The age of Web diplomacy: An exploration of international broadcasting online
First Monday

The age of Web diplomacy: An exploration of international broadcasting online by Aziz Douai

This paper examines the Web sites of 10 international broadcasters targeting Arabic speaking audiences in the Middle East. Data from 2006 and 2009 are used to compare the formal features of the sites, mainly domain names, hyperlinks and type of news stories presented on the sites. The empirical analysis uncovers a rough typology of international broadcasters in the Middle East. The first category refers to international broadcasters that position their institutions as alternative media voices in the targeted regional media market. The second category of international broadcasters perceives their role as information sources about their sponsoring states, functioning like a “tourist” pamphlet. The study charts future research prospects on international broadcasting in the age of the Internet, how these efforts could be harvested in public diplomacy enterprises.


Persuasion and representation on the Web
Internet domains and national representation
News information and agenda setting on the Internet
Hyperlinking as gatekeeping
Research questions




The Web has become a new battleground among international broadcasters vying to improve their nations’ standing. State–sponsored propaganda activities (Nichols, 2003) designed to improve a nation’s image among foreign audiences, also known as public diplomacy (Tuch, 1990), have become a staple of modern international relations, particularly with the rise of modern international broadcasting (Taylor, 1997; Nichols, 2003). With the advent of the Web, the pendulum of image presentation at the heart of international broadcasting has swung to the forefront debate. Several studies have examined how nations have harnessed the power of the Internet to reach global audiences in ways unprecedented in history. While the old mass media have traditionally privileged rich and powerful nations in earlier decades, leading to their dominance of global communications and apprehensions about media imperialism (Schiller, 1976; Mattelart, 1994), the Internet has offered smaller nations a cost–effective means of making their voices heard to a certain degree (Mohammed, 2004). Despite these hopes, cumulative literature on the digital divide indicates that the power of the Web has privileged the existing power structure of international communications and broadcasting in allowing rich nations to further deliver their messages to larger audiences. The expansion of international broadcasters to the Web provokes the perennial debate about the mass media’s role in international relations, specifically as a government’s propaganda and public diplomacy tools (Taylor, 1997).

This study examines the Web sites of 10 international broadcasters operating in the Middle East, focusing on how those broadcasters presented their information services, their home countries (sponsoring states) and the audiences they had in mind. The informational content and the formal structure of the homepages were empirically analyzed, looking at the distribution of news stories, hyperlinks, domain names and linguistic versions. The overall research question the project is concerned with how traditional international broadcasters have harnessed the new medium of the Web in their efforts to reach out to foreign audiences. A comparison of these broadcasters’ presentation strategies, and their relevance to agenda setting and gatekeeping theories of the media helps construct a rough typology of international broadcasters on the Web. From Web site analysis, two agendas drive international broadcasters in the Middle East: presenting the broadcaster as either an alternative media voice in indigenous market; or, as an information resource about the broadcasting country. Another goal of the present study is to provide a preliminary examination of how the linkages between propaganda and public diplomacy have been transported onto the Web. These goals need to be situated in the context of the Internet as a terrain for national representation dominated by agenda setting and gatekeeping.



Persuasion and representation on the Web

At the most basic level, the Web has allowed for a presentation of nations that resembles interpersonal careful self–presentation most identified with personal Web sites (Dominick, 1999). Dominick defines self–presentation as “the process by which individuals attempt to control the impressions others have of them” [1]. As it pertains to the Web, a nation’s primary goal in self–presentation is thus image management and control, exerted more prominently on a country’s official Web page of its foreign office, foreign ministry, or an entity that stands for that. Conceptually, self–presentation and impression management have involved the interlinked processes of impression motivation and impression construction similar to those underpinning interpersonal communication (Leary and Kowalski, 1990; Mohammed, 2004). “Motivation” refers to a nation’s desire to create and preserve good will and influence via constructing an ideal image of the “self.” In short, with relevance to public diplomacy, the Web pages of these international broadcasters strive after fostering and enhancing their nations’ “soft power” (Nye, 2004).

