Enlisting the body politic: Governmentalised technologies of participation in digital diplomacy
The emergence of social media platforms was driven by the participatory ideals of the Web 2.0 business model,1 and aimed to solicit and facilitate the production and dissemination of user-generated content (O’Reilly 2009). In political theory, as well as in STS, public participation has traditionally been conceived as the essence of democratic situations (see Habermas 1987; Mouffe 2009; Irwin 1995; Jasanoff 2003), and many academics and practitioners initially associated social media with its apparently inherent democratic potentialities (see Kelty 2019). It was argued that these technologies afford new forms of public participation that allow previously marginalised voices to be heard, thus pluralising and reinvigorating democratic politics (see, for example, Shirky 2008, 2011; Bakardjieva 2009; Dahlberg 2011; Papacharissi 2015). In the realm of international politics, influential practitioners and academics began to argue that foreign policy can no longer remain the domain of a few elites, because these participatory technologies enable lay citizens to take a bigger part in matters of foreign affairs by speaking directly with their peers abroad, articulating issues of common concern and building reconciliatory bridges across entrenched political divides (Sifry 2009; Viner 2009; Seib 2012; see also Bjola 2015). As this chapter will illustrate, however, the ideals that associate digitally mediated participatory practices with inherent democratic potentialities often fall short in practice, which emphasises the need to problematise and explore ‘in action’ (Latour 1987) the political role of social media technologies in the enactment of digitally mediated public participation.
Combining elements of digital ethnography involving immersion in digital environments and ‘walkthroughs’ of digital interfaces (see Light et al. 2018), expert interviews with public relations and public diplomacy practitioners, government reports and media sources, I discuss three examples of Israeli digital diplomacy2 initiatives where governmental agencies attempt to spark, mobilise and then steer civic participation in issues of foreign affairs using new media technologies. I invoke Latour’s (1987) concept of ‘action at a distance’, and its adoption by Foucault-inspired enquiries into modes of governmentality, as a way to highlight the ‘governability’ of public participation in the so-called digital age. Contributing to the ongoing conversation in STS about ‘issue-oriented’ politics (Marres 2007) and the ‘participatory turn’ (Irwin 1995; Jasanoff 2003; Wynne 2006), the chapter highlights how the material specificities of new media technologies not only play a central role in the public articulation of issues online (Marres 2017; Rogers 2013), but are also pivotal to the multiplication of new governable surfaces through which public participation can be acted on and steered from remote ‘centres of calculation’ (Latour 1987: 215).
Specifically, I illustrate how the different components of social media, such as profiles, social buttons, threads and data streams afford the flattening and fragmentation of participation into a multitude of micro-performances that can be enlisted into broader networks of governance and steered, even automated, with unprecedented precision and continuity. As such, as social media become governmentalised – that is, enlisted into broader networks through which the authorities steer the movements of the body politic – the new affordances of digitally-mediated participation may not only be insufficient for democratic situations to emerge, but can even play a role in prohibiting them. The analysis in the chapter thus moves away from conceptualising participation as an a priori democratic ideal towards discussing it as a contingent empirical phenomenon which should be scrutinised by studying the multiplicity of everyday practices in which it is performed, in the context of specific political situations (Barry 2012).
Remediating Israel’s estrangement: A tale about imaginal politics
Articulating international misrecognition as an unresolved public issue
Israel’s former foreign minister and, later, President Shimon Peres ‘held the opinion that if a country has good policies, it does not need PR, and if the policy is bad, the best PR in the world will not help’ (Gilboa 2006: 735), reflecting the prevailing approach of Israeli policy makers over the years to the issue of international image and reputation. However, in the last two decades, as various indicators3 began to point out that ‘Israel’s reputation abroad has dramatically deteriorated’ (Gilboa 2006: 715) following the halt of the peace process and a series of controversial policies towards Palestinians, the issue of the country’s international image and reputation emerged as a prime matter of political and public concern. According to the predominant narrative, articulated in Israel at the time by central political actors, official reports, strategy think tanks, communications experts and others, this shift in global public opinion has less to do with Israel’s ongoing policies than with the way in which the state is represented abroad.4 Central to this narrative was the idea that ‘there is a very big gap, created over the years, between the image of Israel and who we really are’ (Livni cited in Walla News 2007). For example,5 practitioners and communications experts frequently claimed that the foreign press covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ‘exaggerate, lie, and reproduce stereotypes’ (interview, Jerusalem, 3 January 2016), thereby creating ‘distorted, inaccurate, misleading and biased’ representations (Gilboa 2006: 726) that have ‘consequences for the millions of people trying to comprehend current events, including policy-makers’ (Friedman 2014). Moreover, the activities of non-state actors, such as the BDS movement,6 which utilise social media platforms as new public spheres for resistance politics contesting the Israeli self-image (Aouragh 2008, 2011; Siapera 2014; Hitchcock 2016) were increasingly presented as a potential ‘strategic threat’ (The Reut Institute 2010: 77) and countered by new legislation (Olesker 2013) and new digital governmental initiatives (Blau 2017).
