Emotions as a Weapon for Digital Public Diplomacy Practitioners?
by Zhao Alexandre Huang
Associate Professor in Information and Communication Sciences, Laboratory DICEN-IDF
School of Foreign Languages and Cultures, University of Paris Nanterre, France
As a government-based international communication practice, public diplomacy aims to alter the frame of well-connected people and the decisions of networked organizations to influence foreign governments’ policies and policy-making processes. Unlike traditional diplomacy, which establishes and maintains official intergovernmental relations through the negotiations between politicians and professional diplomats, public diplomacy can be acted by various actors, like professional diplomats, non-governmental practitioners (transnational companies, NGOs, etc.), and individuals. It allows communication actors to establish direct interaction channels to reach foreign publics and wield soft power through long-term and day-to-day political communication.
The use of social media and its connectivity and interactivity have given rise to the concept of “new” public diplomacy (Pamment, 2012), in which relationship management, a concept rooted in public relations theories, has become a core issue for scholars to understand (Huang & Hardy, 2019). They tried to figure out how online interactions and dialogues facilitate the meaning’s co-construction and social capital accumulation in (para-)diplomatic communications. On the one hand, scholars focus on how digital public diplomacy can serve as an essential strategic function of a state’s diplomatic goals in advancing the construction of state-target public interactions (Surowiec & Miles, 2021); on the other hand, they examine how public diplomacy actors can mobilize the para-social relations generated by online interactions to mediate the country’s foreign policy (Golan et al., 2015; Tsai & Men, 2013).
Over two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis have brought unprecedented uncertainty to world politics, and the multipolar world environment is also reshuffling the new order of global communication (Thussu, 2016). Social media have become a new field for countries to achieve frame competition and gain target public opinion on the global stage. From French diplomats and journalists calling for global political actions against global warming by their illustration of Gironde’s severe forest fire victims’ embarrassing situation, to Beijing diplomats using conspiracy theories to accuse the U.S. military of spreading the COVID-19 virus to Wuhan; from the koala’s languid image becoming the darling of Australian public diplomacy on Facebook, to the popularity of Zelensky’s Ukrainian captain meme on social media… These series of online communications have implied a sole phenomenon: emotions have become an integral part of digital public diplomacy (Manor & Bjola, 2021); they are mobilized and weaponized in online narratives to capture online public attention and influence their thinking framework.
Indeed, findings from public diplomacy studies about media agenda building (Cheng et al., 2016) confirmed the importance of substantive and emotional attributes in the framing process. If substantive attributes refer to a particular issue or a stakeholder’s image and ideological position (rational appeal), emotional attributes define the tonality of a framed topic (affective appeal). The evolution of social media has made scholars pay attention to the role of emotional messaging in communication engagement (Johnston & Taylor, 2018). As “social products” (Bernard, 2015, para. 13), emotion not only contributes to the accumulation of social capital in online interactions but also helps “organize the experience of creating and shaping cultural meaning” (Huang & Wang, 2019, p. 72).
Hence, emotion in digital public diplomacy is essentially a problem of power relations-building (Alloing & Pierre, 2020); it is also a possible instrument of domination of the body by biopolitics (Foucault, 1994). Emotion has a persuasive relational weight that can lead the target publics to embrace or reject topics or messages (Finn, 1989). In other words, current digital public diplomacy practices combine discursive and relationship management aspects to shape how target groups perceive social media messages. To help the government, by subtle means, build its agenda, public diplomacy actors need to mobilize universal emotions, whether positive or negative, when telling stories online. Doing so can achieve persuasion with target publics through emotional consensus and mutual identification, leading to their possible behavioral change (Duncombe, 2019; Graham, 2014).
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