Is the use of social media really a way for public institutions to reach a foreign population, engage in a two-way discussion and achieve one’s foreign policy goal? Or is it a lure of modernity that risks backfiring if not used well? With the largest Internet users’ community and the apparition of netizens, able to influence to some degree state policies, China is an interesting laboratory for EU digital diplomacy.
The strategy of EU digital diplomacy is to create a cost-saving synergy between a central message revolving around Federica Mogherini’s personal management of her Twitter account, while giving way for local adaptation (Mann, 2015). EU digital diplomacy aims at emphasizing team work around an anchor, thereby also conveying an image of unity in diversity. Similarly, the use of social media, when done in an optimal way – that is with accounts that are not dormant and links that are working –, also spread an innovative image. The key messages are the following ones: accessibility, transparence, promotion of European values, and information about European politics. Indeed, the two-way conversation Mann advocates for would surely be a strong asset in foreign policy. Yet, it has been repeatedly pointed out that two-way conversation is lacking in digital communication campaigns (Ronit Kampf, Ilan Manor and Elad Segev, 2015). Finally, live-reporting such as the #IranTalks has been praised as a success for offering a sense of proximity to the audience while providing for trustworthy information (Pamment, 2015).
Michael Mann recalls that the “inherent contradiction in digital diplomacy” lies between the secrecy and long-term view required by diplomacy and the transparence and immediacy expected in social media. As diplomacy with China covers a number of highly sensitive topics (human rights, trade), we expect to see this contradiction particularly prevalent in EU’s Chinese digital diplomacy.
With the largest number of internet users, China also has the one of the most isolated Internet networks. Though the use of Virtual Private Networks increases among the Chinese population, most Chinese still resort to the Chinese equivalent of Facebook and Twitter, namely We Chat and Weibo. Starting less than ten years ago, both networks reach nowadays skyrocketing rates in terms of frequentation. According to a 2017 report (Li, 2017), almost 60% of We Chat users use the application daily. Although only 9.8% of Weibo users log in daily, more than 30% is still connecting at least once per month.
The report concludes that Chinese social networks have a young user population although older generations are catching up, either an effect from natural aging of users or a genuine growing affection for social media from the older generations. The average age of We Chat and Weibo users is 33.1years, representing therefore a really specific segment of the Chinese population, one who didn’t know Mao’s communism, but who is old enough to remember China’s outstanding economic development.
The report also tries to identify “what makes a meaningful social buzz”. When Weibo was born, criticism of social evils were the most popular posts. Now it has evolved towards more entertainment and a commercialized usage of Weibo. Thus, a remarkable action is for instance the British Council’s live broadcasting between UK and Chinese students, which totalized nearly 6 million of viewers. Analyzing this event, they found that people cared about visual quality and appearance, and less about content.
The overall recommendations of this report are similar to any communication agency’s recommendations in the world: target the right people at the right moment with the right message on the right platform and don’t always strive for quantity.
Adding to that, it seems that the first social media Chinese people go to is We Chat since it is Facebook and Twitter together. Yet, Weibo is also important: because it is a website, a Baidu research (the Chinese Google) can lead you to it. It is however important to keep in mind that social media are very volatile, especially regarding “influencers” (Elizabeth Dubois; Devin Gaffney, 2014): only 55% percent of the top 500 accounts stayed in the top lists for 2 years and 12 of the top accounts were deleted or banned in 2017 “due to various reasons” (Chen). Lastly, Chinese President Xi Jinping doesn’t have a personal account. An official account of the Chinese government does exist and some “funny” contents are occasionally posted although most of them remain official declarations.
The EU delegation in Beijing has a Weibo page called “EU in China”. Since it is entirely in Chinese, with very few content translated into English, we assume that most of its 185 followers and 161,458 fans are Chinese. With 8,074 followers on their We Chat account, the EU delegation is faring pretty well according to a Chinese communication expert.
Working in Europe, European culture, studying in Europe and the European film festival in China are the topics that first catch the reader’s eyes, at the top of the page. It is thus immediately apparent that the strategy of this page is informative and focused on cultural diplomacy, with very light political content, just like the EU delegation in Japan for instance. Nevertheless, when one scrolls down the stream of posts – approximately one per week – news that promote EU policies such as the environment or the refugees appear. Once in a while, “funnier” contents are published, like the post at the occasion of the 8001th fan which thanked the fans and wish them good luck for their gaokao, the equivalent of the baccalaureate in China and a determinant moment in every Chinese student’s life. Humor is definitely a register proper to social media which usually reach a younger audience.
