First Monday

The management of visibility in digital diplomacy: Infrastructures and techniques by Alexei Tsinovoi



Abstract
The proliferation of new media has been hailed by academics and practitioners worldwide as a revolution in the conduct of international relations, with dialogical, reconciliatory, and democratizing potentials. Several years later, however, the evidence for such progressive potentialities is scarce. To better understand the actualized role of social media in international politics and deepen our understanding of the potentialities for progressive politics online, this article examines several examples of digital diplomacy initiatives by state and non-state actors. These examples highlight the growing political significance of online visibility management techniques — i.e., the various techno-political interventions by which actors attempt to make their messages accessible on online platforms. While early citizen-driven initiatives, such as the ‘Israel-Loves-Iran’ Facebook campaign, focused on strategic content production as a means to enhance their online visibility, later initiatives, such as the public-private partnership ‘4IL’, directed their efforts towards connectivity manipulation using medium-specific techniques which contest the visibility of others. This article concludes by arguing that fulfilling the progressive potentialities of digital diplomacy in this political terrain would not only require complementing content production with an effective engagement with the visibility arrangements of the platforms, but also a critical analytics of techno-social inclusions and exclusions, which this dual task generates.

Contents

Introduction
Diplomacy and communication technologies
Digital diplomacies’ infrastructures
Digital diplomacy in practice
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

The notion that new media technologies encapsulate progressive political potentialities has dominated academic, public, and policy debates in the last decade. In these debates a digitally-mediated public sphere has been said to emerge in places where, due to reduced transaction costs of political engagement, regular citizens across the globe have been empowered to participate in politics in new ways (e.g., Papacharissi, 2009; Bakardjieva, 2009; Shirky, 2011; Lindgren and Lundström, 2011). This optimistic disposition became particularly prominent in foreign policy circles. Under the auspices of the Internet Freedom agenda, it was believed that these technologies enable the circumvention of state-controlled media in authoritarian regimes, thereby facilitating new dialogical and reconciliatory dynamics between governments and populations worldwide, and thus enabling new non-state actors to take part in foreign policy issues (see Shirky, 2011; Morozov, 2011; Hanson, 2012). As formulated by the Israeli PM Netanyahu: ‘The offer of peace will go more and more through social media rather than through governments ... this is what gives me the greatest hope for peace’ (cited in Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2017).

Despite the prominence of such views among practitioners and IR scholars (e.g., Seib, 2012; Kerry, 2013; Fletcher, 2016), evidence for the success of such initiatives — often captured by the term ‘digital diplomacy’ referring to ‘the use of social media for diplomatic purposes’ [1] — is scarce. The few empirical studies in the field often identify contradictory dynamics in cases where genuine dialogue is rare and the possibilities for radicalization rather than reconciliation abound (e.g., Khatib, et al., 2012; Kampf, et al., 2015). Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. The attempts to present the Web and social media as progressive technologies have long been discarded as ‘cyber-utopianism’ — a ‘naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside’ [2]. Growing concerns with the so-called ‘dark side’ of new media technologies, involving mass surveillance techniques and consumer exploitation (e.g., Fuchs, 2011; Deibert, 2013; Baumen, et al., 2014; Zuboff, 2019), have emerged, and they captivate scholarly and public imagination.

As ‘[t]echnology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’ [3], the relationship between social media and politics should be understood as a complex and open-ended process of mediation, rather than a deterministic optimist-pessimist binary (see Sotiriu, 2015; Siapera, 2013; Couldry, 2008). This view is particularly prominent in new media research informed by science and technologies studies (STS). Rather than treating technology as an inherently progressive or oppressive force, one should regard technology as part of hybrid arrangements where meanings and identities of subjects and objects are enacted in practice through the webs of association within which they are embedded. Tracing how digital processes of mediation are constituted by platform-specific infrastructural dynamics, this field of research has not only advanced theoretical understandings of social media as a social and political actor, but also developed medium-specific methodologies and tools to advance their study (e.g., Marres, 2012; Rogers, 2013; Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013).

Drawing on insights from this literature while discussing examples of digital diplomacy initiatives, this article argues that understanding the role of social media technologies in international politics requires a thorough appreciation of the visibility arrangements embedded in their infrastructures and of the intervention strategies they offer political actors. Indeed, the political significance of visibility — as techno-social regimes constituting the conditions of possibility for political interventions — has long been acknowledged in the social sciences (Foucault, 1991; Dean, 2010; Thompson, 1995; Mathiesen, 1997), and so has that of ‘visibility regimes’ introduced by social media platforms (Mubi Brighenti, 2010; Doyle, 2011; Bucher, 2012). Security scholars have criticized the ‘dark side’ of these regimes where visibility threatens democracy and human rights, e.g., through the repurposing of digital traces for mass surveillance techniques (Bauman, et al., 2014). What is often overlooked, however, is that visibility on digital platforms is also a reward (Bucher, 2012); a scarce resource which diplomats, celebrities, commercial firms, and advocacy organizations increasingly compete for in their struggle for attention online. While this is an obvious concern for practitioners, few studies have explored how ‘the management of visibility’ [4] by political actors unfolds in practice on social media platforms, and what kinds of new political terrains this generates for online security politics.

