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Interview with Zhao Alexandre Huang
University of  Paris Nanterre, France

Dr. Zhao Alexandre Huang is an Information and Communication Sciences Associate Professor at the University of Paris Nanterre. He works at the Laboratory of DICEN-IDF. As a Center on Public Diplomacy-Singapore International Foundation (CPD-SIF) Southeast Asia Research Fellow and 2023 Ewha Global Fellow, Dr. Huang is a scholar in the field of public diplomacy and is active in international communication and public diplomacy research and practice societies. His current research focus on China’s international propaganda and digital diplomacy and the digitalization of French public diplomacy.

Prof. Huang, one of your most recent fields of study is digitalization in public diplomacy. In the framework of the current geopolitical context and considering the present global crises we are experiencing, how has digitalization changed for the better the way countries and institutions communicate?

If we look at social media through a constructive lens, they are understood as means of communication or informational relays through which social relations are born and developed. What it presents can be summed up as the phenomenon of audiences’ online and offline solidarity around the emotions embedded and expressed in the information and stories disseminated by social media in the public space. In other words, creating an interactive network centered on users, using and mastering participatory digital platforms, and integrating attractive elements into fragmented media narratives make it possible to subtly stage political and societal concerns by transforming them into fast, interactive, attractive presentations.
The formation and development of the concept of public diplomacy are based on Woodrow Wilson’s open diplomacy advocacy, which aims to emphasize a more transparent and democratic international participation mechanism pursued by democratic countries. If we say that conventional public diplomacy targets civil society to carry out mass media campaigns, people-to-people communication, and social and cultural interactions, then the original intention and basic concept of the digitalization of public diplomacy emphasizes the value of diplomats’ adherence to openness and transparency in their professional activities. Today, we can learn about and virtually participate in the activities and lives of diplomats through Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram feeds. This was rare before digitization. For instance, Ziv Nevo Kulman, the Israeli ambassador to Sweden, proudly came out on Twitter and used his Instagram updates to build his personal brand. This practice indicates the blurring of the boundaries of public diplomacy practices in the digital age. Diplomats can practice their country’s foreign policy through personalized expressions and activities. Conversely, the personal identity of a diplomat is also a window to display the open image of a country. Such practices have broken people’s stereotypes of diplomats, turning them from unsmiling political figures into living individuals.
However, digitization also brings with it many geopolitical and communication uncertainties. From the Covid-19 pandemic to the recent Russo-Ukrainian war, social media has been weaponized in political communication and public diplomacy. Whether it is Chinese diplomats accusing the U.S. military of spreading the Covid-19 virus in Wuhan, or the foreign ministries of Russia and Ukraine using Twitter to re-play card stacking, a World War I propaganda technique, we are all facing an unprecedented communication dilemma: the decline of facts, the fragmentation of reality, and the domination of emotional content. In addition, through the actions of the European Union and various countries to set up “embassies” in Silicon Valley by the end of 2022, we can also see the potential influence of digital technology providers’ decisions on national policy trends, public interests, business sectors, and civil society. Finally, the development of artificial intelligence is also affecting various countries’ public diplomacy communication practices. AI face-swapping technology, deep fake, and ChatGPT have been widely used in the recent public opinion conflicts between Russia and Ukraine. However, verifying facts often has a substantial lag and such contradictions have become more and more acute.

We might say that digitalization has a “dark side” as well, which is called disinformation. How does it impact public diplomacy? And what key findings about disinformation must be kept in mind by all communication professionals daily?

Speaking of this, I would like to give you a case first. On August 2, 2022, during Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese diplomats used 300 Twitter accounts to weave a network of nationalist and violent narratives. Chinese diplomats branded Pelosi a “selfish, opportunistic, hypocritical ugly politician” who equated her actions with the US undermining China’s claimed territorial sovereignty. Such narratives, while ignoring the genesis, facts and complete picture of this sophisticated geopolitical event, focused on devaluing the personal image of Speaker Pelosi and the government of the United States she represented. This kind of propaganda practice echoes Beijing’s global communication advocacy of participating in international public opinion struggles and gaining dominance over the narratives on the China-Taiwan issues in the uncertain time.

This brief example hints at one of the “dark sides” of the digitalization of public diplomacy, namely the weaponization of social media in the nation-states’ frame competitions. The generalization of social media creates a new hybrid media system that weakens traditional gatekeeping power and authority while involving new actors in global agenda-building. This phenomenon made reality and truth become scarce resources. Moreover, the digitalization of diplomacy has seen the adoption of sharp power tactics ranging from disinformation to computational propaganda, information operations, and at its simplest, fake news. Thus, digital diplomacy practitioners also face ethical issues in communication strategy formulation: building trust with qualified information. Indeed, the construction and competition for influence imply the decisive role of information in legitimacy and authority building. Individual attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions depend on the interactions and discourses they engage in.

However, in practice, there is a long way to go to call for ethical digital diplomacy practices. Indeed, digitalization has fragmented the definition, allocation, and display of reality, it has also weakened the ability of ethical communicators to establish authority.

Reference: Huang, Z. A & Arceneaux, P. (2023, forthcoming). Ethical Challenges in the Digitalization of Public Diplomacy. In C. Bjola & I. Manor. The Oxford Handbook of Digital Diplomacy. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

You are also interested in China and its communicative specificities. The case study of China’s communication during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak and its vaccination-themed narratives is particularly interesting. Can you tell us the results of this study? 

The aim of our latest study was to show how an intermestic public diplomacy practice promoted Chinese values and power to international publics in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. Our findings extend the implications of intermestic public diplomacy from a democratic context to the study of the international communication practices carried out by an authoritarian regime.

Indeed, the popularity of social media and geopolitical uncertainty have contributed to the evolution of the intermestic model of public diplomacy. This model allows public diplomacy actors to coordinate homogenous and differentiated communication practices to influence target domestic and foreign audiences. Because of the strict control and censorship of the domestic Internet and information dissemination, China’s online intermestic public diplomacy has characteristics that include two separate organizational communication structures linked artificially through the publicity system of the CPC. On the one hand, at the domestic level, the organizational structure of digital public diplomacy via Weibo follows a vertical and one-way propagandist model. It aims to disseminate a single voice and a series of selective truths issued by the government on the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure a public opinion favorable to the CPC’s public health policy, social management measures and contributions to fight the epidemic. On the other hand, because democratic values are the cornerstone of social media platforms at the international level, Beijing has difficulty conducting a full-scale manipulation of international public opinion. For this reason, the organizational structure of its digital public diplomacy using Twitter tends to transition from vertical to horizontal to promote the illusion of two-way interaction and communication polyphony.

We found that Chinese public diplomacy actors viewed Weibo and Twitter as intermestic communication channels in which they might subtly unify and centralize the production, exchange and strategic use of information. This approach appears to establish a narrative-making virtual communication structure for disseminating favorable Chinese strategic narratives and voices through differentiated communication on domestic and foreign social media platforms.

Reference: Huang, Z. A & Wang. R. (2022). An intermestic approach to China’s public diplomacy: a case study of Beijing’s COVID-19 communication in the early stages. Journal of Communication Management, 27 (2), p.309-328. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-04-2022-0042.

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