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  • Roland Paris

Canada Needs More Digital Diplomats

Ottawa Citizen The practice of international diplomacy is undergoing a revolution. As activists, private and public organizations, political leaders and populations embrace Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, foreign ministries have come under increasing pressure to update their operating methods. Many countries, including the U.S. and Britain, now expect their diplomats to use social media as a regular part of their job — not simply as a virtual “listening post” to monitor political discussions, nor merely as a megaphone for broadcasting press releases, but as a forum for participating directly in these discussions. The traditional model of public communications — one-way transmission of press releases and “key messages” — tends not to work well on social media. For diplomats to build a following, they need to interact, not broadcast. Although government-to-government communications will remain the core business of statecraft, foreign ministries that fail to adapt to the social media revolution will lose influence over time. They will forgo opportunities to shape public discussions that are increasingly channelled through social media, to correct errors of fact or interpretation in real-time, and to build networks of interlocutors and followers. Canada now faces this danger. When it comes to using social media for diplomacy, Canada is lagging far behind its closest allies. In a report for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, released Thursday, I compare Canada’s digital diplomacy to that of the U.S. and U.K. The results (based on data collected in April) are striking. No fewer than 73 British ambassadors and 39 U.S. ambassadors operate publicly accessible digital media channels in their own names (on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs). For Canada, that number is four. A similar gap exists in the number of embassies operating digital media channels: 126 for the U.K., 165 for the U.S., and 18 for Canada. Not only do Canadian ambassadors and embassies have relatively few channels, but these channels have comparatively few followers. The average number of followers per ambassadorial Twitter account was 16,332 per U.S. ambassador, 1,802 per U.K. ambassador, and 304 per Canadian ambassador. Even after considering the higher profile of the United States in global affairs, this is a glaring disparity.

Another measure is the number of “likes” (or subscribers) on Facebook pages run by embassies. British embassy Facebook pages average 617,153 “likes.” For the U.S., the number is 6,402,953. For Canada, it is 34,672.

These figures are not the results of a sophomoric popularity contest. They indicate the direct reach of messages transmitted on these accounts. Further, these numbers underestimate the gap between Canada and its allies, because they do not capture the magnifying effects of “retweets” and “sharing” on social media. For example, the U.S. ambassador in Russia, Michael McFaul, has approximately 40,000 direct followers on Twitter, but by one estimate his tweets can reach a half-million people in a 24-hour period.

Part of the problem for Canada appears to be the Conservative government’s centralized and restrictive control of communications, which makes it virtually impossible for Canadian diplomats to engage in real-time public exchanges, the currency of social media.

Indeed, Canada’s most successful experiment with digital diplomacy was in China, where the Canadian embassy launched an account on the Chinese microblogging platform, Sina Weibo. The account was conversational and attracted a large following, but it was created without the approval of DFAIT headquarters or communications gatekeepers in the Prime Minister’s Office. Our diplomats should not be expected to take such professional risks in order to do their jobs.

There is no way to pursue digital diplomacy effectively other than to allow Canadian diplomats, and particularly our ambassadors, to speak publicly on social media without seeking prior approval from Ottawa.

Much is at stake: the structure of international affairs is changing. Power is diffusing not only from rich to rising countries, but from states to non-state actors and individuals — and, more generally, from hierarchies to decentralized networks. To operate effectively in a world of increasingly fragmented and diffused power, foreign ministries will need to master the art of cultivating and managing diverse networks of public and private actors. Social media are critical to this task.

Among British practitioners of this craft, the most proficient may be Tom Fletcher, the U.K. ambassador to Lebanon, who engages in regular Twitter exchanges with his followers, including the Lebanese prime minister. “Social media are now indispensable to our core tasks,” he writes. “Imagine a reception at which all your key contacts were interacting. You would not stand in the corner silently or shouting platitudes.”

Unless Canada joins the U.S. and Britain in embracing new channels and methods of diplomacy, Canada’s voice will progressively fade in international affairs, along with its influence. “Diplomacy,” writes Fletcher, “has always been Darwinian: we have to evolve or die.”

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