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Integrating digital media as a diplomacy tool in advancing Kenya’s national interests

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Integrating digital media as a diplomacy tool in advancing Kenya’s national interests

Patrick Maluki

Mwangangi Njagi

14 Oct 2021

5min min read
  • Diplomacy
  • Mass media and international relations

This article is published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University.

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he digital element is inevitable in the conduct of diplomacy in today’s networked world. Development and application of digital media tools in order to engage foreign publics is referred to as “digital diplomacy.” Today there are over five billion internet users globally, but the digital divide is most apparent in Africa which has the world's lowest internet penetration rates. The continent's internet penetration stands at 42.2% compared to Asia at 58.8%, Oceania/Australia at 67.7%, the Middle East at 70.8%, Latin America/Caribbean at 71.5%, Europe at 87.2%, and North America at 90.3%. The world average internet penetration is 62.2%. While this could provide reasons as to why African countries’ foreign policy objectives are not being met, in this article we make the case for Kenya's government and diplomatic community to embrace the digital tools at their disposal.

Avenues for digital diplomacy

The era of “invitation only meetings” is fading and the world view can now be shaped by everyone, including populations in remote areas provided that the internet is available. As such, African countries and other developing parts of the world, like Latin America, can aid and promote diaspora diplomacy, networked diplomacy, and nation branding if they fully embrace digital diplomacy. Such digital diplomacy can be pursued in a number of ways.

According to American political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power refers to the use of positive attraction and persuasion in order to attain state interests as outlined in its foreign policy. Soft power abhors the use of traditional foreign policy tools of punishing those who do not conform and rewarding those in tandem, in what is referred to as a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. However as Nye asserts, soft power seeks to attain influence for a state through building connections and networks. This is where digital media works best. A classic example concerns Kenyan shuttle diplomacy to lobby African countries to help pressure the International Criminal Court (ICC) to drop crimes against humanity charges against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto in 2014.

The proponents fashioned the case as an affront against Kenyan sovereignty and, by extension, an attempt to humiliate African leaders and their people. As Nye writes, digital media has established a “global civilian power” which is a concept of power that considers a people-centered approach to diplomacy. During this era of abundance of plenty where information is readily available, any government that wants to make an appeal globally can do so.

"[I]n this era of digital diplomacy, diplomatic discourse is no longer the realm of ministries of foreign affairs."

Indeed, digital media tools, if properly deployed, can help a state to improve its social standing among nations. For instance, if African Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) are prominent on digital media, they can stimulate interest in their countries.

African countries with weak financial muscles to establish physical embassies in all states, for example, can lower operation costs and embrace digital diplomacy to mount virtual embassies.

Another issue that has gained traction is the concept of sharp power, which concerns the use of digital media for manipulation and distraction. The concept was advanced by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, who argued that the purpose of employing sharp power is to manipulate the minds of the target population in a certain country. In this instance, digital tools are used to create platforms that can easily circulate pieces of misinformation and disinformation to alter public perceptions and opinions. China and Russia are frequently cited as classic examples.

Within Africa, digital media can be used in conflict-prone areas to foment fears and to spread misinformation. It is also often used during elections as contestants line up digital media tools as one of the victory deliverables. During the 2017 Kenyan presidential elections, for example, the incumbent, President Uhuru Kenyatta, hired the services of Cambridge Analytica who employed the use of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and other technology apparatus to depict him as a progressive leader while maligning his fiercest close opponent. This is just one instance in which digital media tools have been deployed across the world today to poison democratic principles and to manipulate the mind of voters. Within East Africa, Al-Shabaab has also used social media tools for various purposes in their extremist activities in Kenya and Somalia.

Digital diplomacy in Kenya

With regard to soft power, digital media can provide Kenya, which has a diaspora population of over four million people, with a huge potential of boosting its economy via remittances. According to the Central Bank of Kenya, diaspora remittances as at June 2019 was about KES 276.8 billion. Digital media can also easily be used by Kenyan embassies abroad to share information on investment opportunities back home.

Kenya's Ministry of Tourism, which is carrying out a digital campaign on Brand Kenya, can also use digital media as it embarks on nation branding and marketing. Moreover, non-state actors on the forefront of campaigns for or against some state foreign or domestic policies can use their influence on digital media. In this regard, Kenya must take advantage of her global standing in sports, particularly athletics, to brand herself.

Digital media can also be utilised to deliver a clear policy signal on issus of international importance such as trade, migration, climate change, peace and terrorism. Given the abundance of communication tools available, Kenya can essentially communicate with anyone to improve a situation of global concern. Moreover, in this era of digital diplomacy, diplomatic discourse is no longer the realm of ministries of foreign affairs. It is inter-ministerial and pervasive across all facets of humanity. Everyday, a new network layer builds up and the power is gradually shifting and being shared between states and non-state actors.

With regard to sharp power, Kenya and the rest of Africa need to collaborate with news agencies - both within mainstream and social media - to positively combat conspiracies, misinformation, and disinformation that manipulates African populations into approving mischievous actions of sharp power wielders. There are many big multinational firms like Cambridge Analytica who are being paid to distribute information with a programmed intent to mislead and manipulate their target audience. They create malicious content, deep fakes, bots and millions of fake accounts to aid the process.

Concluding remarks

For Kenya, digital diplomacy success will revolve around developing compelling content, then identifying entry points into existing networks and pushing it through them. However, with information being transmitted without any regulatory body, both truths and untruths will bear equal weight. It is therefore cardinal for diplomats to remain vigilant and to set agendas for such discussions based on the truth and to help shape opinions and public perceptions rather than sitting back to file responses in countering disinformation and misinformation.

In a positive development, in July 2020, Google launched Project Loon, a balloon-powered internet service to provide 4G LTE internet connectivity in remote and rural areas in Kenya. Thirty-five solar-powered balloons were released to aid internet connectivity and will remain in constant motion in the stratosphere above eastern Africa. The initiative is a big boost for people-to-people diplomacy and will go a long way in influencing digital diplomacy within Kenya and the rest of Africa.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.

(Main image: Getty)