Digital diplomacy is a fertile ground for unpacking the progressive potentialities of new media as to international security politics. Israel with its conflictual international relations and its self-image as a ‘start-up’ nation constitutes an interesting case study in this regard. This article will focus on two examples of Israeli digital diplomacy: the ‘Israel-Loves-Iran’ Facebook page initiated in 2012 as a citizen-driven campaign, and the 2017 ‘4IL’ campaign launched in partnership between governmental and civil society actors. While the campaigns clearly differ in their objectives, they share a mutual concern with online visibility management. For the former, visibility is a question of content production, where a specific kind of aesthetics is expected to provide a better chance of becoming visible and attracting attention. For the latter, visibility has less do with the content of the messages and more with the platforms’ infrastructures, as illustrated by attempts to orchestrate collective content reporting with the aim of making certain content invisible. As the traditional focus on diplomatic content production gives way to a concern with infrastructural connectivityi.e., the techno-social arrangements through which some messages end up on our screens while other become invisible — the analysis emphasizes the way in which technological affordances play an increasingly central role in shaping politics online. The article concludes by arguing that strategies for visibility management are becoming central to digitally-mediated politics, requiring further scrutiny as to how political issues appear and disappear on the screens of global users.

 

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Diplomacy and communication technologies

Commonly understood as the medium of international relations, diplomacy is a process of mediation through which political communities are represented to each other (Sharp, 2009; Kleiner, 2008; Jönsson and Hall, 2005). While traditional diplomacy involved face-to-face encounters between official state representatives, in recent years diplomacy has been widening to multiple sites and actors; this process has been accompanied by a discourse of participatory pluralism afforded by new media technologies. As argued by Alec Ross — senior advisor for innovation to secretary of state Hillary Clinton — ‘[d]iplomacy [today] isn’t just white guys in suits ... talking about what the relations between their governments should be’; it is instead ‘government-to-people, people-to-government and, ultimately, people-to-people-to-government communication’ (Ross, cited in Rasiej and Sifry, 2009).

The origins of this process can be traced back to the proliferation of electronic mass media technologies. Illustrated by initiatives such as Radio Free Europe and The Voice of America — and often conflated with the term propaganda — the so-called public diplomacy (PD) emerged in the U.S. as a ‘direct communication with foreign peoples, with the aim of affecting their thinking, and ultimately, that of their governments’ [5]. Despite early ‘People-to-People’ ideals, aimed at reconciliation and peace building [6], in practice PD became a state ‘instrument’ of soft power — that is ’the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment‘ [7]. This form of diplomacy regained interest following 9/11, and special attention has been paid to the Web, and later on social media (Melissen, 2005; Khatib, et al, 2012). As explained by Nye [8], ‘the conditions for projecting soft power have transformed dramatically’ and in this new media environment ‘diplomacy aimed at public opinion can become as important to outcomes as the traditional classified diplomatic communications among leaders’.

Following calls to take advantage of new media in promoting ‘soft power’ [9], new digitally-mediated diplomatic initiatives began to emerge. For example, in 2006 the U.S. Digital Outreach Team was formed, aiming ‘at directly engaging with online users’ in the Middle East by posting content and responding on various online threads [10]; in 2011 the U.S. ‘virtual embassy’ in Iran was established, consisting of a Web platform aimed to ‘serve as a bridge between the American and Iranian people’ (U.S. Virtual Embassy Iran, 2017) and so on. Similar initiatives began to spread globally, including in Israel where social media became a pivotal component in the governmental struggle for improving national image and reputation facing increasing international critique (e.g., Greenfield, 2012).

The literature on the topic tends to emphasize the progressive opportunities presented by new media to official state representatives, such as ‘relationship building, networking, alliances, partnership, and engagement’ [11]. Using new terms such as eDiplomacy (Hanson, 2012), Cyber-Diplomacy (Potter, 2002), Public Diplomacy 2.0 (Glassman, 2008; Khatib, et al., 2012), Network Diplomacy (Metzl, 2001), and Digital Diplomacy (Bjola and Holmes, 2015), it was postulated that new media technologies are ‘nothing less than a revolution in the practice of diplomacy’ [12], ranging from consular affairs (Melissen and Ceaser-Gordon, 2016) to international negotiations (Duncombe, 2017). PD scholars and practitioners particularly have expressed progressive hopes of bypassing state-controlled media in authoritarian regimes and moving beyond the broadcasting mode of communication to new forms of direct and participatory dialogue with foreign publics. PD scholars have also frequently discussed the instrumental gains of new media such as enlarging the audience for diplomatic messages, increasing message authenticity, and improving information gathering abilities (e.g., Seib, 2012; Hanson, 2012; Causey and Howard, 2013; Sotiriu, 2015; Holmes, 2015; Bjola and Jiang, 2015; Fletcher, 2016).

