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Diplomatic Face-Work - between confidential negotiations and public display

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Transparency vs confidentiality: The political challenge impacted by social media

Policymakers answer to the public who elected them whilst at the same time handling delicate closed-door negotiations amongst themselves. The DIPLOFACE project aims to investigate how these two aspects of political life have been impacted by social media.


As the likes of Facebook and Twitter emerged in the 2000s, few policymakers at the time could have foreseen the major influence these would have on their future work. In 2020, social media has become the prime channel for decision makers to keep in touch with their base and the media, a trend further reinforced by the COVID-19 crisis. But perhaps even more surprisingly, it has become a policy tool challenging the old diplomatic ways. The DIPLOFACE project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC), focused on this game-changing evolution of diplomatic practices. How did social media impact traditional politics? Do efforts from policymakers to present themselves proactively in tweets interfere with closed-door negotiations and their culture of restraint and secrecy? It would be tempting to answer the first question in the affirmative. In the USA for instance, President Donald Trump has become infamous for his tweets, often catching his international partners off guard. But Rebecca Adler-Nissen, DIPLOFACE principal investigator, depicts a much more subtle reality. “President Trump’s tweets are symptomatic of some aspects of online political behaviour, but the online political world is as multifaceted as its offline counterpart. Diplomatic protocol and self-restraint are not suddenly replaced by aggressive posts in caps lock: they continue to play their role also online,” she explains.

Striking a balance

Rather, what social media politics does is challenge the balance between effective international cooperation and public legitimacy. The 24/7 live media coverage and the mass adoption of emails, videos and updates, coupled with demands for more transparency in world politics, means policymakers have to walk on an increasingly thin line between both aspects of politics. Surprisingly, this relationship is still poorly understood. Closing this gap requires observation of the negotiation process ‘live’ inside the engine room of diplomacy while accounting for all external actors. “Our research investigates for the first time how leaders and diplomats handle the sudden and unforeseen entanglement between private diplomatic negotiations and the public. We do this by combining various methods and gathering different kinds of empirical data: field work, direct observations, interviews and analysis of millions of social media updates,” Adler-Nissen notes. Although the research is far from completed, DIPLOFACE’s early results already cast doubt on things often taken for granted. The first is the fact that the uptake of digital technology erodes the distinctions between private and public, formal and informal, and international and domestic. “In practice, as digital practices emerge, they become an integral part of everyday diplomatic life,” says Adler-Nissen. The second observation is that social media and video meetings face great difficulties in delivering on the promises of more accessibility and transparency. As COVID-19 has demonstrated, just because politics takes place online does not make it easier to control or engage in democratic oversight. Finally, the team found that the local interpretations and use patterns of social media platforms differ considerably. While some practitioners embrace new communication tools to build up their profiles as competent negotiators, others grow tired of the constant communication, information overflow and breaches of confidentiality. “More fundamentally, the digital revolution questions the norms and standards of the diplomatic profession. Thus, the use of social media is not only a struggle to present national selves, but also to define the ideals of the diplomatic profession,” Adler-Nissen notes.

Understanding diplomacy in the digital age

The project team has gathered and analysed a considerable amount of data and will soon be submitting various papers for publication. Adler-Nissen’s ambition for the future is clear: She hopes to contribute to a new understanding of diplomacy in the digital age, not as an institution or profession, but rather as a social process. “I think I will never leave this project, even when it formally ends. DIPLOFACE is the most intellectually stimulating and challenging academic experience I have had so far and there are still many aspects of diplomacy left to explore and explain,” she concludes.


DIPLOFACE, diplomacy, social media, Twitter, negotiations, policymakers, politics, COVID-19

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