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.

Cross-platform communication and Digital Methods: an example

Here’s the abstract and the slides of my presentation at the Anzca Conference 2016 in Newcastle.

Click here for the slides Cross-platform communication and context: assessing social media engagement in Public Diplomacy


The new computational tools developed in digital methods are really powerful on mapping Twitter conversations related to a particular topic. Nevertheless, there are still several limitations in the collection and in the analysis of the data. These methodological challenges are addressed in my research project, which aims to explore the growing of Public Diplomacy activities on social media. Indeed, according to the Twiplomacy Study (2016), 90 percent of all UN member states have a presence on Twitter.

Yet, the study of Public Diplomacy on social media is still struggling to find an appropriate research method that is able to capture the complexity of the social media communication and assess engagement and participation. Particularly, these tasks have become challenging due to the new phenomenon of the cross-platform communication. Indeed, nowadays users share and comment news on social media, while traditional media, like TV channels and newspapers often report back what has been discussed on social media.

By analysing the Twitter data collected during the G20 2014 in Brisbane, I will describe some aspects of my methodological approach for the study of Public Diplomacy on Twitter. The paper will suggest that we need a mixed approach to comprehend the context and the cross-platform communication. To do so, tweets should be understood as units of information related to each other and visualised in the form of networks. Once key actors are found and relations among the different nodes visualised, a count of the URLs in our dataset will provide interesting information in terms of contents shared in the conversation. By manually looking at the information shared, the context of the conversation will emerge. In this sense, large datasets should be first visualised as whole and then analysed by zooming in the dataset and selecting particular interesting units, which will contain clues to understand the context and the flow of information between different platforms and websites.