While some critics discard such initiatives as propagandistic ‘spam’ (Morozov, 2009), others attempt to reconceive digital PD in its original form as a practice conducted by the public rather than the state. Such notion of citizen diplomacy finds purchase in pluralist theories of diplomacy (Sharp, 2009) where practices of representation characteristic of religious and ethnic communities (Constantinou, 2010), cities and regions (Cornago, 2010), as well as digitally-mediated advocacy organizations, can be considered as forms of diplomacy — redefined here as ‘a mediation between estranged individuals, groups or entities’ [13]. In this approach, ‘any encounter with otherness can be potentially diplomatised’ [14], which destabilizes the essentialist understanding of diplomacy as an exclusive state practice. Instead, diplomacy is contingent on the prevailing political and technological arrangements, and today, arguably, ‘[e]nhanced by multiple platforms of networked media, non-state actors have become super-empowered ‘diplomats’’ [15] — i.e., actors that can make a ‘claim to represent a given polity to the outside world’ [16].

Citizen diplomacy is not however a new phenomenon (Sharp, 2001). Despite the democratizing connotations it carries, citizen diplomacy has often been used in the past for covertly promoting state interests (Kennedy and Lucas, 2005). As not all state activities can be deterministically (a priori) discarded as propagandistic ‘spam’, it could be heuristically useful to evaluate digital diplomacy’s progressive potential in terms of diplomatic sustainabilityi.e., modes of diplomatic engagement that go beyond immediate policy goals and focus on ‘long-term reconciliation and/or coexistence of competing entities and ways of living’ [17]. As I will elaborate next, to avoid reproducing narratives of ‘cyber-utopianism’ this kind of diplomatic understanding of international politics online — which privilege ‘the maintenance of relations ... over whatever those relations are purportedly about’ [18] — will require an appreciation of medium specificity and especially of the infrastructural arrangements through which digital diplomacy efforts become visible to social media users.

 

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Digital diplomacies’ infrastructures

IR scholars have long been aware of the role of media in international politics, but their ‘focus has been primarily on content’ rather than the technology through which it becomes visible [19]. This epistemic privilege of content over technological connectivity is still evident in the study of digital diplomacy today when dealing with one of the central dimensions of digitally-mediated politics: capturing user attention. Indeed, since the 1990s, the competition for user attention has been considered a major dimension of the commercial Web (Davenport and Beck, 2001). As political communication unfolds through this new media environment, diplomacy scholars similarly note a ‘paradox of plenty’, where ‘[p]lenty of information leads to scarcity of attention’ [20]. As the ‘competition for attention in the online space’ [21] intensifies, adjusting the content of the messages to the medium — e.g., by using visuals instead of text — is often associated in digital diplomacy with an effort to achieve ‘maximal visibility in the online space’ and become ‘better heard, listened to and followed by the relevant audiences’ [22].

The questions of attention and visibility online extend beyond content dynamics on the interfaces of the platforms, and new media research has begun investigating the multitude of ways in which the mundane and mostly invisible infrastructures of new media technologies afford, prompt, sort, display, and restrict our everydayness (e.g., Gerlitz, et al., 2019; Nieborg and Helmond, 2019; Bucher, 2018; Aradau and Blanke, 2018; Gillespie, 2018; Chun, 2016). Commenting on Twitter’s claim that ‘the infrastructure itself needs to fade into the background, the way water pipes are made invisible’, van Dijck states that ‘Twitter’s pipelines do not just transport streams of live tweets’, but ‘streams of data are engineered to promote certain uses and users over others’ [23]. From this perspective, gaining user attention in digital diplomacy is not only a question of adjusted content, but also of the broader techno-social arrangements through which this content circulates. In unpacking the relations between content and its infrastructural connectivity on digital platforms, several scholars emphasize the significance of understanding their regimes of visibility (e.g., Leander, 2017; Bucher, 2012; Mubi Brighenti, 2010).

Visibility plays a complex role in social theory, ranging from a threshold for inclusion in social life necessary for recognition, to a mechanism of power, surveillance and control (Mubi Brighenti, 2010). Specifically, visibility is often conceptualized as a regimei.e., a regularity in the distribution of technologies, institutions, discourses, and so on, through which what, whom and how we see is organized (Rajchman, 1988; Thompson, 1995; Gordon, 2002; Dean, 2010). Media technologies are of great importance to visibility regimes. For example, mass media generate a multiplicity of ‘synoptic’ spaces where those in power become more visible to regular citizens (Mathiesen, 1997), enabling them to reach global audiences while at the same time making them subject ‘to a kind of global scrutiny which simply did not exist before’ [24]. New media technologies redistribute visibility by affording new possibilities for political participation (Doyle, 2011). Yet, in the process, these technologies also constitute new algorithmic visibility regimes where what we see is no longer organized by humans but ‘by the various sorting and filtering algorithms’ [25] programmed by commercial platforms.

With distinct algorithms, patterns of usage and software architectures, today ‘[w]e do not have a single Internet anymore, but rather a multiplicity of distinct platforms’ [26] forming microsystems within the new media environment (van Dijck, 2013) and requiring ‘a medium-specific platform critique’ [27]. For example, visibility on Facebook is ‘a reward for interaction’ [28], and the algorithms that organize its News Feed take into account variables such as affinity between users and content type, when they calculate a rank for each item posted (e.g., see Constine, 2016): ‘[t]he higher the rank, the more likely it will be that an Object appears in the user’s feed’ [29]. Twitter’s data stream has some similar filtering options, but it also offers platform-specific algorithmic sorting options, such as “Trends to discover” (calculated based on location, activity history etc.), that influence which topics become more visible than others (Twitter Help Center, 2017; Newton, 2016). Social media platforms can thus be understood as ‘algorithmically managed visibility machines’ [30], whose visibility algorithms are ‘a sociotechnical actor capable of influencing users’ practices and experiences’ [31] by automatically ‘pushing’ differentiated content through ‘a continuous query for new data units’ [32].

