In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world and states struggled to contain the economic fallout of shutting down cities, social media became a petri dish of social commentary, and perhaps more importantly, a driving platform for governments to not only communicate domestically, but internationally as well, while simultaneously facing increasing challenges and erosion of trust from populations. While platforms face the uphill challenge of extremist actors, often of the non-state variety, using the Internet to propagate and recruit, the other side of this, which is governments, and their use of social media also requires to be placed under the spotlight.
The increasing use of social media as an official tool of foreign policy and political posturing also started to mould politics, diaspora and international relations into an interesting policy cocktail, often with unintended consequences. This is backed by the fact that often, large states are interventionist by nature due to policy and geopolitical realities. Noted scholar C Raja Mohan showcases how both India and China, with a neighbourhood seeped in civilisational ties and historical political and social complexities, is often seen as an interventionist power in South Asia. Public diplomacy, in such structures, plays a crucial role today, and often, social media and the Internet is fast becoming a critical tool for the same.
In April 2020, three Indians lost their jobs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on back of their social media activities as they were accused of disturbing communal harmony via “Islamophobic” posts. On the sidelines of this event, social media bickering between right-wing ecosystem in India and various influencers and functionaries in the UAE and larger Gulf region pushed the Indian diplomatic missions in the region to damage control, citing comments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media that COVID-19 did not recognise any religion, caste, creed or border. Domestic events such as the Delhi communal riots in February 2020 and the Tablighi Jamaat case offer a glimpse into how these local events turned into international ones online creating a new challenge for Indian diplomats.
The larger Gulf region is home to more than 8 million Indians, and for New Delhi to manage a small-country size population outside its own borders is not an easy ask, specifically in the age of social media. Technology, co-opted by both government and society as a tool of foreign policy, has showcased its downsides in and around the pandemic, highlighting a stronger need for governments, and not just the platforms, to think on how best to use these outlets. The challenge specifically comes in the space between politics and governance, with strong use of social media by politicians to rally support in one of the digitally fastest growing countries in the world, the online ecosystems have turned out to be a double-edged sword, as the Gulf example showed.
For a long period of time, foreign policy in Indian discourse was seen as a “technical area” of government operations, meaning keeping public discourse at an arm’s length, and allowing diplomats to work in bubbles, often insulated from both public support and public pushback. However, with more direct by-design involvement of the diaspora in domestic politics, and use of these ecosystems to rally support both domestically and internationally requires a much more prudent development of public diplomacy strategy rather than one that is loose, and is unable to bridge gaps between official diplomacy and public diplomacy, specifically in the online space.
Continuing with the UAE example, India’s relations with Abu Dhabi have been one of the highlights of the Modi government. From India returning runaway Dubai princess Latifa from the coast of Goa as she tried to escape her family to Abu Dhabi slowly giving much more precedent to India than Pakistan within the Gulf ecosystems, and even embracing inclusive politics by announcing its first Hindu temple, such gains made by these unlikely political and ideological allies can be shunted if public diplomacy and people-to-people contacts begin to suffer, particularly due to social media activities. An example of this can be witnessed within the Gulf itself, with the blockade against Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, perhaps unintentionally, acting as a divisional tactic amongst the Arab people themselves. Public opinion suffered against Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with people, including expats, taking sides, challenging the cohesion of organisations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council. In Some cases, even Indians working in Qatar for years, took to social media to air support for the Qatari leadership, showcasing the true ‘borderless’ nature of a digital discourse. Dr Parama Sinha Palit in his research on India and public diplomacy highlights that while social media personas in Indian politics are largely designed for domestic consumption, they also blur borders between domestic political agendas and global issues. These new grey areas have a tendency of becoming a big challenge to diplomacy itself if left largely to the imagination and natural progression of how online discourse tends to work.
It is not only the Gulf and its large diaspora that has highlighted these challenges. The recent farmer protests in Delhi, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unceremonious comments on the same also made India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, point towards the strong social media response against Trudeau from Indians and Canadians alike when questioned about India’s response on this issue. The fact that the social media response itself was seen as a parallel metric along with an official diplomatic statement as a state response certainly adds a new layer to how diplomacy is conducted.
Using social media as a tool of politics and policy is a fast-evolving space, not just by the state, but also non-state actors to accumulate support and propagate ideology, politics and install crevasses in societies cheaply and effectively. From non-state ecosystems such as far-right conspiracy world of QAnon which played a big part in and around the 2020 US elections and the subsequent storming of the Capitol Hill in January 2021 in Washington D.C. to non-state militant actors such as Islamic State (IS) using social media to recruit and co-opt global news cycles, the states standing in the other corner themselves have a largely chaotic understanding and approach to social media and public diplomacy, and in many cases, policy grey areas of platforms themselves give enough wiggle room for global political figures, both elected and unelected, to get away with misuse and flawed conduct.
The gaps between domestic politics, posturing, and international affairs being blurred can cause strains in foreign policy outreach beyond just government-to-government affairs. Going forward, deeper understanding of where social media fits in between foreign policy and public diplomacy will require clarity, a difficult challenge both for policy makers, tech platforms and academia alike.