International broadcasters, specifically state–sponsored broadcasters that traditionally target foreign audiences, are explicitly engaged in image management and control. They are entrusted with delivering both an image of their nations as well as delivering an audience to the sponsoring state or its officials. The Web sites of these international broadcasters provide a “self–advertisement” and a public relations tool at the beck and call of the sponsoring state. The formal features of sites have been conceptualized and studied through scrutinizing their domain names, functional hyperlinks, and type of information presented (Dimitrova, et al., 2003; Mohammed, 2004; Schejter, 2003).



Internet domains and national representation

Domain names refer to the online identity of the entity operating a given Web site, usually ending with the following generic domains: .com (a commercial operator or entity), .edu (educational institutions), .net (networks), .org for organizations, .gov (for U.S. federal government), .biz, or .info to mention the most common domain names. However, registrants outside the United States use their country code after the generic domain as in: .uk for the United Kingdom (e.g.,, .fr for France, or .jp for Japan (Steinberg and McDowell, 2003). In a semiotic study of Internet domain registries and statehood, Steinberg and McDowell (2003) observed how those generic and country code top-level domains, designed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and its predecessor the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), maintain the hegemonic status of the United States in being exempted from providing its code country in Internet domains. Whilst Internet domains remain primarily names or symbols that identify the entity operating a given site, these cyber symbols of online presence have undeniably transformed the trappings of identity, be it personal (Dominick, 1999), organizational, or national (Steinberg and McDowell, 2003). Many scholars have noted how the Internet redefined the concept of statehood and its associated constructs of sovereignty and citizenship through “reterritorialization” (Doty, 1999; Mandaville, 1999). Benedict Anderson’s conceptualization of the nation as an “imagined community” remains more valid and pertinent to how the Internet identifies and reconstructs the state and nation. The “imagined community” finds its trapping and national emblems in domain names, a naming regime that “renegotiates the state system” itself without completely transcending it [2].

While studies of international broadcasters are abundant, their Web representation and presence have received scarce attention. Among the earlier studies that examined the Web presence of broadcasters, Schejter (2003) analyzed local broadcasters, specifically public broadcasters’ engagement with and utilization of the Web. Among the main variables examined in the same study were domain names since, according to Schejter (2003), they “can provide clues about the delicate relationship between government, the commercial world, and public broadcasters” [3]. The Web domains of Western European broadcasters eliminated “organizational” affiliation while broadcasters from developing nations appeared to eliminate their country identification. The findings point to the anomalous relationship between domain identification and the function of public broadcasters, manifested in their desire to present themselves as commercial entities (Schejter, 2003).



News information and agenda setting on the Internet

The brief explication of propaganda and public diplomacy argued that international broadcasts targeting the Middle East, specifically Arabic–speaking audiences, seek to manage impressions and images about their nations to achieve influence. Impression and image management is primarily implemented through the type of news information and how it is presented; that is, both agenda–setting and (news) framing in mass communications theory. While both agenda–setting and framing share many theoretical assumptions, a fundamental distinction between the two revolves around the “what” and “how” of issue coverage. Broadly speaking, agenda–setting refers to the role of the news media in raising the importance and salience level of specific issues to the forefront of the public’s agenda. Succinctly put, the mass media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (Cohen, 1963). Frequent media coverage of natural disasters, for instance, will raise levels of awareness, attention and discussion of those issues, and probably drive policy solutions. Framing theory, on the other hand, focuses on the attributes of issue presentation in the news media (Gitlin, 1980).

Despite the pertinence of both theories, this study’s focus is on “technical” aspects of agenda setting function as manifested on a broadcaster’s Web site. The study considers type of news stories, whether local (about a broadcaster’s home country), international, or Middle Eastern news, as an example of agenda–setting. Schejter (2003) characterized the home pages of public broadcasters as being either “informative,” providing abundant news and information, or “representative,” similar to a cover page showing basic contact and affiliation information through national symbols and emblems [4]. An examination of the type of information showcased on the homepage will shed light on these “informative” or “representative” functions meanwhile highlighting the agenda each broadcaster has in mind. While it can be argued that the two categories are not exclusive, the present project expands on the “informative” aspects of international broadcasters targeting Arabic speaking audiences. How agenda–setting might differ between the language versions of a broadcaster’s homepage is particularly important.