Since more data is aggregated on the databases of platforms than can be simultaneously displayed on their interfaces, social media’s data stream software design (Manovich, 2012) is a pivotal component in the competition for attention online, creating essentially a ‘bottleneck’ for information flows, where visibility is scarce and ephemeral. For example, according to Facebook officials, ‘[o]n average, there are 1,500 stories that could appear in a person’s News Feed each time they log onto Facebook ... As a result, competition in News Feed ... is increasing, and it’s becoming harder for any story to gain exposure’ (Boland, 2014). Since visibility is a necessary condition for the type of politics digital diplomacy attempts to enact, the ‘devices developed to visibilise the visual[33], by positioning items vis-à-vis others within the data stream (Hochman, 2014), become politically salient and, as we shall see, create a new terrain for micro-political interventions that shift our attention from content to infrastructural connectivity.

Visibility has a strategic dimension ‘because it can be, and indeed is, manipulated by subjects’ [34]. As explained by Thompson [35], ‘the management of visibility is an ancient political art’ through which political actors attempt to construct and control how they are seen and by whom; nowadays, the new media environment have brought about a ‘transformation in the nature of visibility’ and this has ‘changed the rules by which this art is practiced’ [36]. However, despite the wide concern with the role of social media in politics, little is known about how the management of online visibility unfolds in practice by political actors. In addressing this gap I would like to suggest that the affordances of social media platforms enable (at least) two generic (and combinable) strategies of online visibility management: 1. self-hypervisibilizatione.g., through attempts to turn messages viral — and 2. the invisibilization of others — using, for instance, collective content reporting techniques. As will be seen in the following, these strategies can be enacted on a spectrum of sites, ranging from the content of the messages (with some sort of implicit understanding of how they circulate) to an explicit focus on the infrastructural connectivity arrangements that visibilize these messages (with some or no attention to the content) [37].

 

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Digital diplomacy in practice

Israel <3 Iran and self-hypervisibilization

One of the most common ways in which various digital diplomacy actors attempt to engage in visibility management on social media platforms is by adjusting the content of their messages to the specificities of the medium — as they understand it — out of belief that certain types of content have a better chance of gaining wider circulation than others. A good illustration of the potentialities and limitations such strategy holds for progressive security politics online is the 2012 Israel <3 Iran Facebook campaign — a digital citizen diplomacy initiative sparked in response to the securitization of the Iranian nuclear program in Israeli foreign policy debates (see Lupovici, 2014). Securitization involves the discursive assignment of existential urgency and drama to an issue in order to legitimize the usage of extraordinary measures, such as violence (Wæver, 2009, 1995; Buzan, et al., 1998), and as such it is often perceived in IR as a negative form of politics (e.g., Aradau, 2004; Wæver, 2009). Critical IR scholars suggest the possibility of desecuritizationi.e., the ‘shifting of issues out of emergency mode into the normal bargaining process of the political sphere’ [38] — as a progressive political move which would reinvigorate public debates and re-constitute national identities into nonthreatening terms (Tsinovoi, 2019; Hansen, 2012; Wæver, 2009, 1995). Representations are central to this form of security politics, and the campaign attempted to make such desecuritizing move on Facebook by strategically countering securitizing representations with the ‘aesthetics of everydayness’: everydayness ‘de-dramatises security questions by contextualising them in a wider social, economic, and political problematique expressed in everyday practices’ [39].

Specifically, the campaign was launched on 14 March 2012 when a graphic designer from Tel Aviv took a picture of himself and his daughter and posted it on Facebook (Peace Factory, 2012). The image was superimposed with a graphic text saying ‘IRANIANS we will never bomb your country WE <3 YOU’, and was accompanied by a ‘letter’ to the ‘Iranian people’. Within hours the post began receiving unexpected attention. The ‘big traffic’, the designer recalls, was caused by the ‘discussion opened up with the Iranians’ [40]. In the following days Israeli users began to request that their pictures be turned into similar images, and Iranian users began ‘to respond with their own posters’ (Edry, 2012). The event became ‘viral’, with over 121,000 likes, two million weekly views, and references on mass media outlets such as CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera [41]. A week after posting the first image, the public Israel-Loves-Iran Facebook page was launched, becoming the official platform of the campaign (Israel-Loves-Iran, 2012).

