Winning hearts and likes: Foreign affairs, defence and Facebook 
2 Jun 2020|

For defence officials and diplomats, digital media, and specifically social media, have become an unavoidable aspect of their operations, communications and strategic international engagement. But the use of those media isn’t always understood or appreciated by governments.

Facebook has become crucial. With some notable exceptions (such as China), in many places (like some Southeast Asian countries), Facebook is so popular that it’s often roughly synonymous with the internet. Facebook pages provide opportunities for defence forces to communicate with the public and, at least as importantly, for the public to express their gratitude, admiration and affection for their defence forces. In contrast, diplomatic Facebook pages are targeted at, and receive attention from, foreign publics.

In my new ASPI report, Winning hearts and likes: How foreign affairs and defence agencies use Facebook, I argue that the Australian government should use social media far more strategically to engage international audiences—particularly in the diplomatic and defence portfolios. In order to generate lessons, my report makes comparisons between Australian government pages and their counterparts in the US, the UK, New Zealand and Canada.

While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence both use social media, including accounts managed by diplomatic posts overseas and by units of the Australian Defence Force, both departments can improve how they reach and engage online. More importantly than the content, online engagement is dependent on the strength of the ties between the senders or sharers and the recipients of the content. For both departments, improving those online ties is vital as they seek to influence.

It’s important to note, however, that their use cases and audiences are different. DFAT’s audience is primarily international and varies by geographical location. Defence has a more local audience and focus.

The data shows that things like geography, population size and per capita GDP matter. An important finding of this research, for example, is that for Australian officials Facebook appears to be more useful for public diplomacy in developing countries that are small, young and geographically close to Australia. Also, countries that are closer to one another or more strategically intertwined are more likely to follow embassy and consulate Facebook pages (for Australia, Timor-Leste; for the US, Mexico and Iraq).

Both DFAT and Defence should review outdated digital strategies, cross-promote more content and demonstrate transparency and accountability by articulating and publishing social media policies. Both departments should create more opportunities for training and the sharing of skills and experiences of public diplomacy staff. They should refrain from relying solely on engagement metrics as success measures (that is, as a measure of an individual’s, usually senior staff’s or heads of missions’, level of ability or achievement).

DFAT should remove the direction for all Australian heads of mission overseas to be active on social media. While this presence is indeed useful and boosts the number of global government accounts, if our ambassadors aren’t interested in putting resources into those efforts, the result can be sterile social media accounts that don’t engage and that struggle to connect with publics online. Instead, both departments should encourage those who are interested in and skilled at digital diplomacy to use openness, warmth and personality to engage.

My report also highlights and recognises the value of social media for the defence community— especially as a means of providing information and support for serving personnel and their families—by supporting the use of Facebook for those purposes by all defence units.