Hyperlinking as gatekeeping

First coined by the Internet visionary Ted Nelson in 1965, hyperlinks have become a staple feature intrinsically identified with the Internet. Hyperlinking a Web document to others, both internally and externally, performs multiple informational functions similar to citations and references in print media, and thus offers extended information and alternative resources. Unlike traditional media, hyperlinks and the Web in general offer the Web user more liberty in customizing their informational diet, enabling them to be in charge of what they wish to know (Eveland and Dunwoody, 2001). Links enhance the richness, navigability and interactivity levels of sites and online news (Huizingh, 2000; Eveland and Dunwoody, 2001). Content analysis of Web pages has often treated hyperlinks as important informational tools deserving of attention and study (Vargo, et al., 2000). In devising coding categories for their study of the immediate coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dimitrova, et al. (2005) incorporated hyperlinks in their coding book [5]. The number of links appeared to indicate that “online journalists were ready to provide earlier stories about the conflict or other related coverage” [6]. Schejter (2003) also considered hyperlinks as part of the “informative” function of public broadcasters’ sites.

While enriching the information offering on Web sites, hyperlinks also serve the intertwined functions of agenda–setting and gatekeeping. Specifically, gatekeeping theory refers to “the process by which the vast array of potential news messages are winnowed, shaped, and prodded into those few that are actually transmitted by the news media” (Shoemaker, et al., 2001). In the realm of the news industry, editors have remained the chief gatekeepers who decide on what is news (White, 1950; Shoemaker, et al., 2001). Hyperlinks offer insight into this process by illuminating what sort of information Web editors and operators regard as best or appropriate for their users (Singer, 2001). Online newspapers were found to include preponderantly internal links while external links remained very few, as in the stories covering the McVeigh execution (Dimitrova, et al., 2003). The same study pointed out that hyperlinks and gatekeeping follow the print pattern of “placement decisions in spite of the latitude available in Web page layout” [7]. This brief review concludes that hyperlinks provide a peek into both the process of news selection and general orientation of international broadcasters warranting further examination.



Research questions

The above literature review raised many issues central to the goal of comprehending how international broadcasters have harnessed the power of the Web to “communicate” and reach Arabic speaking audiences. In particular, this investigation will empirically answer the following research questions:

  1. What dominant formal features these international broadcasters’ Web sites present on their homepages to the online audiences?

  2. To what extent does the English language version of the homepage vary from the Arabic language version, if indeed it does?




This study conducts a descriptive content analysis of ten Web sites that have been selected as the most prominent international broadcasters targeting the Arabic speaking world, or the Middle East in general (Table 1). These international broadcasters represent China, South Korea, Russia, Japan, France, Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. While most of these broadcasters’ operations have been established since the Cold War, South Korea’s international media operations are comparatively a recent development. South Korea does not have a historical grounding like Russia’s Radio Moscow, Germany’s Deutsche Welle or the British Broadcasting Company. In recent years, the United States has revamped its Middle Eastern broadcasting efforts, folding the Voice of America and establishing Radio Sawa, included in the present study, and Alhurra TV in its wake. The comparison is justified on the grounds that these international broadcasters belong to states that have possessed strategic interests in the Middle East, either through their colonial legacies, in the case of France and Britain, the legacy of the Cold War, as in the case of Russia the natural heir of the Soviet Union, or new economic interests, as in the case of China, Japan and South Korea. The United States’ status as a global super power combines all those facets and it has traditionally operated the most sophisticated broadcasts to the region (Rawnsley, 1996).

The descriptive content analysis focuses on variables instrumental to the answer of the main research questions formulated in the literature review. These pertinent variables include the Web sites’ domain names, type of news stories presented (international news, news related to the broadcasting country, or news related to the Middle East), type of links used on the site (external or internal). Within external links, the study further examines the frequency of links referring to sources in the broadcaster’s country, the Middle East or outside of these two categories. The study describes those external links as government, media, business, and other type of links to provide further answers to the type of information presented. Hence, this study will illuminate the distribution of, and provide a preliminary taxonomy of the salient links on the homepages of international broadcasters.