The production of visual content — focusing on the human face with superimposed graphics — became the main strategy in order to generate seemingly progressive desecuritizing content and assure its visibility on Facebook. The desecuritizing element focused on aestheticizing everydayness through depictions of human faces and various mundane everyday activities, superimposed with colorful graphics. As the designer explains, while governments attempt to ‘de-humanize’, the campaign aims at ‘re-humanization’ by ‘making you see the person that is meant to be your enemy’ and showing that this ‘person is just like you’ [42]. For example, in a typical post illustrating this strategy, we can see an encounter between an Iranian and an Israeli family, superimposed with a graphic text saying ‘breakfast WITH ENEMY’. The image [43] emphasizes the incongruity between the securitizing depictions of the other and the mundane everydayness of two indistinguishable families having breakfast together; it thus contests the imposition of exceptionality by contrasting it with the ambiguity and the tedium of everydayness (Israel-Loves-Iran, 2013).

A number of professional graphics designers joined the team, and their visibility management strategy began to reflect the practices and logics of commercial advertisement firms. As the designer describes, the campaign involved ‘questions of branding ... of how to sell a product’, only here ‘the product is peace ... co-existence, re-humanization’. Gaining visibility and user attention became associated with adjusting the content to the medium. As the designer puts it, online ‘when you see [through] a small frame on a screen, [content] has to tell a story very fast [and] a good image summarizes the story’; ‘when we are the consumers of so many images’ on social media, something has to make us ‘stop [and] want to know more ... like and share it, making it viral’. For this end, the human face is the most fascinating thing there is’; ‘without ... images with many faces, many colors ... [the campaign] wouldn’t have become so powerful’. It was important, the designer concludes, that ‘the images should be accurate and that there shouldn’t be anything ugly in them’, so that they could project ‘the same vision’ of ‘naïve [and] unifying messages’ [44].

Although this basic acknowledgement of the constraints imposed by the medium already move beyond many cyber-utopian narratives, the campaign still had to cope with several challenges to its diplomatic sustainability in terms of content and its infrastructural connectivity. First, as with any normalization attempt, the campaign carried the risk of diverting attention from the ongoing political struggles and of reproducing and normalizing prevailing hierarchies and power relations (e.g., Aradau, 2004; Kunstman and Stein, 2015). For example, in a post [45] consisting of a montage of seaside leisure activities from across the Mediterranean, including Tel Aviv and Gaza, the caption was that this is ‘also the Middle East ... Not only the shit happening on the news’ (Israel-Loves-Iran, 2016). Admittedly, such ‘excessive naivety’ is an element of ‘re-humanization’ strategy aiming to contest the predominant representations of violence common to the region [46]. However, in context of humanitarian crises and military blockades, the campaign not only gave form to actualized everydayness obfuscated by securitization — which could be re-discovered and recognized as such by the relevant publics — but also tried to simulate a new one. As the designer expressed it: ‘I don’t want to show you that which is bad, because you already have enough of that’. Instead, ‘images can create reality’ anew [47]. As some of the comments to this post have shown, the radical incongruity between such images and the everydayness that they seek to represent could also backfire, since those familiar with the circumstances could misrecognize these depictions of de-contextualized similarities, which was prone to lead to alienation and antagonism instead of recognition and reconciliation.

In the beginning, the visibility management strategy of the campaign paid off. In the course of time, however, the sustainability of the campaign became challenged by its inconsistent visibility. Indicators of shifts in visibility are the reactions and shares afforded by the platform — they serve essentially as visibility catalysts. Facebook’s algorithms translate higher engagement on the page into higher visibility of the page by calculating these micro-actions as part of the visibility ranking and, based on that, they make the content visible not only to the page’s followers but also to those with whom the reacting users are affiliated — as measured by the reach metric. For instance, during a TED talk, the designer mentioned that in the beginning of the campaign, when the page had ‘only’ 80,831 ‘likes’, the weekly reach was 2,005,204 (Edry, 2012), which reflected the number of users who had seen some element of the campaign on their screens. Data on the reach of the page over time is not available publically, but Facebook’s API have until recently made other visibility indicators available, enabling to partially trace these visibility dynamics.

As Figure 1 illustrates, the visual content posted on the campaign’s Facebook page clearly attracted more reactions and shares than text-based posts, rendering it more visible. Although this seems to confirm the visibility management strategy of the campaign, the designer did express disappointment that none of their other initiatives in the following years managed to produce similar viral effects as the first campaign and the activity on the page has since been in decline.

 

A bubble graph representing the reactions to content uploaded to the Israel-Loves-Iran Facebook page over time
 
Figure 1: A bubble graph representing the reactions to content uploaded to the Israel-Loves-Iran Facebook page over time. Each bubble represents a post, and its size reflects the number of shares. Data extracted using Netvizz (Rieder, 2013).

 

Presenting his own explanation, the designer argued that the campaign became viral due to its ‘timing’ and ‘simplicity’, at a moment when official diplomacy seemed to have failed and people were ‘thirsty for a dialogue’ [48] and willing to circumvent the state and be their ‘own ambassadors’ (Edry, 2012). New media and STS literature refers to such phenomena as ‘ad hoc issue publics’ [49], ‘sparked’ organically into being by people’s implication in unresolved issues (Marres, 2005). Such issue-public diplomacy requires though continuous re-articulation and circulation, and new media scholars note that ‘successful [viral] campaigns depend not only on sharing content but also on the active engagement of users in re-creating or appropriating items’; this involves a certain degree of ‘incompleteness’ or amateurishness which invites the users to fill-in the gaps [50]. By contrast, the professionalized approach of the campaign, where the images were crafted exclusively by the designers insisting on specific aesthetics and thematics, does not stimulate such engagement and can become counter-productive to the visibility management strategy of the campaign.

