The Australian DFAT Digital Media Strategy and Public Diplomacy listening on social media

On the 5th of December 2016 the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published the Digital Media Strategy 2016-18. This follows the previous Public Diplomacy Strategy 2014–16 published in 2014 and updated in the last few years. This move has been encouraged by the Minister Julie Bishop –  considered the inventor of the emoji diplomacy – who is now leading the Australian diplomacy from the prudence of the 2014-16 strategy to a more consistent digital planning.

The main goals of the new digital strategy are to equip, listen, explain, engage and influence.

The creation of a timeline of milestones allows both citizens and the government to assess the advancements in the implementation of the strategy.

Major milestones implementation timeline

The plan still employs some buzzwords that the literature on Public Diplomacy has recognised as problematic, especially in the case of the word “engagement” that requires more clarifications (for example Matthew Wallin).

Words cloud of the Digital Media Strategy 2016-18

The Australian focus on listening recognises and gives importance to an activity that has been agreed as pivotal in the New Public Diplomacy (p.18) . According to the Strategy, “Parliamentary and Media Branch will manage a range of high-level web and social media reporting and analytics tools that will identify influential groups and conversations, track sentiment towards Australian policy, measure the department’s global social reach and enable centralised reporting on the progress of major campaigns”. These monitoring activities can be categorised as “instrumental listening” (Macnamara, 2015, p.10), since they seem to answer to “self-serving questions that organizations want to ask”.

Finally, the strategy refers to “tools for social media managers” without specifying the characteristic of these tools. There is an ongoing critical discussion on social media analytics and the process of capturing, analysing and visualising data, recognising that “data should be understood as a mode of politics itself” (Johnson, 2015). One of the epistemological concerns regards the supposed neutrality of digital data, since the coldness of numbers gives a perception of objectivity or a sort of “hitherto unobtainable empirical truth” (Rossiter, 2014, p. 225)

The DFAT Digital Strategy is an important step toward an effective use of social media in the Australian Diplomacy. However, the potential of these tools should be accompanied by a critical reflection about the implications in the use of social media data in Digital Diplomacy. As the CPD discussion paper Social Media Analytics for Digital Advocacy Campaigns: Five Common Challenges   has pointed out, we need “to advance a more rigorous, structured approach to social media analytics and their role in strategic planning” (p.1). The underlying characteristics of social media analytics drive the modalities digital listening is understood and articulated, which implies a series of epistemological considerations that digital diplomacy scholars and practitioners need to address.

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