Web site data consists of data collected at two points in time, first in 2006 and second in 2009, to provide a longitudinal perspective on the content of the selected site. The data were first collected over a five–day period from 8 April to 12 April 2006, at different times of the day to ensure randomness and reliability. A new set of data was collected over a different five–day period from 14 December to 19 December 2009, was reanalyzed and yielded identical findings (after controlling for the prominence of Iraq–related news in the 2006 data). Both the Arabic and the English versions of the homepage have been archived culminating in a data set of 140 homepages from 20 Web sites of these ten broadcasters. Results from the content analysis of these sites are described below.


Table 1: International broadcasters and their homepages
Table 1: International broadcasters and their homepages.





The first research question deals with the dominant features of the homepages of international broadcasters. The first identifier of these broadcasters is their domain names. With the notable exception of Radio Sawa, a U.S. sponsored broadcast, and Radio Monte Carlo, a French sponsored broadcaster, both of which exclusively target Arabic audiences in the Middle East, 80 percent of the domain names have a country code at the end of their Web address. The Voice of Russia: .ru, BBC: uk, Germany’s Deutsche Welle: .de, South Korea’s KBS: .kr, China: .cn, Sweden: .sw, Radio of Canada: .ca. Overall, international broadcasters appear to conform to the existing hierarchies of Web domains and assigned names organizing the Internet.

Another feature that the study looks at is the type of news information presented on the Web site, whether international, home country news, Middle Eastern news, or news about both the home country and the Middle East. International news was defined as news that is related to neither the broadcaster’s home country nor the Middle East. Results are summarized in Table 2 below. The average number of news stories that have been identified as international news stories (Mean 2.7, SD =3.37) is less than news about the home country (Mean 7.0, SD= 8.2). News about the Middle East takes a secondary place (Mean 3.9, SD= 5.0) while news about both the Middle East and the home country represents the least number (Mean 1.2, SD= 1.9).


Table 2: Type of information by language of the Web site.
Language International newsHome newsMiddle East newsAll news
Std. dev.3.437.02.40.31
Std. dev.3.499.665.922.39
Std. dev.3.378.25.01.92


Figure 1 offers a visual illustration of the distribution of the type of information presented on the home pages of international broadcasters at the country level (both language versions are combined). Voice of Russia stands out as having no news at all, just links to the radio Web casts. The BBC has both the largest amount of international news (Mean 8.6, SD= 3.9) and Middle Eastern news (Mean 10.3, SD= 8.9), the U.S. has the largest amount of news about both the home country and the Middle East (Mean 3.6, SD= 5), while Sweden has the largest amount of home news (Mean 18, SD= 8) followed by China International Broadcasting (Mean 15.8, SD= 7).


Figure 1: News information across country


Another formal feature scrutinized here is the number and type of links the homepage provides to their readers. External links, hyperlinks referring Web surfers to Web resources outside the pages of the broadcaster, remain very rare. Figure 2 represents the distribution of links across countries. Japan’s NHK Web page has exclusively media links, a broad category that refers to links about news, technology and excludes government or business sources. The largest number of external links is found on the homepage of the French broadcaster, Radio Monte Carlo.


Figure 2: Type of links by country


The second main research question concerned the differences between the language versions of the same broadcaster, especially comparing the Arabic and the English language versions of the homepage. Table 2 summarizes the results of the comparison of the news information presented on the English and the Arabic homepages of these 10 broadcasters. Both the English and the Arabic homepages include the highest number of news stories about the home country (Mean 6.6, SD= 7.2; Mean 7.4, SD=9.6, respectively). The Arabic homepages have the largest amount of Middle Eastern news (Mean 6.56, SD=5.9). The number of international news stories in the Arabic homepages (Mean 2.82, SD=3.49) is also greater than that found on the English homepages (Mean 2.58, SD=3.43). Figure 3 visually illustrates the distribution of news information across the variable of language.


Figure 3: News information by language



Table 3: Hyperlinks by language.
Language  External linksMedia linksGovernment linksBusiness links
Std. dev.1.914.71.11.07
Std. dev.1.915.21.0.60
Std. dev.1.9314.971.07.85


The study also compared the language versions of the homepages along the variable of hyperlinks. The English Web pages offer a slightly more external links (Mean 1.04, SD=1.9) than the Arabic home pages (Mean .82, SD=1.9). The same trend is found with regard to business, media and government links. The Arabic homepages contain fewer hyperlinks than the English homepages of international broadcasters (Table 3 and Figure 4).