Finally, the strategy of the campaign was based on the organic dissemination of a content that, unlike paid content or bots, relies on the everyday practices of real individual users. Nevertheless, as the reports show, organic reach on Facebook has been in sharp decline since 2014, which has given rise to concern among page managers and advertisers (Van Grove, 2014). Confirming these concerns, Facebook officials have explained that not only has the increase in user sharing resulted in higher competition for each News Feed spot, but the filtering algorithm has been modified (Boland, 2014) in ways that might undermine the efforts of the campaign. While the exact nature of the changes was not made public, declarations about reducing the visibility of frequently circulated content and content that solicits reactions (Facebook for Business, 2014) clearly suggest a possible discrepancy between the visibility management strategy of the campaign and Facebook’s broader visibility arrangements. Illustrating the hybrid character of digitally-mediated politics, as they unfold through the entanglements of aesthetic, commercial, and technological logics and practices (see Leander, 2017), this case emphasizes the need for thick critical analytics of digital diplomacy that should account not only for content but also for the conditions for its techno-social visibility.

4IL and BDS: Invisibilizing others

Beside concerns with increasing the visibility of content, social media platforms also afford the users various ways in which to express their discontent with what they see and reduce its visibility. Using various ‘report’ or ‘block’ options attached to an item, a page or an account, social media platforms afford users to essentially invisibilize content posted by others (e.g., Facebook Help Center, n.d.). These forms of content moderation were designed for invisibilizing offensive or inappropriate content, such as incitement to violence or hate speech. However, their efficiency in monitoring and removing harmful content has been widely criticized, pointing to technological, organizational and political failures (e.g., Thomas, 2019; Gillespie, 2018). Since social media platforms are privately owned public spheres, these debates typically focus on the responsibilities of the platforms. What has so far received little attention is how specific users begin to engage strategically with the affordances of the platforms in order to invisibilize opponents.

An ample illustration of this visibility management strategy is the 4IL campaign, launched in 2017 by Israel’s newly established Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy (MSAPD). Entrusted with securing a positive representation of Israel abroad, the ministry focused its struggle on the Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) — an international network of civil society organisations claiming to represent Palestinian interests through calls for academic, cultural and economic boycotts against Israel (Blau, 2017; Lis, 2017; BDS, 2017). The Web and social media platforms became central to BDS activities as new public spheres for resistance politics, where these organizations had the possibility to re-articulate narratives and coordinate events by using vernacular strategies, such as hashtag campaigns (Aouragh, 2011; Abu-Ayyash, 2015; Hitchcock, 2016). As Israel grew concerned with its international misrecognition (Adler-Nissen and Tsinovoi, 2019), the BDS activities were increasingly depicted as a strategic national threat, jeopardizing the countrys international image and reputation and requiring urgent political attention (e.g., see Reut Institute, 2010; Olesker, 2013; AIPAC, 2014).

For this purpose, the ministry partnered with private citizens and NGOs, forming a pro-Israel network. As explained by the executive director: ‘We are fighting against a network [hence] we need ... a counter-network ... in which all parts act together in synergy’ [51]. Illustrating a new approach to visibility management, the 4IL campaign was launched in order to mobilize Israeli citizens to help change the way in which the state is represented abroad. Specifically, the viewers were invited to visit the Web site [52] of the campaign where, beside requests to share content through built-in social buttons in order to propel the credibility and organic visibility of the campaign, they were encouraged to download a Smartphone app called ACT.IL (4IL, 2017). The app, described as a ‘student initiative’, presented the user with daily ‘missions’, updated using push-notifications, such as retweeting, liking, and sharing of content curated by the app. Moreover, the app provided missions which involved reporting certain content in the attempt to invisibilize it on social media. For example, one of these missions involved reporting ‘an Inciting Facebook page’ that ‘calls for martyrdoms’, in order ‘to remove it from Facebook permanently’. After providing a description of how Facebook reporting works, the user was directed to the page so that the requested ‘mission’ could be accomplished [53].

The app thus combined vernacular techniques for visibility enhancement, such as liking or sharing content, with new techniques of invisibilization. As described by one of the people behind the initiative, ‘[c]ompanies, such as Facebook, remove content following reports from the community’, so ‘[a]s soon as content inciting against Israel is posted online, we send a message through the app, and all of its subscribers immediately report it’ (Weiss, 2017). In order to achieve this purpose, the app enabled high levels of granularity and precision in micro targeting people’s visibility management efforts — a mission could, for example, steer the user towards liking or reporting a specific comment within a larger comments thread. Push notifications afforded temporal continuity in engaging with the users of the app and enabled mobilizing users to act in response to concrete ongoing events and synchronize their efforts in real-time.

