January 11, 2015 10:46 am
Updated: January 11, 2015 1:04 pm

What is ‘digital diplomacy’?

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Watch: Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says using the internet to directly communicate with Iranian citizens, is a powerful tool for expanding diplomacy.

It’s a term that seems so obviously dreamed up in a government boardroom; something to do with the developed world’s constantly advancing technologies and foreign relations.

In short, digital diplomacy is a means for foreign governments to engage with a country’s people rather than its government.

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Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced a $9-million digital initiative in partnership with University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

READ MORE: Sky the limit for digital diplomacy says Baird

“This is some cutting edge stuff in digital diplomacy that Canada is doing, and we hope it will [be a] success,” Baird, who is spearheading Canada’s efforts on the digital diplomacy front, said in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark.

Building on work the Munk School has already established, the federal government is intending to help create a “safer and accessible place online” for people living under repressed governments. In theory, this online space will provide citizens a safe environment to discuss their government and issues affecting their lives and well-being, Baird wrote in a statement. It is “giving a voice to the voiceless,” he said.

The Munk School in 2013 pioneered a system for Iranians to discuss how the economy, its human rights record and countless policies might affect the future of Iran, where Canada closed its embassy two years ago.

Building on that model, Ottawa has said it intends to bolster political accountability, increase the number of people able to participate in national conversations and give those people access to information necessary to ensure those conversations are informed, Baird said.

“We have huge problems with the senior leadership at a political level in Iran. We don’t have any problem with the Iranian people,” Baird said.  “We want to provide them with online communications, with social media, with the internet, and some safe space to engage civil society, journalists, the mass public on expanding freedoms, expanding democratic space there.”

Another rationale behind the “digital diplomacy” effort is to take advantage of social media’s pervasiveness as a means to promote the country’s values, ideals and interests.

READ MORE: Canadians poke fun at government’s new Twitter account, eh!

Late last year, Baird announced the launch of a new Twitter account, @Canada. Its purpose, he said, would be to engage the world on “everything Canadian,” not only foreign policies and development, while circumventing the long-established practice of in-person meetings.

The concept is similar to how activists, terrorists and protesters, among other groups, have come to organize themselves on social media, as UBC digital media and global affairs assistant professor Taylor Owen noted in a recent column.

Online, people can discuss issues, organize events and ask questions without ever seeing the person or group on the other end. Just as fans can reach out to and get a peek inside the lives of their favourite celebrities, citizens can communicate publicly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President Barack Obama and Pope Francis among other world leaders.

READ MORE: Study finds Pope Francis most influential tweeter

Likewise, those public figures can use their accounts to broadcast messages and help set diplomatic and political agendas without the traditional means of going through media.

Canada has been building its online presence gradually and consistently; dozens of embassies and missions have Twitter accounts, most dealing in both French and English.

Still, many countries, such as China and North Korea, monitor and restrict their citizens’ freedom of expression on the internet.

While those walls may be difficult to break through, Baird said Ottawa is open to trying the approach it’s taking in Iran with those countries.

“While governments can try and shut down or block parts of the internet, the exciting part is there is so much innovation and technology to prevent that from happening,” he said. “And the internet can be a powerful tool for expanding freedom in the world. And one of my jobs as Canada’s foreign minister is to promote Canadian values, and the most fundamental Canadian value is freedom. We’re looking forward to using these new technologies to try to expand that around the world.”

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