The Rise of Digital Diplomacy：Making Diplomacy Accessible to the People
Tina Xie /photo byKent Chuang /tr. byPhil Newell
Interpersonal interactions are at the heart of diplomacy, and in the age of social media, technology makes it possible to convey friendship between countries even more rapidly and widely. And it is not just frontline diplomatic personnel who can feel this warmth—every netizen can do so too.
Social media not only create an avenue for direct interaction between foreign affairs agencies and citizens, they also make it possible for countries to enjoy a wider range of contacts and closer ties.
The wall in the “boba milk tea room” of Facebook’s Taiwan offices is adorned with images of the Facebook emoji “Boba,” whose many facial expressions display the delight brought to people by Taiwan bubble milk tea.
In July of 2019, the Department of International Information Services (DIIS) of the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked with the Taiwan offices of Facebook to hold a joint “Digital Diplomacy Workshop.” Staff from the DIIS responsible for new media and personnel from foreign countries’ representative offices in Taiwan were invited to attend and discuss their experiences in handling new media.
MOFA’s Department of International Information Services uses Facebook creatively to inform citizens about current events in the diplomatic realm. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Speaking for Taiwan through multiple channels
DIIS deputy director-general Volkan C.Y. Huang noted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is currently active on three social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—and also has a YouTube channel, “Trending Taiwan.”
On Facebook, MOFA’s focus is on day-to-day foreign affairs, using posts to tell fans from Taiwan and abroad about new foreign policies of Taiwan and ongoing international interactions. Instagram is used to tell stories through pictures, often using images that capture the most moving moments of international relations in hopes of evoking Taiwan’s unique value in the international community. In contrast to these two, most Twitter users are from English-speaking countries, and given the platform’s immediate, uncluttered nature, it is often used to express the government’s position on issues of interest.
JW, the Twitter handle of Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Jaushieh Wu, has become a notable mark internationally. Whenever Taiwan is treated unfairly, “JW” will clearly express his views on the issue. Moreover, the MOFA Twitter feed has many followers among foreign political figures, media, and non-governmental organizations, who routinely make contact and interact on social media. Even when their countries have no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, so long as there are shared ideals, these people will speak up for Taiwan at important moments.
The aim of the “Trending Taiwan” YouTube channel, meanwhile, is to tell stories through video to inform the international community about Taiwan’s “soft power.” In 2015 MOFA decided to found this video channel in order to replace abstruse and intricate policy statements with films about people’s daily lives, using narrative videos to promote Taiwan. Trending Taiwan also produces relevant films for major international events in order to extol Taiwan’s ideals and capabilities.
On the eve of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in 2018, Trending Taiwan put out a short film entitled A Perfect Pair about how a Vietnamese girl named Nguyen Thi Loan, who was suffering from elephantiasis in one leg due to lymphedema, was restored to health and started a new life thanks to help from a Taiwanese medical team. Through this story, Taiwan wanted to demonstrate to the World Health Organization our nation’s medical capabilities and determination to contribute to world health, as expressed in the slogan “Health for all—Taiwan can help.” The video attracted over 10 million views, with one-tenth of the viewers coming from Loan’s homeland of Vietnam. Viewers from other nations left comments saying how moved they were by the film, or supporting Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. The Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the US Department of State retweeted the video, indicating their recognition of the quality of healthcare in Taiwan.
Volkan Huang, deputy director-general of MOFA’s Department of International Information Services, shares MOFA’s “new media” operating strategy at the Digital Diplomacy Workshop. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Overseas representative offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Facebook page of President Tsai Ing-wen switched over to screens declaring Taiwan to be “Brave and Confident: One with the World.” (screenshots from President Tsai's Facebook page and courtesy of overseas representative offices)
Interactivity: The key to managing social media
At the workshop Amanda Mansour, spokesperson of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), shared AIT’s Facebook strategy and summed up the reasons for the rapid increase in the number of fans. In particular, fan numbers grew by at least 20% following a series of activities held in 2019 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act.
Not only has there been a rapid increase in the number of fans on AIT’s Facebook page, its posts show a high degree of interactivity, averaging 3000 to 5000 hits. Looking at their content—the US perspective on Taiwan’s presidential election, an interview at home with the AIT director, Fourth of July celebrations, a Q&A on the US’ “vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific”—the posts all exemplify the four principles advocated by Sharon Yang, a member of Facebook’s Politics and Government Outreach team: timeliness, authenticity, experimenting with new formats, and interactivity (building community).
For the “vision for a free and open Indo‡Pacific,” AIT’s new media team planned out a week of activities, using a Q&A format to help people understand the important concepts underlying the policy and the opportunities for Taiwan‡US cooperation. Even though the content was policy-oriented, the use of lively illustrations and interactive approaches still drew a great response.
Besides creativity, said Mansour, another key to the success of AIT’s Facebook page has been strategic planning. The new media team at AIT uses short- and long-term activities, series of posts, prize draws, behind-the-scenes stories, and sharing important events in Taiwan‡US relations to give fans something to look forward to, and these fans will then share their favorite posts with other people. Long-term focus on selected themes has enabled AIT to create a fresh image with its friendly, profuse, and knowledge-based presence.
Amanda Mansour, spokesperson of the American Institute in Taiwan, says that figuring out how to convey policy-oriented information creatively is a major challenge.
Top prize at the Fifth Trending Taiwan Short Film Competition was won by Max Tseng for his film Mom’s Way. It tells the stories of mothers of three different ethnicities: Hakka, Aboriginal, and Vietnamese. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Telling the world about Taiwan
In recent years MOFA has also worked with foreign Internet celebrities so that people in countries not familiar with Taiwan can see Taiwan’s soft power. For example, the Kuwaiti Internet celebrity Abdulkareem Alhendal promoted Taiwanese custard apples via his Instagram account, increasing sales of that fruit in his country. Through this collaborative effort, Abdulkareem Alhendal also experienced the warmth and friendliness of Taiwan, and became a loyal social media fan of MOFA, often sharing Trending Taiwan videos. He even translated the video An SDG a Day into Arabic and shared it on his Instagram; the film, which describes Taiwan’s efforts to implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, has already drawn more than 1.44 million hits and sparked intense discussion.
“Through Internet celebrities, we can break through filter bubbles and connect with groups of people we never would have reached before,” says José Shao-hua Yang, chief of the Project Management Section at the DIIS. He has discovered from his own experience managing MOFA’s Facebook presence that as a result of filtering by algorithms, the MOFA fan page was finding it difficult to punch through to people with relatively little interest in public affairs, but sharing by Internet celebrities can make Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts visible to more and more people.
Volkan Huang reminds us that “digital diplomacy is not a substitute for conventional diplomacy.” The two must be coordinated to be effective, because interpersonal interactions are the essence of diplomacy.
Taiwan’s digital diplomacy capabilities are growing. Although there are challenges to be faced in terms of manpower allocation and changing attitudes, behind the scenes MOFA’s new media team and editors are using their creativity to raise Taiwan’s visibility in the world. As José Yang puts it: “Through social media, we can build consensus on Taiwan’s foreign affairs positions, and that confidence will help us attract support from around the world!”
The awards ceremony for the Fifth Trending Taiwan Short Film Competition. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs hopes to draw the world’s attention to Taiwan’s charm through videos telling moving stories from this land. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Digital diplomacy transcends formal diplomatic ties. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited Kuwaiti Internet celebrity Abdulkareem Alhendal to Taiwan, and he promoted the sale of Taiwan custard apples on his Instagram account. (courtesy of the Taipei Commercial Representative Office in the State of Kuwait)
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama