Lowy Institute

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • Jack Ma, head of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, wants to build a 'cyber silk road' to Russia.
  • Why the influence of social media on Singapore's politics is here to stay.
  • China's anti-corruption agency has added a feature on its smartphone app so users can report official corruption in real time and upload photos as evidence. The update is already proving popular. (H/t Sam.)
  • It looks like the North Korean Government has added Instagram to the country's list of blocked social media sites. 
  • The scanning of QR codes has been a tech fail in most countries,  but not in China.
  • Allegations that South Asia's Islamist militant propaganda websites and social media accounts are promoting Islamic State at the expense of al Qaeda. 
  • Perhaps coinciding with President Xi Jinping's visit to China's first big data exchange, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has called for a big data alliance to be set up for the country's One Belt-One Road initiative.  
  • Myanmar's internet may be freer than ever before but at the intersection of information, technology and politics, new hazards are emerging.
  • New research shows China far outstrips the US and Germany when it comes to industry 4.0 technology patents (4th industrial revolution), with Chinese researchers patenting wireless sensor networks, energy-efficient technologies, low-cost robots and big data.
  • India's slow response to cyber warfare is under the spotlight.
  • Following the cyberattack on the US Government's Office of Personnel Management, the hunt for hacking group 'Deep Panda' intensifies
  • An emoji keyboard with 3000+ stickers, thanks to popular Japanese messaging app LINE. Foreign Minister Bishop, and others interested, can download it here. And if you don't know what an emoji is:


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • A smartphone revolution in Vietnam is catapulting millions of people into the internet age.
  • There are claims that Hong Kong's activist social media culture is under threat after a series of controversial arrests.
  • Calls for a greater focus on implementing projects that use simple technology (i.e. SMS) rather than mobile apps in PNG and the Pacific Islands region.
  • Cambodia's debate on internet freedom is heating up, with human rights organisations particularly concerned about the country's new draft anti-cybercrime law.
  • Mobile apps are transforming how motorcycle taxis operate in Jakarta.
  • This blog details five years of – apparently successful – cyber espionage that targeted countries, and their various governmental organisations, involved in the South China Sea (full report here).
  • Buoyed by mobile internet growth, digital ad spending in Southeast Asia is booming (i.e. 80% increase in Indonesia expected this year). However, poor infrastructure and a lack of skills in mobile development is holding back the market.
  • Following protests sparked by private car ride-sharing apps, China's state media has disappointing news for Uber fans.
  • Will higher taxes on 2G mobile handsets move Indonesians to 4G within the next few years?
  • Controversial Facebook initiative Internet.org has arrived in Pakistan. Some are sceptical, but others are welcoming the initiative with open arms. One person has even taken to billboarding his gratitude.
  • Outside of Asia, (exploiting) selfies from Russian troops in Ukraine serves as a a striking reminder of the value of open-source intelligence (note: this video contains graphic content at the beginning)



Last week the Lowy Institute hosted a speech by Australia's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. If you haven't already listened to it, you can do so here. It's worth staying tuned for the Q&A where Bishop skilfully handled a number of tough questions.

The speech itself was rather simple. The Foreign Minister told of how she interprets Australian soft power, outlining a number of Government initiatives intended to help project this power (including what is becoming a favoured soft power tool, and one with replication potential, koala diplomacy). The Australian aid program, currently under fire for its lack of transparency, was described as a 'vital aspect' of Australian soft power, with Bishop's innovationXchange initiative getting significant attention.

The Australian consulate in Hong Kong's Facebook page did not mention the Tiananmen anniversary. The Australian embassy in Cambodia is not on Facebook.

But in a speech on Australian soft power which was characterised by themes such as innovation, reform, technology, ideas and modernisation, there was one startling omission: digital diplomacy.

A decade ago this would have gone unnoticed. Even five years ago this exclusion wouldn't have been unusual, but would likely be picked up. Today however, international relations is increasingly characterised by state and non-state actors wrestling for online influence. So failing to even mention, let alone outline, Australia's plans for digital diplomacy was particularly strange, further illustrated by the fact that none of the social media accounts available to the Foreign Minister (DFAT now has over 100) communicated her speech in real-time. Nor was there a coordinated effort to engage with this large online network on the policies and initiatives raised in the Minister's speech.