Figure 4: Links by language of homepage



Figure 5: News distribution by Web site
Figure 5: News distribution by Web site.





Analysis of the home pages of 10 international broadcasters targeting Arabic speaking audiences in the Middle East reveals an overall predominance of news about the home country, followed by news about the Middle East. This finding is based on combining news stories from 20 home pages, equally divided between English and Arabic. It also appears that Swedish International Radio and the Chinese International Broadcasting homepages contain more news information than other Web sites. Upon a closer scrutiny, however, this finding differs from one broadcaster to another, and from the English to the Arabic version of the homepages. While the findings suggest a moderate presence of international news in the homepages (Mean=2.7, SD=3.37), in fact the English language Radio Sawa of the United States and Voice of Russia do not have any type of stories. The explanation of the absence of any type of news stories differs between the two. Radio Sawa, as its mission statement indicates, is geared toward Arab audiences and thus pays scarce attention to English speakers or Arabs with enough English language skills wishing to browse the radio’s home page. Moreover, many of the stories identified here as part of “both home country and Middle Eastern news” category in Radio Sawa’s Arabic homepage could well be classified as strictly Middle Eastern. The reason of the overlap between these categories was the American intervention in Iraq and how stories about this issue mostly deal with facets of that intervention. On the other hand, the Voice of Russia home page has no stories on either language versions. Russian international broadcasting appears to neglect the Web’s relevance and fails to provide an online sample of its Arabic broadcasting. For Voice of Russia, Web usage does not extend beyond a token presence, showcasing its services without parallel news content.

A similar observation can be drawn about France’s Radio Monte Carlo. Neither the English nor Arabic home pages offer enough stories and news information. Radio Monte Carlo, which shares the same exclusive focus on Arabic audiences as Radio Sawa, provides more external links than any other broadcaster. These external hyperlinks connect the Web surfer to other Arab media, such as Annahar, a Lebanese major daily, and France’s TV 5. At a formal level, Voice of Russia, the English version of Radio Sawa, and Radio Monte Carlo fit in the category of “representative” home pages (Schejter, 2003). These representative home pages only seek to register their Web presence with a scarce attention to content. Further, the diminutive presence of Russian international broadcasting indicates a persistence of its Cold War legacy that roots international broadcasting in clandestine activities rather than the transparent and open fashion the Web can provide.

The empirical findings from the analysis of these international broadcasters provide insights into the news and information agendas that these institutions deem appropriate for Middle Eastern and other international audiences in general. Competing indicators underscore differences among these international broadcasters. Both Radio Sawa and the Arabic BBC’s agendas are similar in their focus on Middle Eastern news and present the largest number of stories about the region (Figure 5). A plausible explanation is that these two broadcasters seek to present themselves as alternative news sources to indigenous media outlets. The study also found that both the Arabic BBC and Radio Sawa do not extensively focus on news about their home countries in comparison to other international broadcasters examined here. Germany’s Deutsche Welle follows the same trend. In claiming to be among “the top PANARAB INTERNATIONAL RADIO STATIONS,” Radio Monte Carlo (RMC) has similar agenda of seeking recognition as an alternative to indigenous media. However, RMC homepage news information includes fewer news stories than Radio Sawa or the BBC, for instance; its under–utilization of the Web hampers robust evidence in support of this evident conclusion.

On the other hand, other international broadcasters’ agenda–setting lies in their intent on informing Middle Eastern audiences about their nations and home affairs instead of a preponderant focus on the Middle East. Both China and Sweden fit this categorization with a news diet dominated by stories about domestic political, economic, cultural, and entertainment information about their countries. In contrast to the BBC and Radio Sawa, China and Sweden’s agenda focuses on controlling Arabic audiences’ impressions and conceptions of these nations. There are qualitative differences between these two broadcasters, however. Frequently, Swedish Radio presents more stories about immigrants and immigration issues in Sweden as well as more stories involving both the Middle East and Sweden. China’s home news stories focus more on economic and political affairs, brushing up the image of its political system and ‘glorifying’ its economic prowess and miracle. In that, China can transmit the impression that the Chinese would be the next big global players and boost its prestige in the region.

