The Future of Diplomacy and the Hand of Social Media

Can governments eventually learn to better utilize and appreciate the growing influence of social media? The answer is not clear, and the future of diplomacy is yet to be written.

Seongeun Lee is an MA candidate in the SAIS-Tsinghua Dual Degree Program, concentrating in Strategic Studies. He previously served as an officer in the Republic of Korea Army.

Review of Philip Seib, The Future of Diplomacy (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016)

In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published its assessment of Russia’s interference campaign in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One of the most shocking aspects of ODNI’s assessment of the Russian interference was how easily the Russians were able to achieve their goals through social media. As the interference of a foreign government in the 2016 election through social media was revealed, people in the United States grew increasingly concerned about the destructive side of social media’s influence. However, it was only a small part of the changes social media facilitates. Social media is significantly changing the way governments interact with each other and their citizens, thus changing the nature of diplomacy. In the Future of Diplomacy, Philip Seib, a professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, offers a comprehensive analysis of the changes social media is prompting in how governments manage foreign policy.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that it places social media within a larger historical context of diplomacy. Seib demonstrates that the advent of social media is not the first time the development of a new communication technology has had an impact on the practice of diplomacy. Traditionally, Seib writes, “diplomacy was the domain of the insular elite,” but the development of communication technology has undermined the monopoly diplomats once held on the dissemination of public information in international affairs.[1] Radio is one of the best examples of a similar development. According to Seib, radio enabled the quick and widespread dissemination of news from all over the world, so diplomats suddenly lost their ability to control the wider narrative of important events in world affairs. In particular, during the Second World War, the reporting of CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow from on the ground in Europe played an important role in steering American public sentiment away from isolationism and toward interventionism. Seib suggests that the introduction of social media has accelerated this process. As the spread of the internet and smartphones allowed individual citizens to access and spread an unprecedented amount of information, people have become more consistent actors in world politics. The historical context Seib provides allows readers to understand that today’s revolutionary changes in the diplomatic environment are not entirely unprecedented, and past trends in diplomatic communication contain valuable lessons for approaching social media and diplomacy today.

Seib also illustrates how social media is changing the day-to-day practice of diplomacy. Seib suggests that in the past, “information moved relatively slowly to policymakers and even more slowly to the public.”[2] This provided government officials with a large window of time to conduct delicate negotiations or make important decisions in ways that were less subject to public pressure and scrutiny. For example, it took several days before news coverage began reporting on the construction of the Berlin Wall, which meant that in the interim, President Kennedy could examine the event and decide how to respond. Seib claims that this is not the case anymore. Empowered by social media, people can access a breadth of opinion on almost any major international crisis by the time official reports reach policymakers. Moreover, according to the author, inaccurate information can spread around the world instantly through Facebook or YouTube, and if diplomats fail to respond properly and immediately, rumors can exacerbate diplomatic crisis. The case of the response to the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims illustrates how quickly social media interactions can spin out of control and become dangerous. In 2012, a short video called Innocence of Muslims was spread around Islamic communities. The video was “a sophomoric, barely coherent slander against Islam,” and even though it was produced in the United States, the video was not popular in the United States and was widely decried as a misrepresentation of American public attitudes around Islam.[3] Regardless of the low quality and negligible popularity of the video, it quickly spread around the world through social media. Muslims who learned that Americans were depicting “the Prophet Mohammed as a sex-fiend and bloodthirsty thug” engaged in violent protests in Yemen, India, and Tunisia, and the protests resulted in a wide, bloody crisis.[4]

The way in which the book is structured can make reading it somewhat challenging. In The Future of Diplomacy, Seib lists the major factors shaping the future of diplomacy and sorts the discussion into even chapters on each factor. Admittedly, this approach allows readers to walk through major issues related to the subject so that those who do not have any background knowledge can draw a general picture of the future of diplomacy, but this structure also results in lengthy tangents that can draw the reader away from the broader role of social media in diplomacy—the main focus of the book. As Seib states, “a central premise of this book is that the future of diplomacy is inextricably tied to the future of media,” but the central premise tends to be marginalized in many parts of the book.[5] For example, when Seib explains how China, “the world’s most active practitioner of public diplomacy,” engages in public diplomacy, he focuses on the Chinese government’s increasing investments in Confucius Institutes and the Party’s public diplomacy blitz around the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.[6] Although these examples emphasize the growing importance of public diplomacy, they have little to do with social media.

In addition, social media seems to undermine, rather than enhance, diplomacy. Seib claims that long-running state traditions of diplomacy will be enhanced through the use of social media, but non-state actors, compared to governments, appear to be benefitting more from social media. It does not mean that governments are not using social media. Most major government agencies in the United States have Twitter and Facebook accounts and regularly use official social media accounts to communicate with the public. The engagement of multiple actors on Twitter during the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a good example of an inter-governmental social media campaign designed to win public attention and support. On the day the agreement was announced, foreign ministries of each country involved in the agreement began to deliver information about the JCPOA through their own social media accounts even before President Obama had held a news conference. Also, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted “to urge his English-language followers to tune in to Iran’s TV coverage” and to emphasize that the JCPOA was “in Iran’s best interest” while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was simultaneously using Twitter to make his own case against the JCPOA.[7]

The issue Seib struggles to address is that social media is serving non-state actors as an equalizer. Non-state actors enjoy relatively limited access to traditional media, but social media gives non-state actors “greater credibility and more access to global publics than they may have had in the past.”[8] For example, terrorist organizations are successfully exploiting social media to spread their propaganda and recruitment videos. In particular, IS “achieved global reach for its propaganda and recruiting efforts” through social media, and the effective use of social media explains one of the major reasons why it could attract significant number of foreign warriors.[9] Also, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) which used to “depend on commercial news organizations to cover its work,” has expanded its public influence through online platforms, including its websites and social media accounts.[10] In the first half of 2015, the organization’s Facebook page got 918,000 likes in total, and the number of its Twitter followers had reached 486,000.[11] Not surprisingly, in October 2015, when US forces mistakenly attacked Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by MSF, the organization publicized the incident through its online platforms to draw public attention to the incident. In the wake of the incident, MSF’s social media accounts served as one of the major sources of information.

“The future of diplomacy will be shaped by new media, new publics, and new manifestations of political power,” Seib asserts.[12] As he suggests, we are witnessing how new publics and new forms of political power are emerging based on social media. However, with jihadist groups utilizing Twitter and YouTube, and a foreign government interfering in the U.S. election through Facebook and Twitter, the future of social media’s involvement with diplomacy seems bleak. Can governments eventually learn to better utilize and appreciate the growing influence of social media? The answer is not clear, and the future of diplomacy is yet to be written.


[1] Philip Seib, The Future of Diplomacy (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016), 1.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ibid., 120.

[8] Ibid., 76.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Ibid., 81.

[12] Ibid., 14.

Seongeun Lee
Seongeun Lee

Seongeun Lee is an MA candidate in the SAIS-Tsinghua Dual Degree Program, concentrating in Strategic Studies. He previously served as an officer in the Republic of Korea Army.