzy, in which actor Patrick Stewart and comedian Rob Delaney contributed mocking ‘on-the-phone’ selfies complete with toothpaste and wet wipes.

Serious discussion of the events in Ukraine again took a backseat during an online exchange between the US Embassy in Moscow and the Russian Foreign Ministry. The former tweeted a story about pro-Russian protestors in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov with the hashtag #isolatedRussia, but unfortunately misspelled the name of the country in Russian. The Russian Foreign Ministry posted a response on their Facebook page, advising ‘Dear colleagues, before spreading your spam, it might be a good idea to learn how to spell the name of the country in which you are working’. These botched attempts to harness social media’s potential have done little for official reputations or serious discussion of the conflict. They raise the question: can official diplomatic dialogue adapt to this domain?

However the efforts of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office suggest this is now not a question of if diplomacy will adapt, but how it will manage to do so. Foreign Secretary William Hague has outlined his intention to pursue a foreign policy that ‘makes the most of the abundant opportunities of the 21st century’. Since December 2010, the FCO has been following its ‘Digital Strategy’ devised by the dedicated Digital Transformation Unit. The strategy aims to consistently and comprehensively embed digital media across foreign policy work.

This commendable but distant goal highlights the current problems of digital diplomacy. It has not been consistently used to trace developments in Ukraine, but has been levered to project polarised East-West narratives at points of extreme tension. It has not been seamlessly embedded into existing foreign policy work, but has conspicuously attempted to use hashtags and selfies which have detracted from serious discussion of the conflict. The Ukraine Crisis has produced the first steps towards a digitalisation of foreign policy, but the true potential of this arena is yet to be harnessed.

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