Bishop missed a huge opportunity. In a major speech on soft power, digital diplomacy wasn't discussed and digital diplomacy didn't occur.

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This oversight is particularly worrying for two reasons. Firstly, it renders the Foreign Minister's vision for Australian soft power incomplete, because the options available to the Government to influence key stakeholders, including on initiatives raised in Bishop's speech, are entirely inadequate. For example, how can the Government's economic diplomacy policy reach its full potential when the Government is not yet effectively using the internet to promote and discuss the policy, or to identify and engage with potential beneficiaries of the policy.

Secondly, the omission could be taken to suggest that the Foreign Minister and her office give little thought to how the growth of internet access and mobile telephony is transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the Asia Pacific, and how internationally-focused government agencies — from intelligence to defence to diplomacy – need to adjust. Australia is already far behind most countries, including the US, UK, India, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Sweden and Israel (just to name a few), who are all excelling in the digital diplomacy space. Unlike Australia, these countries have invested serious resources, and they have plenty to show for this investment.

Most of these countries have formed dedicated digital diplomacy units and are executing long-term strategies. They unleashed their diplomats on social media years ago (not just ambassadors) and are developing new ties with global tech companies (much like public-private partnerships) to help propel their efforts. They have diversified their reach beyond social media through multilingual podcasts and blogs (even Tanzania's diplomatic corps has a blog!). They are working through various methods of reaching and influencing different audiences. Their foreign ministries are experimenting with new online tools (like live-streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat) and different ways of connecting with people in order to assess which tools and methods best suit their needs.

It is worth noting that the Foreign Minister's recent silence on digital diplomacy is a new development. In 2011, as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bishop wrote an op-ed on the power of social media and the critical role new media played in the Arab Spring and President Obama's political campaigns. The same year she praised US digital diplomacy in Indonesia and discussed opportunities for Australia in using new media tools to engage with grassroots communities. In 2014 it seemed a digital diplomacy strategy was taking shape when the Foreign Minister announced, in reference to the Australia Network's $22 million budget, that the Government could find more effective ways to promote Australia.

One year on, Australia finds itself with more social media accounts but stuck in a cycle of broadcasting rather than influencing. These accounts rarely sway from safe and light-hearted topics such as koalas, food, studying and holidaying. As I have said before, these are not unimportant topics. But because of the risk-averse nature of Australia's online diplomacy, we are not seeing the kinds of power and influence we should expect from our overseas representatives. Instead, the Australian Government is projecting a meek global voice while our peers use the same tools to stamp their views and position their policy on current events. This is in stark contrast to the strong international voice the Foreign Minister referenced in her Lowy speech and completely at odds with how Australian diplomacy is conducted offline.

In today's internet-drenched world, the Foreign Minister must turn her mind to digital diplomacy. 20,000 visitors might have witnessed koala diplomacy at Singapore Zoo, but this figure pales in comparison to the almost 1.3 million social media followers DFAT has amassed over the last few years through its posts and ambassadors (not including the unexploited Australian Aid account).

The potential of these accounts is enormous. With each 'like' and re-tweet, the Australian Government exposes its content to new audiences. A coordinated and creative online effort could see the Australian Government's koala diplomacy initiative reach tens of millions of people around the world instead of just thousands. But before that can happen, the Foreign Minister needs to capitalise on the growing momentum in her Department and champion a forward-thinking digital diplomacy strategy that commits resources and helps her to find the right expertise. Only then can she pull Australian digital diplomacy out of catch-up mode and into real-time.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • A National Geographic photographer captured his recent trip to North Korea via Twitter’s live video Periscope app. The results are extraordinary.
  • Local volunteerism and online collaboration is shaking up the status quo in Nepal following the country’s devastating earthquake.
  • What Silicon Valley can learn from Seoul
  • China's cyber police are coming out 'from behind the curtains' and joining social media. With more than 25 accounts from Shanghai to Xinjiang and Tibet launched on Weibo so far, the move seems designed to encourage citizen reporting and will almost certainly tighten the state’s control over the internet.
  • New technologies are providing tools for empowerment, yet democracy is stagnating. What’s up?
  • 478 million people in China listen to music online but companies aren't making much money. Chinese internet giant Tencent is planning to change that.
  • How the internet has exacerbated the tug of war over Thailand’s cultural values: one feature in this NY Times Magazine piece on digital imperialism.
  • As the death toll from a capsized cruise ship on China's Yangtze River continues to climb amid strict online censorship, some Chinese netizens are angry at how local media is glorifying 'handsome' rescuers.
  • India's first advertisement featuring a lesbian couple is making waves on social media, with the video raking up more than 3 million views in 10 days.
  • Indonesia is using drones to catch tax cheats. (H/t @JohnMGooding.)
  • Investigators have admitted Chinese hackers may have obtained the names of Chinese citizens with ties to US officials. While the compromised data wasn't encrypted, officials have argued the attacks were so sophisticated, encryption might have made no difference.
  • Trending hashtags #DespiteBeingAWoman and #SırtımızıDönüyoruz ('we are turning our backs') are taking aim at alleged sexist remarks made by India's prime minister and Turkey's president:

[Taken from the Facebook page of the Indian National Congress]


On the first Friday of each month The Interpreter will publish Digital Diplomacy links instead of the weekly Digital Asia links. As Australian digital diplomacy strives to catch up to the rest of the world, these links will highlight the most creative and effective ways countries are leveraging the internet for foreign policy gain.

  • The increasing popularity of Chinese social media channels is impacting on how foreign missions approach digital diplomacy. 
  • A review of the online approaches taken by India, the US, UK and Canada  in  response to the earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April.  
  • Governments (and individuals) are not immune to widespread online practices such as retaliation attacks, planting deliberate disinformation and trolling. So which state trolls best? Right now, the Russians. (H/t Sam.)
  • This interview with the head of Israel's digital diplomacy unit provides a fascinating insight into some of the campaigns, tactics and strategies employed by Israel to influence stakeholders and public opinion. 
  • President Obama (@POTUS) officially joined Twitter last month. This is what attracting one million users in five hours looks like.
  • The Government of Finland, with a think-tank from the Netherlands, held a seminar on digital diplomacy earlier this week. Watch it here and catch up on the discussion via #DigitalAgeDiplo. 
  • Buoyed by the new addition of Indian Prime Minister Modi, the Global Times heralds a new era of 'Weibo diplomacy' in China. Which foreign ministry has the most Weibo followers? Apparently Canada.
  • Despite the attention surrounding Modi's new Weibo account (the good, bad and the selfie) it's worth noting that there are only five  current or former leaders are on Weibo, while 75% of the world's leaders are on Twitter.
  • What is the major challenge for Egyptian digital diplomacy? How to communicate effectively after four years of constant regime change.
  • The US is using Twitter to fight Islamic State propaganda through internet memes. (H/t Jack.) 
  • The French Foreign Ministry's web unit uses the Ministry's blog to explain its role in the country's digital diplomacy efforts.
  • Canadian Foreign Minister Baird's self-declared passion for digital diplomacy has facilitated a social media explosion and new ties with global tech companies. But Canada's Foreign Ministry is under fire domestically for its lack of strategy and for broadcasting rather than engaging. 



The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • Why are China's largest tech companies investing in America's hottest startups? It's about Smartphones.
  • This article claims Facebook is becoming a hotbed of anti-migrant sentiment in Southeast Asia.
  • China's Ministry of Defence has opened official accounts on Weibo and WeChat. Both accounts are providing live updates on the release of China's defence white paper and have promised to provide detail on ministry polices, military construction and cooperation initiatives.
  • South Korea has been ranked no.1 in global mobile app use (the most widely used being KakaoTalk), with smartphone users spending more than half their time on social media and chat apps.
  • South Korea's love affair with mobile apps may not carry into the next generation, after the Government announced telecom companies must install spying apps on all mobiles used by those under 18 years.
  • Large internet companies in China employ 'porn identification officers'. China's Global Times has a neat infographic explaining what these officers actually do.
  • The era of Internet memes has arrived in Myanmar. (H/t Asia Digital Life project.)
  • A researcher and statistician from the French Government's aid agency has written an interesting blog post looking at whether big data and mobile data can really serve the world's poorest.
  • At the inaugural Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Shanghai this week Asian tech companies have been laying out their vision for the 'internet of things'.
  • Behind the scenes at the CES, there are alleged complaints about Chinese copycat products (spurring the acronym 'C2C' – Copy2China). But do Chinese copycat companies actually succeed?
  • If the global 'selfie' obsession makes you mad, the latest trend in Asia — the Selfie (iced) coffee — might push you over the edge. Using a special printer and edible ink, cafes in Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore are offering customers the chance to view themselves in their coffee before drinking themselves up. (h/t Steph.)
  • A student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China has produced a great animated video about the harmful effects of smartphone addiction: 


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • Chinese authorities allegedly shut down the internet in Linshui after mass demonstrations demanding a high-speed rail line through the county turned violent. Read about how the protests — from censorship to anti-communist party hacking — are playing out online.
  • Tech startups in Pakistan want to disrupt the country's inefficient and dangerously unregulated labour market.
  • The most important market for Chinese smartphone makers may actually be India.
  • This podcast, on Japan's unique Twitter culture, looks at why it is common for Japanese users to have multiple accounts and maintain a different identity on each.
  • Internet company Baidu has built a Beijing-based artificial-intelligence supercomputer that allegedly has Google beat on image recognition. (H/t @niubi).
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked officials to befriend and recruit non-Communist Party intellectuals from new media organisations and to encourage them to make contributions to 'purifying cyberspace'. (H/t @fryan.)
  • Vietnamese mobile messenger app Zalo now has 30 million users, making it the only Southeast Asian-founded chat app that has conquered its home market.
  • The media outlet for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has published a series of feisty articles on defending cyber sovereignty and battling for online terrain. English translations here and here.
  • While hosing down alarmist interpretations of the above articles, the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project steers readers towards the revelation that an elusive 'All-Military Internet Security and Information Expert Consultation Commission' had its first sitting in Beijing.
  • A new report highlights fears Cambodia's new cyber laws will be used to further curb online free speech.
  • Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement has spawned a unique brand of digital protest art.
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook was in China last week

Digital Disruption

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • The Thomas Crampton blog has outlined key changes in the Chinese social media space including the versatility and continued rise of WeChat, the growing popularity of mobile video sharing and social travel platforms and how LinkedIn has successfully crossed into China.
  • Neighbourhood Facebook groups in Singapore – initially set-up to deal with local construction issues – are empowering residents and changing the face of municipal politics.
  • Savvy cyber attackers targeting Taiwanese Government officials have leveraged the popularity of Japanese mobile messaging app LINE (550 million total worldwide users; 18 million in Taiwan). Intended targets received a spear-phishing email with malware embedded in an attached ZIP file. Coincidentally, the new mayor of Taipei recently admitted he uses LINE to communicate with executive officials via a 'private' chat room.
  • An Indonesian startup is using high-end tech solutions, including big data, drones and weather sensors, to identify digital farming products and increase the productivity of Indonesia's agriculture sector (which provides employment to about 41% of the country's workforce).
  • Do you live in China and need help getting your life in order? A new mobile app - WeChat Secretary - is here to help. The app gives users a virtual personal assistant who can help with any task, not matter how mundane, such as finding a repair person or setting up a Taobao account (China's Ebay equivalent) h/t Asia Digital Life Project.
  • A new report by Ericsson on mobile internet users in India has found one in three people are using smartphones in urban India, and of these, 36% of these are accessing financial service on their smartphones each week.
  • The Chinese Meteorological Administration has banned unofficial weather reports, allegedly after false forecasts went viral on social media. Violators of the regulation, which came into effect 1 May, can be fined up to AUD$10,000 for distributing false or manipulated weather information that may 'create a negative impact on society'.
  • Pakistan's parliament is drafting a new cyber crimes bill (follow online discussion about it via #PECB15) and there are concerns the bill's broad scope will be used to justify online censorship and impact the country's booming tech industry. A video made by 19-year old entrepreneur Asad Malik summaries some of the key issues of those opposing the bill

Digital Disruption
  • Those monitoring the earthquake response will already be well acquainted with the #NepalEarthquake hashtag, but they should also subscribe to this Twitter list.
  • How Facebook (via Safety Check) and Google (via Person Finder) helped connect people immediately following the 25 April earthquake.
  • Relief efforts have been better targeted thanks to volunteer crisis mappers  (about 2500 of them) who were activated immediately following the earthquake. For more on how crisis mapping works read this
  • You can join the mapping effort via Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) or Tomnod. Never mapped before? MapGive, an initiative of the US State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit, provides a step-by-step guide.
  • A group known as the Standby Taskforce coordinated a community of 'MicroMappers' to aggregate, curate and identify tweets and images on damage assessments.
  • Kathmandu Living Labs has created a central repository for geo-located data collected via SMS, social media and email. Powered by Ushahidi, and used by the Nepalese army, the site has recorded over 1000 reports detailing urgent needs. NGO NepalMonitor.org is also using Ushahidi to map and record human rights and security incidents. 
  • The Humanitarian Data Exchange has assembled a list of open-source data sets, including on health infrastructure and landslide locations. Organisations can download this data and/or share their data through the online exchange
  • Crowdfunding has long been popular to source money following disasters, however the magnitude of mini crowdfunding campaigns for Nepal is unprecedented. Why? And is this the best way to give?
  • New experimental web platform Verily is being used to rapidly crowdsource information verification, such as images and aid delivery, using 'digital detectives' (for more on Verily see this video).
  • Despite signs of coordination between humanitarian UAV operators, the Nepalese Government has cracked down on the use of drones, suspecting sensitive information has been leaked about the country’s heritage sites. UAV operators (included those hired by the media) must now gain permission from the country's Civil Aviation Authority. The internet is awash with drone footage, including the below, profiling the immense impact of the earthquake: 


Digital Disruption

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • China's Cyberspace Administration has announced more explicit rules on internet censorship, with the new directive focused on 'pornographic material, false information or rumours, and maintaining incomplete internet security systems'.
  • Confused by China's ever-changing approach to online censorship? (when did Japanese cartoons become a problem?) This chart explains it all.
  • Crackdowns on freedom of speech by South Korea's government has fueled demand for encrypted online communications with 'secret chat' features now standard for messaging apps.
  • Vietnamese netizens are getting bolder online, despite tough laws.
  • Despite the arrest and continued interrogation of China's most prominent online feminists and widespread censorship, Chinese women are continuing to protest against sexism using the internet.
  • Last month, an editorial in one of Papua New Guinea's largest newspapers, The National, called on the government to push through greater controls on social media use. This week, editor of rival newspaper the Post Courier, Alexander Rheeney, commented on the state of free speech in the country.
  • Freedom House research has found that, as China's internet restrictions increase, some security personnel and censors have grown more sympathetic to victims of political and religious persecution.
  • As already raised on The Interpreter here, North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and China have been ranked in the top ten media censors largely because of strict internet control and censorship measures.
  • Singer Katy Perry has stirred Cross-Strait tensions by draping herself in a Taiwanese flag at a concert in Taipei this week while both she and backup dancers were wearing sunflower-themed costumes (why is that symbolic?). Chinese censors were quick to delete all evidence of Perry's outfit on Chinese social media and international media is now speculating whether Perry will face a China ban:

Digital Disruption

Australia's approach to digital diplomacy is second-rate and entirely inadequate for a nation that sees itself as 'a top 20 country'. Despite an expanded social media presence, Australia continues to lag far behind other countries – large and small – that are investing serious resources into building up their digital diplomacy capabilities.

The Australian Government is failing to leverage the internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) tools to carry out foreign policy objectives; rather, it has confined itself to using these tools to communicate the fact that diplomatic activities are occurring. This approach is limiting Australia's ability to project global influence.

Our diplomats have developed an online passivity that is disconnected from the reality of Australian diplomacy. Given that Australia is located in the most digitally dynamic region of the world (45% of the world's internet users live in Asia), and that our ability to reach and influence the populations that live in our region has diminished following the Government's divestment in international broadcasting; Australia can no longer afford to remain ineffectual in this area.

Here are six policy recommendations for how the Australian Government can build a digital diplomacy capability:

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1. Develop a strategy

A digital diplomacy strategy can guide the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from online communications to using the internet for influence. The Department should learn from the experience of other countries, particularly those that have already fleshed out and are now implementing a strategy. A 1.5 track dialogue would be a good way to bring together experts with officials to share experiences and map out a draft approach. Crowdsourcing public opinion is an additional and inexpensive way to feed through proposals; DFAT could use its growing crop of social media networks to do this. 

2. Create a digital diplomacy unit and recruit experts

The Government should create a dedicated digital diplomacy unit and recruit experts to staff it. Bureaucracies are generally averse to hiring outside the public service but few countries have successfully developed these capabilities without external help. Other countries have tended to poach from their domestic tech industries, civil society organisations and from abroad to build such teams.

This unit should take advantage of the latest innovations in ICT to creatively contribute to solving foreign policy problems. It will need to be given the freedom and flexibility to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and respond to international developments without having to go through rigid clearance processes. This new unit should be independent of DFAT communications and public diplomacy. While it will need to work with such teams, attaching the unit onto well-developed bureaucratic functions runs the risk that the end result will evolve into nothing more than an extension of those functions.

3. Empower officials

Ambassadors and other officials using social media need to be unleashed to talk, explain and advocate for official policy positions. They need to be given the freedom to engage with the public online and respond to international developments. Diplomats are not limited to reading aloud official releases when they represent Australia at public events, so why is a re-tweeted media release as exciting as it gets when they're online? If it is talked about publicly, it should be able to be tweeted publicly. Providing officials with training and access to a dedicated digital diplomacy unit will help alleviate risk. 

4. A social media review 

DFAT has built a social media presence that mirrors its physical presence. Such a set-up means each post must take responsibility for its patch, leading to a messy and uneven presence, good in some countries but neglected in others.

In China, for example, there is an opportunity to use the country's favoured online platforms to influence the largest single purchaser of Australian products and our top holiday spenders. But DFAT is currently only present on a small number of Chinese social media channels and is not keeping pace with how China's 600 million online users are using the internet. A review of social media accounts could address this, and form part of the overarching strategy.

5. Start a blog

Blogs have long been a standard feature for foreign affairs and aid departments around the world (the UK has 85). Blogs provide governments with a forum to informally and intellectually discuss issues and ideas in a format that is accessible to the public. DFAT has no online mechanism to engage in public policy discussion and currently limits itself to 'announcing' information via media releases and a news feature. A blog that hosts individually authored posts would provide a one-stop shop for the Government to informally contextualise and discuss its position on various issues. It would also provide a space to better articulate, to the public and other stakeholders, what DFAT does and what modern Australia diplomacy looks like. Presently, the Australian media largely controls the messaging on foreign policy; a blog could help shift that.

6. Revive the online identity of Australian aid

Digital diplomacy must be used to enhance all foreign policy functions, but there is currently an imbalance: the flagship of Australian foreign policy, its aid program, is being neglected.

When AusAID's merger into DFAT kicked off in 2013, almost all of the aid program's online channels were stopped or deleted — an odd decision given AusAID and Australian aid are not the same thing. Those who want timely updates about Australian aid must now comb through the website to see if any webpages have been updated, and search through generic DFAT and embassy feeds. It's a messy process that makes it almost impossible for Australians to stay updated on developments with our own aid program. It is obvious that this diminished digital identity has hampered DFAT's ability to engage with the aid program's stakeholders, many of whom unwittingly continue to use the AusAID Twitter handle (even some other Australian Government departments do this!) despite its closure.

When Canada went through a similar integration in 2013 it retained almost all of its communication channels, simply changing the names of the accounts from CIDA to 'Canada International Development' (including on Facebook and Twitter). The Australian Government should revive and re-badge the aid program's idle online accounts. These accounts are a valuable commodity, providing Government with an opportunity to leverage off influential aid-related online networks and a further avenue to reach the Australian public via an area of foreign policy that is more relatable than is other parts of DFAT's core business.

Australia's digital diplomacy capabilities have the potential to provide government with an inexpensive and powerful mechanism to reach global audiences. It can convey vital messages, develop networks (at times more useful than physical networks), monitor and respond to breaking events, correct misinformation (vital when free press is compromised), coordinate and harness goodwill, participate in public discourse and promote Australian soft power.

But none of this will happen unless the Government commits to catching up to the rest of the world. In the meantime, we remain behind and our failure to exploit the internet is hampering Australia's ability to shape global events.

Photo courtesy of @JulieBishopMP


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • New Chinese mobile app 'MyIdol' is breaking the internet. The app, which is still only available in Chinese, allows users to turn themselves (or anybody else) into an animated avatar. Try it here.
  • China has turned to social media to help enforce the country's new smoking rules (taking effect 1 June) by asking residents to report violators via uploaded images or videos.
  • South Korea has allegedly uncovered the hacking codes North Korea has used against them in cyber attacks aimed at the country's financial sector and nuclear operators.
  • Internet.org has launched in Indonesia. The Facebook initiative aims to speed up internet adoption rates in some developing countries by providing free access to select basic web applications (a weather app, Wikipedia, Facebook etc).
  • Internet.org is under fire in India (and Latin America) for giving users a limited version of the internet. Mark Zuckerberg has responded.
  • Some Chinese companies are crossing the Straits and helping to revive Taiwan's tech industry.
  • At a Social Media Summit, Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called on the government to censor some websites 'to block out all this filth that comes to us through the Internet' (but not including his own very popular blog).
  • Will robots kill the Asian Century?
  • Myanmar is planning to establish a new information and communication technology (ICT) zone that it hopes will boost the country's tech sector. (Thanks Elliott.)
  • Can the internet be saved without harming democracy?  
  • The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) project has launched an open-source live news dashboard. The dashboard, which maps worldwide news activity and summarises the world's top 60 trending narratives, is updated every 15minutes, and its news collections includes mass (machine) translation of 65 languages. Find out what news is trending in Asia (and elsewhere) here.
  • Congress Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, often described as one of India's most internet unsavvy politicians, is now advocating for net neutrality. What is net neutrality?


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world

  • There is enormous buzz around a new Citizen Lab report that claims China has created a powerful cyber weapon known as the Great Cannon. This weapon allows the government to intercept foreign web traffic as it flows to Chinese websites, inject malicious code and redirect the traffic towards any given target. China has responded by censoring discussion of the report.
  • Given the development of the Great Cannon, it's worth noting the recent launch of a US Government-funded security start-up which detects cyber attacks by trends in power consumption activity (rather than malware detection).
  • Indonesia's counter-terrorism agency is keeping a closer eye on its cyberspace - 20 websites have been blocked this month - amid growing concerns about the spread of online radical content (via Asia Digital Life Project).
  • Papua New Guinea's 'Phones Against Corruption' initiative, which allows staff from the Department of Finance to report suspicious behaviour via anonymous texts, has uncovered 250 cases of potential corruption.
  • The Philippines has an ambitious plan to connect 900 cities across the country with free wi-fi by July. How will they do it?
  • Apparently, the Chinese internet doesn't like Hillary Clinton.
  • Sam Roggeveen analyses how blogging and social media impacts Australia's international policy debate in this journal article.
  • In light of Cyclone Pam, here's a piece examining tech solutions in natural disaster response.
  • Wobe, a new app in Indonesia, has been developed to help disadvantaged women in South East Asia by allowing them to start their own micro-businesses (selling phone credit, electricity, bus tickets) via their mobile phone.
  • The Communist Youth League of China is planning an internet volunteer campaign involving 10.5 million youth, 4 million of whom will be required to exemplify 'positive energy' in internet usage, post comments that support Party ideology and report 'unhealthy' online information.
Digital Disruption

After a decade of swimming against the tide, the Australian Government is slowly engaging in the world of digital diplomacy.

The term 'DFAT the Dinosaur' no longer applies, a label slapped onto our foreign affairs department in 2010 after a series of public refusals to incorporate the internet into its engagements with the world. This strategy, or lack thereof, was a bizarre own goal.

Rather alarmingly, the Government's extended inertia in this area exposed a lack of understanding of the evolving ways in which states, organisations and individuals use information and communication technology (ICT) tools to engage, coordinate and influence one another in an increasingly crowded environment of international actors.

Today, digital diplomacy is a foreign policy essential. We live in a world where state and non-state entities all compete for influence and power in the same online space. That space now hosts more than 3 billion people, most of whom only access the internet through their mobile phone. When used properly, digital diplomacy is a persuasive and timely supplement to traditional diplomacy that can help a country advance its foreign policy goals, extend international reach, and influence people who will never set foot in any of the world's embassies.

The good news is that DFAT's online reach has grown significantly over the past two years.

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Most major embassies now have a Facebook account and a growing number of ambassadors have an active Twitter presence. Some social media accounts are doing better than others (Ireland needs a little help; Pakistan and Indonesia do not). A number of embassies have piloted small exercises. For example, Australia's High Commission in PNG attempted live topical Q&A sessions. Hashtags like #NewColomboPlan and #innovationXchange are used by the generic @dfat Twitter account to promote initiatives and link stakeholders. Recently, a blog was launched authored by Australia's Ambassador in Germany (in German). Leveraging off the success of 'The Embassy' TV show, online forums were hosted on the Smartraveller Facebook page (there is also a Smartraveller mobile app). DFAT's new consular strategy briefly mentions an intention to improve and expand social media use. 

