Matthew Jacobs
Digital Coordinator, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Ingrid Omahna
Project Coordinator, Centre for European Perspective

  • This article was originally published as part of the 2018 edition of Bled Strategic Times, the official gazzette of the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) international conference. 

Just as the advent of the printing press precipitated a vast rise in global literacy and interconnectivity over five hundred years ago, the development and proliferation of modern digital communication technologies has revolutionized the way individuals across the globe are creating, transmitting, receiving, and internalizing information.

The emergence of inexpensive and accessible digital communication platforms, specifically social networks, represents a significant milestone in global interconnectivity a model rooted in increased individual agency and liberty. The proliferation of digital communication media has completely democratized traditional information flow processes. First, it reduced barriers to entry. While the power to produce content was previously coalesced in the hands of the elite, everyone now has access to a mobile and professional production at their fingertips. Second, it empowered individuals to radically define their own information environment. Individuals can now create and shape the distribution networks according to their own preference defining which markets they trust, and which markets they will render and receive content shifting away from the traditional hierarchical methodologies and mechanisms.

Did these advances occurred more rapidly than humanity could handle? Individuals have the capability to be inundated by information, data, and choice, but their cognitive capacities have not yet adapted to the increased load. It remains a questions as to whether humanity has evolved at the same pace as the media landscape it endeavored to develop, and whether it is equipped to thrive within it. For example, individuals now have the choice to access an infinite amount information, but have their cognitive capacities progressed enough to accurately process and act on it? Current studies suggest it has not.

Similarly, have individuals become skilled enough to building, recognizing, and navigating networks enough to break free of the social tendencies that have historically kept individuals from developing relationships with others that hold different ideas, perspectives, and skills? Current studies suggest they have not. Such results are particularly worrisome as they indicate that the digital media environment has the potential to exacerbate long-standing social issues rather than solve them. People might have the world at their fingertips, but can they adeptly navigate it.

Institutions, particularly those that have traditionally served as the bedrock foundation of democratic societies, have similarly struggled to adapt to this new information environment. Historically, these institutions were seen to be a critical component of the media landscape often producing and distributing a significant segment of the content that informed the citizenry. This power meant that little attention was focused on narrative competition, or invested in innovating new models that sought to pursue a closer relationship with citizens. Individuals are no longer just passive receivers of information, but can correspond directly and horizontally. Since one-way communication no longer exists, their support is crucial in gaining support for the successful shaping and implementation of government policies. In order to achieve the credibility of the implemented policies, the broadest segments of the population must be involved in the decision-making process. Many institutions are unaccustomed to new norms and modalities, and unprepared to alter their traditional processes to fit within the digital information space. Misconduct of technology in the world of politics can present a significant risk, if it is not properly involved in the policy-making process or its impacts are not applicably considered. Ultimately, without adapting, they risk losing the connection with their citizenry thereby undermining their representational purpose.

This has precipitated an interesting challenge where both citizens and institutions are grappling with a disconnect in a world that does not just call for increased interconnectivity and linkages, but necessitates them. These aforementioned challenges have, in many cases, fostered disconnects rather than bolstered connections between citizens and institutions.

This challenge is further compounded by the reality that a number of actors have identified the disconnect and sought to exploit the democratic nature of the digital revolution to undermine linkages not just between citizens, but between citizens and the institutions that represent them. This disconnect has reduced faith in the concept of objectivity the singular equalizer among democratic citizenry. Civil discourse erodes without objectivity leading to political uncertainties that carry significant domestic and international ramifications. Institutions have a unique responsibility within the realm of mass communications, which is based on presenting the truth and enabling the well-being of society. Credibility and relevance are no longer taken for granted, authority is more easily challenged. Institutions may no longer be in control of concrete, factual, information as it once were.

Changes are needed in order to incentivize compromise and transparency, and consequently restore trust and confidence. In order to preserve the democratic values and egalitarian nature that defined the digital revolution, institutions must be bold enough to chart a course for the digital future and reaffirm their role within it.

The Centre for European Perspective (CEP), in partnership with the U.S. Department of State is actively encouraging governments to embrace the emerging art of 21st century statecraft. They jointly developed the European Digital Diplomacy Exchange, an intergovernmental network of government communicators committed to strengthen the capacities of the countries to plan, coordinate and prepare digital campaigns through various digital communication tools. The program is intended to empower them to counter threats in the information space, and bolster their ability to engage with their own citizens, assisting region-wide efforts for governments to focus on accountability and transparency. Finally, it helps to foster regional coordination and cooperation. A fundamental offering of this network is therefore hand-on government-to-government digital strategic communications guidance, training, and mentorship. The strong relationships fostered over the course of the program have precipitated a network of dedicated professionals who are committed to ensuring governments are operating ahead of the digital curve, and therefore able to better communicate with their citizens, better listen to their citizens, and both embrace and protect their role within the context of this new, democratized, digital information environment.

CEP and the State Department have already engaged over 150 mid- to high-level government communicators from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Ukraine. The plan is to expand the program and include additional countries from the Baltics and Central Europe in 2019.

While early results from this program are positive, governments represent only a single node of a larger network of actors grappling with their role in the 21st century information environment. Thought leader engagement from the private sector including tech industries, civil society, and academia are all necessary to ensure that the promise of the digital revolution is fulfilled. All too often these segments work in isolation from one another, at odds with one another, but without any sustained interest in cooperative engagement. Global digitalization should be envisioned as a means of bringing the society closer together and not responsible for pushing it apart. Public and private sector need to join their forces and collectively build the bridge to society. Together. Now.