In short, the study identifies two strategic agendas on the homepages of international broadcasters. First, a news agenda that situates the international broadcaster primarily as a “news source” in the Middle Eastern media environment remains prominent in the cases of the Arabic BBC, Radio Monte Carlo, and Radio Sawa. The second agenda transforms the international broadcaster into an “informational resource” similar to a tourist guide, with the goal of familiarizing Middle Eastern audiences with the home country, most prominent in the case of China and Sweden. A rough typology is presented in Table 4. This interpretation finds some support in the cumulative research on the uses of the Web, whether at interpersonal or organizational levels (Dominick, 1999; Mohammed, 2004).


Table 4: A typology of international broadcasters by country.
News sourceInformational resource
United StatesChina
United KingdomSouth Korea


The former distinction is further supported throughout the examination of hyperlinks on the homepages of these international broadcasters. Hyperlinks effectively function as gatekeeping in the sense of offering Web surfers the “appropriate” links to further their understanding of the issues presented on the homepages. The gatekeeping function reveals a preponderant use of internal links, those referring their readers to information inside the Web site rather than enabling an interaction with outside sources of information. The rationale seems to be that these broadcasters aim at increasing the level of exposure to the same source, aiming at an extended engagement of the Web surfer with the broadcaster. One of the findings indicated that governmental links are rarely used, except in the case of China, France and Deutsche Welle. That suggests a desire to reduce the explicit associations between the broadcasters and their respective governments. Most of the hyperlinks identified on the homepages have been loosely classified as media links since they link the reader to news information and media pages rather than official or business Web pages. Overall, the data indicate a common trend toward the goal of exposing the readers to the same information from the same broadcaster rather than inviting and encouraging diversification of information. While earlier studies of online news reflected similar conclusions (Eveland and Dunwoody, 2001; Vargo, et al., 2000), international broadcasters examined in this study overwhelmingly emphasize these trends of seeking to keep their readers on their websites as long as possible.




The homepages of international broadcasters indicate two prominent goals motivating their media efforts in the Middle East. The first goal represents a category of broadcasters seeking to identify their media outlets as mere “voices” in the media marketplace, as in the case of the U.S. sponsored Radio Sawa, the British BBC and France’s Radio Monte Carlo. The second category uses the broadcaster as an information resource about the state sponsoring the broadcast. Similar to a tourist guide, this category is most explicitly detected in the case of China’s international radio, South Korea’s KBS, and Sweden’s International Radio. The fact that these broadcasters come with different histories, colonial legacies and cultural encounters with the Middle East, logically explains their different broadcasting tactics, strategies and agenda–setting functions.

The main objective of this paper has been to provide a preliminary typology of international broadcasters and how they have used the Web. That is why it has focused on the formal features of Web presentation and information. As a follow up, future research on the actual content and the coverage that these homepages offer to the Arabic speaking reader remains needed. Examining the framing strategies of news coverage related to the home country and the Middle East would be helpful. Such a study might provide insight into the underlying research concerns in international broadcasting, i.e., the distinctions, if any exist, between propaganda and public or media diplomacy. Succinctly put, that research would provide empirical answers to a sticky question: how do these homepages present themselves on the Web, whether as a tool of propaganda or public diplomacy? Other strategies to tackle the former research question include examining the mission statements on the homepages and, in combination with a content analysis of their news coverage, draw plausible answers. In light of these suggestions and propositions, the present study has charted a trajectory for examining and classifying the utility and significance of the Internet in international broadcasting. Whether the Internet opens the gates for participatory web diplomacy or propaganda variations remains a fruitful task of future research endeavors. End of article


About the author

Aziz Douai is Assistant Professor of Communications in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
E–mail: aziz [dot] douai [at] uoit [dot] ca



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Editorial history

Received 14 November 2010; accepted 2 February 2011.

Copyright © 2011, First Monday.
Copyright © 2011, Aziz Douai.

The age of Web diplomacy: An exploration of international broadcasting online
by Aziz Douai.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 2 - 7 February 2011

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2018. ISSN 1396-0466.