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Emerging Technologies and Digital Diplomacy

Advances in technology are inexorably changing the nature of politics and democracy, and at the same time introducing new risks to the realm of international security.

In this brave new world, the explosion in social media usage has reduced the traditional agency of politicians and diplomats over the flow of information, while empowering citizens with tools for greater accountability and scrutiny - but it also poses unprecedented threats to privacy. The line between the public and private realms has become blurred.

President Trump is of course the best-known pioneer of the politicisation of social media: his unabashed tweets have at least partially removed the veil of formality from the communication of American foreign policy. The apparent rapprochement in North-South Korean relations following the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, has even been ascribed to Trump’s very public Twitter threats against the North Korean regime. The trend towards digital diplomacy seems to be catching on, with some 55% of foreign ministries having established Twitter platforms by 2018.

Those who can harness the online data revolution are able to reap disproportionate rewards. The most egregious example has been Cambridge Analytica’s use of data to allegedly influence voters in the 2016 US Presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum. As a result, there is a rising global impetus to counteract disinformation, particularly in relation to the phenomenon of online ‘silos’ - where search algorithms and social media environments are tailored to people’s existing beliefs and preferences - which in turn reinforces political cleavages. And there are further technologies whose potential impact not yet clear: the emerging use of tracking technology, for example, such as Snapchat’s ‘map’ feature that enables users to see where their ‘friends’ are at any time.

On the security front, cyber threats have become a major concern for governments, corporations and individuals alike. Russia has proven particularly adept in the use of cyber attacks in Ukraine, the Baltics, and Georgia - to the point where it’s possible to speak of a new form of hybrid warfare. Following the poisoning of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal in the UK, the possibility of a cyber-escalation between two major world powers was raised for the first time.

Meanwhile, on the field of conflict, modern warfare is changing with developments in additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) could enhance the ability of violent non-state actors (NSAs) to obtain and manufacture weapons. Drone technology has introduced a new means of delivery and attack, with the added potential to serve as an enabling tool for chemical, biological radiological and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism.

Author: Sarah Stearne