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Taking it Online: United Nations at 75 and the Rise of Digital Diplomacy

October 5, 2020 ~ Later this month on October 24, we celebrate United Nations Day following commemorations that began in January leading up to June, when the UN Charter was signed 75 years ago, and continuing on to the start of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) last month in September. In the context of expanding and more complex global challenges and issues in 2020, the UN and its individual member states have never before been under such intense scrutiny, some of which have been exacerbated by platform and politics.

This blog post discusses the former, the platform in modern diplomacy. Last month, the UN released a report UN75: The Future We Want, the UN We Need, sharing results from a global consultation process and an online survey it conducted that asked respondents for their perceptions of the UN and priorities for action. The report concludes with 10 findings and I highlight the last two for the purposes of this discussion: “Calls for the UN to be more inclusive of the diversity of actors in the 21st century and Calls for the UN to innovate in other ways, with stronger leadership and more consistency in exercising its moral authority to uphold the UN Charter, including for increased accountability, transparency and impartiality, including through better engagement and communication with communities, as well as strengthening implementation of programmes and operations.” What is interesting about this approach is how outward-oriented it has been, intentionally going outside traditional state actors to seek views and ideas. The craft of public diplomacy is an instrument of foreign policy that has endured the times; however, the messaging/communication platform has drastically changed over the years. Earliest references to digital diplomacy date back to 2001 (Dizard, 2001) and while the concept and practice of digital diplomacy has risen over the past several years, the term and its use has not really entered mainstream conversations until this year. After six plus months of sheltering in place, we are learning to more openly accept information technology and work, learn, play and pray from home in remote environments, so it would seem consistent with everything else going on, that the UN would hold its first virtual UNGA meetings this year. The verdict is still out on whether or not these virtual meetings through digital diplomacy are effective, but certainly this platform for negotiations and medium of communication is here to stay and deserves some attention. This coupling of digitization and public diplomacy can be further illustrated with Microsoft’s launch of a UN office earlier this year.

On the one hand, information has been made more accessible for many people; however, on the other hand, information has also been made less credible and reliable. There have been numerous and repeated attempts by the UN, national governments around the world, and international non-governmental organizations to alert the global community of the dangers of misinformation and disinformation not only as it relates to public health and COVID, but across the spectrum of social and economic issues. This too is a crisis of existential proportions. Countering misinformation (generally defined as spread of false information without intent) as opposed to disinformation (generally defined as spread of false information with intent) is a very serious threat to all of us and happens at all levels of society, but when states or countries engage in this practice, it is especially disconcerting. This issue was taken up earlier this year by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD). Their report, released last month, entitled and captures the sentiment: “Public Diplomacy and the New “Old” War of Countering State-sponsored Disinformation.”

The ACPD concludes that “the power of disinformation lies in the ability to exploit prevailing political, economic, and social vulnerabilities (p. 44)” and puts forward six recommendations to improve public diplomacy (PD) functions as counter measures in an era of digitization: Define, Invest, Compete, Specialize, Experiment, and Evaluate. In my view, these are not especially new or unique to PD or any policy domains. What I find of particular interest and value is the Advisory Commission’s attempt to communicate indicators to facilitate assessment by looking to four broad categories: 1) historical, geographic, and cultural legacies; 2) current governance practices and adherence to the rule of law; 3) economic conditions and the effectiveness of social security guarantees; and 4) the extent to which information is broadly accessible and free, and open and independent media institutions prevail, as a fairly reliable indicator of disinformation impacts in a country (p. 44). Having this framework is a helpful start, but there is much more work to be done. One immediate concern in studying this framework is that the indicators, as articulated in the report, are not measurable. A broader concern is that the ACPD commission intentionally focus their efforts on foreign activities that take place outside of the United States; however, in today’s reality, making this distinction no longer has high validity and may be at the heart of the matter for PD and its application of digital diplomacy. Finally, I state the obvious, that based on these indicators, the United States is highly vulnerable to disinformation and exploitation. These are uncertain and scary times, indeed. Technology can be very helpful, but it cannot replace sound communication and analytical skills. We still must do the hard work of thinking and prioritizing in the context of American values and universal human rights. Misinformation and disinformation, together, have the capacity to be a danger to personal and national security. This should worry all of us and not just those individuals in power or leadership positions. Three of my own recommendations to close with: 1. Get Informed from Trusted Sources, 2. Keep Evidence in Mind and 3. Exercise Your Right to Vote!

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