Although the declared purpose of the app was fighting negative online phenomena, such as hate speech and incitement to violence, its political logic, combined with the technological affordances of the app and the platforms, raise major normative and political concerns. For example, the gamified interface of the app, where users receive daily missions and compete with others, seems to diminish their political agency. While accounts of online political participation typically discuss new forms of complex techno-social self-expression — such as the formation of ad-hoc publics through hashtags (Brunes and Burgess, 2011) or the political use of vernacular genre such as memes and selfies (Shifman, 2014) — the app seems to reduce participation to carefully scripted and homogenized micro-actions, steered strategically by others. The app appears to emphasize the comfort and (almost unbearable) lightness with which state affiliated initiatives could potentially silence opposition groups operating online, thus reproducing (off-line) hierarchies and asymmetric power relations in digitally mediated politics.

Several factors mitigate these concerns. For once, according to the people behind the app, content removal is a question of quantity: ‘If there is only one person reporting it ... the content doesn’t meet the criteria for removal. If 300 report it ... the content is removed immediately’ (Weiss, 2017). However, according to Facebook Help Center (n.d.), the number of times something is reported does not determine whether or not the content is to be removed; the question is whether or not that content violates Facebook’s Community Standards, and this involves a qualitative evaluation by the platform. Thus, the attempts by the app to coordinate user reporting should not entail the removal of the content, unless the content is indeed deemed harmful by the platform. While the technical (and political) abilities of the platforms to identify and remove harmful content and users have been widely criticized, the arbitrary invisibilization of political opponents by using this technique of visibility management is still a remote possibility.

Despite the aspiration ‘to recruit millions around the world’ (Weiss, 2017), the efficiency of this initiative is questionable. Even though official data is unavailable, a report by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which was monitoring the app during a recent military clash, suggests that despite the potential of the app to become a ‘future model for influence operations’, the app ‘appears to struggle with user retention’ and has a negligible impact on the conversation online. As stated in the report, during the monitored two days ‘[o]ut of a userbase of 17,500, the app elicited approximately 300 publicly trackable pageviews and 243 Facebook interactions (and) an average of only 12 retweets’, resulting in ‘an inconsequential blip in a much larger digital dialogue’. The efficiency of the app appears to have been overstated according to the report. Instead, its ‘principal impact’ seems to be in ‘drawing the authenticity of Israeli public diplomacy efforts into question’ (@DFRLab, 2019).

Finally, even if social media do not level the international playing field, as cyber-utopians have hoped, they do afford new visibility management techniques to non-state actors that can challenge states. For example, a recent MSAPD report analyzing Twitter activities leading up to the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) hosted in Tel Aviv, express grave concerns about the ability of BDS supporters to conduct a vernacular ‘influence campaign’ calling to boycott the event. According to the report, the campaign consisted of several attempts to orchestrate ‘Twitter storms’ carrying the hashtag #boycotteurovision2019. In this technique of visibility management a tweet is circulated with a call into action, coordinating the time, message, and hashtags of the ‘storm’, which the users are then expected to tweet it at the designated time. The ‘sudden rise in activity around a particular subject’ [54] generated by the ‘storm’ could then be detected by the ‘Twitter Trends’ algorithm, rendering the hashtag visible to users outside the follow network of BDS supporters. Since hosting this event was considered of strategic importance to Israel, the report suggests that social media are not only an opportunity but also a threat for states, enabling non-state actors to reach millions of global users and, potentially, influence foreign policy.

 

++++++++++

Conclusions

Understanding the relations between the front and backend of digital platforms has long been considered central in new media research (Manovich, 2001; Gehl, 2011; Stadler, 2012). The examples in this article highlight the fact that in order to move towards sustainable digital diplomacy closer attention should be paid to the ways in which the visibility of content on the interfaces of social media platforms is constituted by their backend infrastructures. If indeed ‘[t]he meaning of politics is the freedom to appear among a plurality of equals and to engage in speech and persuasion’ [55], then these examples illustrate that techno-social visibility is a necessary yet insufficient condition for progressive security politics online. While neither amount to a convincing illustration of such politics in practice, they do illuminate several dimensions of digital mediation, which in this context require critical attention.

Despite the seemingly progressive desecuritizing moves in the example of Israel <3 Iran’s ‘people-to-people’ digital diplomacy, their exclusive focus on content — as the campaign’s main visibility management strategy — could also result in alienation and resentment, and render the content incongruent with the infrastructural visibility arrangements of the platform, leading to a decline in user attention. Seven years later, campaigns such as 4IL — including some of the BDS activities they target — seem to inverse this strategy, shifting focus from producing specific types of content to engaging strategically with the visibility infrastructures of social media platforms. This inversion, however, does not necessarily lead to effective visibility management or to diplomatic sustainability. The app raises considerable ethico-political concerns, and while it potentially increases the thematic granularity and temporal continuity of visibility management, its impact on the conversation online is questionable. The BDS campaign similarly appears to instrumentalize public participation, and while its vernacular strategies seem to be better adjusted to the platforms, it is left unclear how brief visibility peaks translate to user attention and how the potentially attained attention can be translated into political action.