Social media is a valuable tool the Government should continue to use and expand on to enhance its international footprint. But digital diplomacy is far more than diplomats and embassies communicating via social media. 

The Brits define digital diplomacy as 'solving foreign policy problems using the Internet'. The Americans have coined the term '21st Century Statecraft,' of which their well-resourced decade old e-diplomacy team forms but one part. No matter which definition you subscribe to, a social media presence is only a part of an evolving picture. Ben Scott, Innovation Advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outlines three components of digital diplomacy:

  1. Public diplomacy, including the use of online platforms.
  2. Building expertise in technology policy and understanding the way the internet impacts international developments such as political movements (ie. Hong Kong's Umbrella movement).
  3. Impact on development policy and how ICT can be used more effectively to promote economic growth around the world.

With these definitions in mind, a comparison of Australia's efforts with those of our counterparts proves rather humiliating and should serve as a rude awakening for the Australian Government.

The US leads from the front, as it should given the resources at its disposal. Fergus Hanson's analysis of the US State Department's digital diplomacy remains unrivalled, and State's DipNote blog provides regular updates on new initiatives, including how the US uses open data and collaborative mapping to enhance diplomacy. The US, along with a number of other countries, is also building online networks to counter the digital momentum of ISIS. 

The UK isn't far behind, having published a digital strategy in 2012 after widespread consultation, which led to the launch of a new Digital Transformation Unit within the Foreign Office (case studies of successes can be found here). Its empowered staff – through social media and blogging – actually play a part in the public policy discourse, unlike our own. 

France decided in 2008 that its soft power relied on digital technologies, while Polish and Japanese foreign affairs departments employ an extensive collection of social media networks, quadruple the size of our own. Germany turned to ICT platforms to crowd-source opinion and new ideas from the public that fed into its 2014 foreign policy review. India continues to invest heavily in building up its online reach despite resource constraints. Israel has matched its aggressive traditional diplomacy with one of the most active digital diplomacy units in the world, which has worked hard to influence the outcomes of US-Iran nuclear talks. 

Following former Canadian Foreign Minister Baird's speech to Silicon Valley last year, his department's online presence has exploded. Canada is now experimenting with how to best advance its interests online, including by funding university projects that use ICT to circumvent Iranian Government censorship. Sweden's digital diplomacy flourished under former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a long-time master of Twitter, who can now be found helping Canada. Small countries are also making significant progress: Romania hosts regular forums to discuss how to enhance its efforts and Kosovo has a (apparently lauded) digital diplomacy strategy.

So what of Australia? DFAT's social media accounts efficiently push out and amplify information, the majority of which is already publicly available via other channels. But these accounts are almost entirely devoid of policy detail and you'll be hard pressed to find the views or positions of the Australian Government beyond a re-tweeted media release.

Instead, the accounts are dominated by Ambassador photo-ops, visa information, trade facts and cute snippets about Australia (koalas, beaches, sport etc). Photos of officials shaking hands are uploaded, an article on why to study/holiday in Australia is posted, a link to an aid announcement is shared and the odd Ambassador tweets their schedule. Engagement with others is generally limited to tweets praising the 'good' and 'useful' meetings they've just had.

There is value in this. But because DFAT communicates only this, its social media accounts are performing more of a marketing function rather than a diplomacy function. But most importantly, communicating is not the same as influencing. This is where Australia's attempts at digital diplomacy come completely unstuck.

Along with many readers of this site, I've sat through dozens of events where Australian officials have delivered muscular public speeches advocating the Government's views on any number of contemporary issues, be it relations with China, resetting our relationship with PNG or the peace process in the Philippines. But while these official views are public, they are not reflected or advocated for online. Why does the Government suppress its own policy positions online while other countries leverage the internet to project their viewpoints and jockey for influence. It is perplexing, and even stranger given Australia has a foreign minister who so easily conveys her personality online and who has such a personal approach to her use of the internet.

It's time the Australian Government invested in digital diplomacy capabilities that extend far beyond regurgitating traditional media. There are risks, as there are when any organisation uses the internet. But the biggest risk of all is not engaging in this space, because the world will soon be home to four, five, then six billion internet users. Until digital diplomacy is taken seriously as a tool of foreign policy, the Australian Government is not equipped to reach them.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.