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Add Digital Diplomacy to the Long List of Failures Over Syria

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Digital diplomacy, the hipster cousin of public diplomacy, has been enjoying something of a Golden Age recently, with any (Western) diplomat or minister of any note (and the more forward looking senior officials too) offering digital pronouncements, policy engagement and two-way conversations as a mechanic for gathering support and understanding around often complex areas of foreign affairs. It's all been a very smooth digitisation process, with discussion not around whether public figures should take to the web, but how quickly. And not about whether it's effective, but how to measure its impact.

And now digital diplomacy has run headlong into its first crisis of credibility.

In the elongated Arab Spring (where are we now, Arab Winter?) digital diplomats had a 'good war'. The emergence of digital tools to act as what Alex Ross, late of the US State Department, calls the 'Che Guevara of the 21st Century' gave foreign ministries the chance to listen, engage and understand with a whole new array of actors on the world stage. Where once the crowds who hits the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and so on would have been 'mobs', we now had the chance to listen to the voices of protest on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere and understand the motivations and (sometimes) connect with the leading, or most coherent, figures.

Digital diplomacy emerged from all that smiling with self-importance at its new influence and smirking at its cool-but-with-power status. Now, everywhere you look in diplomatic circles, there's an ambassador blogging here, tweeting there, and hanging out just over there. From signing treaties to sharing moods, all has been fair game for sharing.

And then Syria happened. And digital diplomacy never looked so small.

Assad's is a regime that doesn't care what most other governments think, that doesn't care for public support and could not give less heed to the molecule-thin trivialities of being a trend on Twitter.

It's not just digital diplomacy which is failing. The atrocities of Syria show up most aspects of diplomacy as ineffectual. Soft power and country brands suddenly seem like vanity projects when a figure like Assad reduces previously subtle power-and-influence games to callous murder and the strange maths of the UN where two (China and Russia) is more than three (US, UK and France).

And two years of 'hard diplomacy' of condemnation and public and private diplomatic alliances have achieved almost nothing. All diplomacy requires participation to succeed, but nothing falls so flat as public digital pronouncements where one set of participants are banging in impotent fury on a door that nobody answers. A tweet saying how jolly cross you are about genocide just doesn't make a mark.

Even the 'enabling' side of digital diplomacy - keeping digital networks open to allow opposition groups to communicate, seems to have floundered. Military might and callous disregard for human life trumps all.

Does this even matter? Is anyone looking to social media for answers in the face of atrocity anyway? The answer is, of course, no, but the (relatively minor) point is that digital diplomacy has too often become a vanity project - a mechanic of broadcast, measured in the number of followers, rather than in minds changed or policies influenced. Digital diplomacy has stagnated.

Where there have been digital battles, they have been fought around issues of veracity and governments and foreign ministries have watched, largely silent, as those battles are fought between the Syrian regime and media organisations.

Finding the truth about what's happening in Syria is hugely difficult, and that work is being done by non-governmental organisations - Storyful's verifications of videos of atrocities for example, and the global use of Twitter as a news feed to deliver more and more horror. The Syrian Electronic Army seems to be looking to attack media organisations, rather than governments, for a reason. The use of digital to monitor situations and opinions within Syria will, largely, have followed public accounts, like the rest of us, and relied on the verification processes of the media and social media, like the rest of us.

So is the Golden Age of digital diplomacy over? Well not quite, but for the moment, it seems to be a 'peacetime' activity - fine for open engagement with willing parties and all very well when everyone behaves in a civilised manner. But the measurements of success - the number of re-tweets, the number of followers has rarely seemed so futile. When it all goes wrong, the cool kids look a bit wet behind the ears.

For digital diplomacy to be an effective weapon in crisis, it needs to invest, innovate and adopt the mechanisms of the wider digital industry - to look for tools to verify and broadcast the truth, to find ways to connect safely with opposition leaders and to keep their digital networks open so that they can organise as they did in other countries in the early, optimistic, days of the Arab Spring. And most of all, to look upon digital tools in the way we look at all tools - as ways to get things done, not as amplifications of their own corporate vanity.

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