Beyond hashtags and likes – e-participation in foreign policy

Workshop at Global Media Forum on 23 June 2015, ifa and Deutsche Welle

By Dorothea Grassmann

Web 2.0 has provided new parameters for communication around the world. Foreign policy stakeholders have taken up its tools for their digital diplomacy activities and to help them enter into an online dialogue with the public. But are Facebook and Twitter all that is needed to connect with citizens and get them involved? What does e-participation actually mean beyond the slacktivism of clicking a "like" button or adding a hashtag to buzzwords? How can e-participation be guided?

Diana Keppler, an expert at ifa’s "Culture and Foreign Policy" Research Programme, Thilo Kunzemann, a freelance online and social media consultant, including to the European Parliament, and Andreas Müllerleile, a blogger and communications officer at the European Institute of Peace (EIP) discussed these questions at this year’s packed ifa/DW workshop at the Global Media Forum on 23 June 2015. The workshop was moderated by Graham Luca, Head of the Asia Department at Deutsche Welle.

Fighting the image of closed doors

In the eyes of many citizens, foreign policy is dominated by elites, and is opaque and far removed from local concerns. As Andreas Müllerleile summed it up: "Men in dark suits arrive in black cars and walk into a building". In order to fight this image of making policy behind closed doors Müllerleile argues that foreign policy actors have to create a sense of trust that citizens’ voices will be heard via their social media activities. However, most of the time social media is only used for PR purposes. Even when activities are created to get people involved, participation tends to be low. Müllerleile illustrates this by taking the example of an e-democracy attempt by the municipality of Paris. It asked the online community how it should spend a small amount of the city’s budget. "Only 2% of the Parisian population took part", Müllerleile said. Thilo Kunzemann countered, saying: "2% is more people than you normally have in the decision-making process." At least social media offer an opportunity to interact and participate, unlike traditional media.

Building trust via transparency and authenticity

Trust can be built by providing information in order to make political decisions more comprehensible and by providing authentic ways of communicating, e.g. Barack Obama’s electoral campaign in the USA or Narendra Modi’s campaign in India. Decentralising social media activities in an institution can improve the authenticity of online communication, added Diana Keppler. "The project managers are often more sensitive to the needs of their target groups and are able to communicate their message in an authentic and trustworthy way because they are the experts in their field. The communications department should simply moderate the process." She adds that a formulated online strategy can help communication departments in moderating this process, e.g. the Federal Foreign Office has had a guideline for their representations around the world since 2014. Kunzemann explained that the European Parliament creates authentic social media content by simply defining key topics at an editorial meeting. "The actual content is then produced by the specific language department, including recent discourses and references in the content with regard to the respective country". Kunzemann stressed that referring to the local context of the particular country is essential if a complex institution like the European Parliament is to capture the attention of the online community.

Transfer to the ‘real’ world

Along with authenticity and transparency, e-participation gains a new dimension when it is transferred back to the real world. "Why not invite active tweeters to a round table to discuss certain topics?" Kunzemann asked. In order to counter the flood of Facebook activities, more innovative approaches are required in order to reach the target audience and connect cyberspace with the real world. Here collaborations with start-ups, developers and creatives could help to develop new ways of encouraging participation, Diana Keppler concluded.


For more information, examples and recommendations:
Diana Keppler "Mehr als Tweets, Likes und Hashtags? Digitale Partizipation in der Auswärtigen Kultur- und Bildungspolitik" (Beyond Tweets, Likes and Hashtags? Digital participation in Foreign Cultural and Educational Policy”)

Keppler, Diana: Mehr als Tweets, Likes und Hashtags? Digitale Partizipation in der Auswärtigen Kultur- und Bildungspolitik. – Stuttgart: ifa, 2015. – 56 S. – (ifa-Edition Kultur und Außenpolitik). – (PDF)