The generational change of digital diplomacy

Asialink Diplomacy delivers a thought-provoking presentation on digital trends transforming power in Asia.

On Tuesday 20 June, Asialink Diplomacy presented the latest research and ideas on digital diplomacy at the Canberra intensive of the Leaders Program.

With politicians and industry professionals in attendance, Erin Watson-Lynn, Director of Diplomacy, explained how new technology and online communities are reshaping Australia’s diplomatic landscape.

Asia has more than 1 billion users of social media, a larger digital presence than every other continent combined. With virtual forums and software applications easy to access on mobile phones, the region’s diplomacy is now becoming more disruptive. Issues that were once dominated by the political elite, from investment rules and agricultural exports to migration and security policy, are increasingly discussed and debated by a younger audience online.

Many governments are experimenting with digital technology to manage this trend, but social media requires careful handling by foreign ministries and ambassadors. Research in this field suggests that local users expect an interactive and spontaneous conversation with diplomatic officials. By contrast, simply broadcasting messages or issuing statements does not resonate as well with this audience.

Erin described this moment as a generational change for Australia-Asia diplomacy.  Throughout the region, there is an emerging ecosystem of non-traditional voices who are shaping public attitudes with a single post, reacting quickly to events and framing the news for their colleagues and friends.

At a time when geostrategic opportunities like the Belt and Road Initiative or the Trans-Pacific Partnership are being discussed by governments and business people, the capacity of digital tools to influence public opinion requires more creative thinking.

Erin’s presentation concluded by noting the value of digital diplomacy lies in improving networks rather than just maintaining an online presence. With digital technology providing new ways to track the spread of ideas and measure social media connections, Australia’s outreach can be targeted at key groups and influencers who can assist diplomatic initiatives. A well-resourced digital strategy is not a substitute for traditional diplomacy, but it should be able to strengthen Australian lobbying in Asia’s foreign ministries and boardrooms.

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David Schaefer

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