Nonetheless, our culture is ‘dominated by the sense of sight’ [56], and this is especially evident on social media (e.g., Rainie, et al., 2012). This new political terrain, where political actors struggle over the possibility of appearing (or disappearing) within the data streams of global users, is becoming an integral part of digitally mediated politics across the globe. With visibility management techniques ranging from automated retweet apps (Hern, 2017) to micro-targeted content on YouTube (Redirect Method, n.d.) and search engine manipulation using keyword signaling (Tripodi, 2019), visibility management will undoubtedly continue to evolve in tandem with social media platforms, requiring perhaps a closer conversation between the study of new media and diplomacy. On the one hand, for example, diplomacy scholars have so far treated digital diplomacy as a digitized version of foreign policy, using essentially the same theories and methods as before (e.g., Bjola and Manor, 2018). Understanding the emerging techniques of visibility management, however, requires a more natively digital approach, such as the one developed by STS-informed new media research, which ‘strive[s] to follow the evolving methods of the medium’ [57]. On the other hand, a diplomatically sustainable approach to digitally mediated politics ‘concerned [not only] with advocacy, policy implementation and public relations but also — and more crucially — with [...] finding ways and terms under which rival entities and ways of living can co-exist’ [58], might render the new media research more sensitive to encounters with alterity. End of article

 

About the author

Alexei Tsinovoi is a postdoc in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. Alexei’s research interests are science and technology studies (STS), digital methods, political philosophy, and IR theory. Alexei’s current research focuses on the role of new media technologies in international relations, with an empirical focus on the remediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
E-mail: ats [at] ifs [dot] ku [dot] dk

 

Acknowledgements

Alexei’s postdoc project is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation (project no. CF18-1015).

 

Notes

1. Bjola, 2015, p. 4.

2. Morozov, 2011, p. xiii.

3. Kranzberg, 1986, p. 545.

4. Thompson, 1995, p. 135.

5. Malone, 1985, p. 199.

6. Bu, 1999, p. 396.

7. Nye, 2008, p. 94.

8. Nye, 2008, p. 99.

9. Kennedy and Lucas, 2005, p. 316.

10. Khatib, et al., 2012, p. 456.

11. Zaharna, et al., 2013, p. 7.

12. Bjola, 2015, p. 4.

13. Der Derian, 1987, p. 93.

14. Constantinou, 2015, p. 25.

15. Constantinou and Der Derian, 2010, p. 18.

16. Sending, et al., 2015, p. 6.

17. Constantinou and Der Derian, 2010, p. 2.

18. Sharp, 2009, p. 10.

19. Deibert, 1997, p. 18.

20. Nye, 2008, p. 99.

21. Bjola, et al. 2019, p. 86.

22. Bjola, et al. 2019, p. 87.

23. Van Dijck, 2013, p. 70.

24. Thompson, 1995, p. 148.

25. Bucher, 2012, pp. 1,166–1,667.

26. Hands, 2013, p. 1.

27. Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013, p. 1,348; Marres, 2012; Rogers, 2013.

28. Bucher, 2012, p. 1,174.

29. Bucher, 2012, p. 1,168.

30. Gillespie, 2018, p. 178.

31. Bucher, 2012, p. 1,166.

32. Hochman, 2014, p. 2.

33. Mubi Brighenti, 2010, p. 34.

34. Mubi Brighenti, 2010, p. 39.

35. Thompson, 1995, p. 135.

36. E.g., managing the relations with the press, by providing stories, photo opportunities or controlling the effects of leaks are common practices of visibility management in the context of mass media technologies (Thompson, 1995).

37. On the distinction see Manovich (2001), Odlyzko (2001), and O’Reilly (2012).

38. Buzan, et al., 1998, p. 4.

39. Huysmans, 1998, p. 588.

40. Interview, Tel Aviv, 19 July 2016. The interview and all other sources that were not originally in English were translated by the author.

41. For example, see Zuckerman (2012), Margalit (2012), and Mebes (2012).

42. Interview, Tel Aviv, 19 July 2016.

43. https://www.facebook.com/israellovesiran/photos/a.401026863258378/614193465275049/?type=3&theater.

44. Interview, Tel Aviv, 19 July 2016.

45. https://www.facebook.com/israellovesiran/photos/a.401026863258378/1237866416241081/?type=3&theater.

46. Interview, Tel Aviv, 19 July 2016.

47. Ibid.

48. Interview, Tel Aviv, 19 July 2016.

49. Bruns and Burgess, 2011, p. 2.

50. Shifman, 2014, p. 72.

51. Israel. Knesset. Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information, 2017, p. 29.

52. https://web.archive.org/web/20180305230400/http:/www.4il.org.il/eng/.

53. Based on the official description of the app (https://itunes.apple.com/il/app/act-il-online-community-for-israel/id1141853455?mt=8) (accessed 16 May 2019) and personal observations.

54. Israel. Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, 2019, p. 7.

55. Owens, 2007, p. 25.

56. Jay, 1988, p. 3.

57. Rogers, 2013, p. 1.

58. Constantinou and Der Derian, 2010, p. 2.

 

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Editorial history

Received 21 May 2019; revised 8 April 2020; accepted 17 April 2020.


Copyright © 2020, Alexei Tsinovoi. All Rights Reserved.

The management of visibility in digital diplomacy: Infrastructures and techniques
by Alexei Tsinovoi.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 5 - 4 May 2020
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/10116/9424
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i5.10116