Sixty-seven articles are also available on the website, mostly about events where the EU is involved and officials’ declarations. There might be here some editorial choices about the topics. Indeed, social media also bear the advantage of enabling institutions to set some agenda of debate. As an example, on May 17th, 2017, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, the EU delegation posted the Declaration by the HR Federica Mogherini, in which she was strongly hinting at governments’ inaction towards gay rights. China is without doubts one of them (Yan, 2017).
The EU delegation doesn’t delete negative comments. Either it wants to fit to the image of an institution open to debate or it just lacks sufficient human resources. However, the best would be to follow up on the comments since social media are about discussion, not mere publication. Similarly, posting mostly content in English like the European Chamber of Commerce does on Weibo, doesn’t convey the image of an institution willing to engage in dialogue with the Chinese population.
Donald Tusk, the EU Film Festival and Erasmus Mundus also have a Weibo page, showing the informative and promotional purpose in the use of social media by the EU. No strong assertion of EU values appears on these pages though. Even the choice of the declarations published is a shy one as the language used in these declarations has already been thoroughly studied to be accepted by foreign governments.
“If you don’t exist on the social media sphere today, you don’t exist at all” once said a communicator. Continuing to engage China in the digital world and increasing its visibility there seems to be the only path for the EU. Yet, it is important to remember that each digital environment is complex and that “good communication doesn’t lie in the number of posts, rather the contrary”.
Social media are about staging one’s life, about visibility. Therefore, the biggest opportunity identified for the EU’s use of social media is to stage itself, increasing thereby its soft power. Meanwhile and even more in the context of a state-controlled society like China, it seems harder for the EU to conduct an overt advocacy digital diplomacy, regarding human rights for instance(Parliament, 2016)
. As often the case in digital diplomacy and diplomacy as a whole, nothing shows that the EU listens to the Chinese public (Melissa D. Dodd; Steve J. Collins, 2017). Yet, the use of big data analysis permits targeted messages, much more efficient that blind posting. Listening would thus improve “people-to-people connectivity” (Parliament, 2016).
In this view, Michael Mann is encouraging all European actors to contribute to the spread of key messages. Adding to him, I argue that EU could also get inspired by this diversity of actors, and profit from their various positioning in the digital sphere. A quick search on We Chat shows that at least 8 member states’ embassies have an account, and 4 more have only a tourism agency. Great Britain provides us with an example of a successful digital communication strategy in China with the “GREAT” campaign. On the occasion of a visit of Prince William to Shanghai the 2nd and 3rd of March 2015, a festival was launched at the Long Museum, promoting creativity. The person of the Prince, the location, and the digital campaign that accompanied it all contributed to the success of what is remembered as a modern, dynamic and attractive display of the UK. The communication was described as using simple messages with many visuals to targeted audiences who passed the messages on. The key of this success might be the fact that the UK embassy delegated its digital communication to a professional communication agency who carried out a prior evaluation using big data analysis to know criteria such as how much people would react, and what their reaction would be. Having a single agency also allowed for a degree of coordination, leading to an efficient “staging”.
Lastly, from an academic point of view, a more rigorous analysis of EU digital diplomacy in China on specific topics would be of interest to try to assess the potential of digital diplomacy. Indeed, because Chinese people engage in a rather isolated digital sphere, there is little chance that they are influenced by EU institutions’ posts on other Twitter and Facebook accounts. Similarly, the contents posted on We Chat and Weibo are expected to be closely targeted for an exclusively Chinese audience.
Image: Screen capture of the Weibo page of the EU delegation in China
Chen, T. (s.d.). Trend report of the top de 500 WeChat Official Account. Récupéré sur walktthechat.com/category/wechat-news/
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Li, R. (2017). Growth of Social Media Platforms. CTR China netizen behaviour data analysis platform.
Mann, M. (2015, April 27). BLOGPOST: The European External Service and Digital Diplomacy.
Melissa D. Dodd; Steve J. Collins. (2017). Public relations message strategies and public diplomacy. An empirical analysis using Central-Eastern European and Western Embassy Twitter accounts, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2017.02.004
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Yan, A. (2017, June 28th). Chinese cities among the most unfriendly to gay community, with Beijing the worst: survey. South China Morning Post.