Rise of Sub-State Actors in Digital Diplomacy

Social media has transformed how communities communicate with one another. Twitter in particular enables worldwide and frictionless interaction. Many traditional state actors now regularly use social media in addition to social movements both large and small. These tools have also empowered sub-state governmental organizations such as Kurdish Iraq, Northern Ireland, and Catalonia. These non-independent geographical entities are part regional governments and part social movement.

At a recent Digital Diplomacy Coalition event, representatives from the groups shared their experiences with social media. The panelists discussed how the potential of digital diplomacy tools combine with unique political dynamics to present both interesting benefits and potential problems to these groups.

Benefits of Digital Diplomacy

  • Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube provide cost-effective platforms for reaching a large audience. These platforms allow sub-state actors to maximize the value of sparse resources.
  • Social media allows movement leaders to interact with interested parties both domestically and abroad. For example, Twitter and other online communication platforms make it easier to communicate with people of Irish descent in every part of the globe.
  • Social media allow sub-states to raise awareness, correct misperceptions, and generally promote the interests of the movement. For example, the Kurdish Regional Government partnered with various NGOs to raise awareness and funds to deal with the recent refugee crisis in the Middle East using a social media campaign.

Challenges of Using Social Media on the World Stage

  • Striking an appropriate balance between disseminating bland political information and generating interest through engaging campaigns is difficult. It is very easy for a government to shoot for a web savvy campaign and end up with something awkward or inappropriate that does not connect with the typical Internet user.
  • Sub-state actors must also walk the line between advocacy and education. Acting like a state means maintaining a respectability that is sometimes difficult to capture on micro-blogging platforms.

The Future of Digital Diplomacy

The importance of social media and digital diplomacy is likely to increase in the coming years. In the not too distant future, large social media teams will become the norm as more governments embrace digital diplomacy to engage with younger generations for whom social media is an integral part of daily life. There is a strong possibility that the end result could be a major restructuring in the way governments interact with their constituents as well as the world at large.

Shiva Maniam contributed to this post.