While such claims of misrecognition were frequently contested both in Israel and abroad – illustrating the fragility and political character of this discursive formation,7 – concern over the purported misrepresentation of events and identity narratives was becoming a central issue in Israel’s foreign policy, and expert reports and academic publications started to associate the deterioration of Israel’s international reputation with the lack of managerial attention to public diplomacy,8 commonly referred to in Israel as Hasbara (loosely translated from Hebrew as ‘the activity of explanation’). Specifically, it was argued that Hasbara efforts, intended to ‘present and clarify’ Israel’s position both abroad and at home (State Comptroller 2002: 9), are intertwined with innovations in new media technologies because today ‘war takes place simultaneously on two fronts – the battlefield and “on screen” […] over the shaping of images and favorable public opinion’ (State Comptroller 2007: 457; Gilboa 2006; Naveh 2007; The Reut Institute 2010; see also Greenfield 2012). Communications experts suggested that Hasbara activities needed to take advantage of the networked structure of new media technologies, invest more funds in training professionals, and involve civil society organisations in trying to better ‘utilise the Internet to counter attacks by its [Israel’s] enemies and to promote a favourable e-image’ (Gilboa 2006: 740). Specifically, it was argued that ‘it takes a network to fight a network’ (The Reut Institute 2010: 68), and public participation was considered essential in its development.
Enlisting the body politic
For this purpose, the Israeli government decided on a series of reforms in order to create a more ‘credible, uniform and consistent Hasbara policy’ (Prime Minister’s Office 2007). Cooperation with civil society organisations was to be deepened in order to ‘leverage their activities as an auxiliary tool in the state of Israel’s Hasbara efforts’, and special attention was to be allocated to new media, in order to ‘significantly expand’ the voluntary Hasbara activities performed on the Internet by the Israeli population (Prime Minister’s Office 2007). In such efforts, the primary strategic imperative seems to have been to increase the credibility and reach of government messages. As explained by the former minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs (MPDDA), Yuli Edelstein, ‘in our world those with a suit and a tie and an official title are usually less credible as an information source’ (The Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs 2012). Instead, ‘the truth catches on better if it is not spread by someone with a tie and a title of a minister and or ambassador […] but a student, someone that you can have a beer with, a Facebook friend’ (Edelstein 2012). In this logic, ‘[t]he governments that can harness the communication potential of their citizens will be the ones to conduct effective public diplomacy offensives’ (Attias 2012: 474). The ability to influence foreign publics – captured both by benign terms like public diplomacy and soft power, as well as by more pejorative terms like propaganda – has always been central to diplomacy, and credibility is considered central in that regard (Nye 2008).9 From the perspective of the authorities, public participation has less to do with democratic plurality in this political situation and more with strategic utility as a resource that can be mobilised.
Illustrating this approach, as elaborated elsewhere (Adler-Nissen and Tsinovoi 2019), in 2010 the MPDDA launched a nation-wide campaign involving video clips that encourage Israeli citizens travelling abroad to try and correct misconceptions about the state. For example, in one of the promotional videos a reporter misrepresents the state by depicting the camel as ‘the typical Israeli animal’, and then a voiceover declares: ‘Are you tired of seeing how we are represented in the world? You can change the image. Visit the website and receive information about the correct [way to do] Hasbara’ (Masbirim’s channel, 2010). According to focus groups, such videos were seen as an ‘effective call to action’, and between 2010 and 2012 over three million people visited the campaign website (Attias, 2012: 477). The website displayed information that aimed to correct alleged misconceptions about the state and carried detailed suggestions on how to do so. For example, a section of the website called ‘Myth vs. Reality’ blended the rebuttal of trivial Orientalist ‘myths’10 – such as ‘Israel is a desert and they all ride camels’, instead emphasising Israeli democracy and scientific and technological progress – with trivialising controversial and complex issues by claiming, for example, that it is a ‘myth’ that ‘[t]here’s no peace because of the settlements’ (Ministry of Public Diplomacy & Diaspora Affairs 2010a). Another section entitled ‘Tips for the Novice Public Diplomat’ provides detailed instructions as to how these narratives should be mediated by the participating citizens, including advice such as: ‘first listen, then talk’, ‘body language is just as important as verbal content’, and ‘Tell [your] own personal story’ (Ministry of Public Diplomacy & Diaspora Affairs 2010b).
While the campaign was widely criticised both in Israel and abroad,11 practitioners considered it exceptionally successful (interview, Jerusalem, 3 January 2016), and the political technique it employed, which attempts to spark and then steer public participation toward predefined governmental goals, became central to Israel’s Hasbara efforts. However, while the campaign enlisted the bodies and personal stories of Israeli citizens travelling abroad into carrying state-endorsed narratives, it was argued that ‘in the future the project will seek to involve Israelis […] connected to foreigners through social media networks’ (Attias 2012: 482). According to a former official, social media technologies were indeed becoming pivotal to Israel’s new approach to Hasbara. In an interview, the former official argues that it was not until ‘the advent of the technologies [that] citizens today could reach out much better than the government, much quicker and with more credibility’, thus constituting ‘a game changer’, where ‘the involvement of the public [through new media technologies] creates the multiplier effect that we are looking for […] This is where the future lies’ (Interview, Jerusalem, 3 January 2016).
Enlisting digital extensions12
Tapping into a popular sentiment of suspicion towards the representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict online (Kuntsman and Stein 2015),13 one of the first attempts to mobilise civic participation through new media technologies was through so-called advocacy ‘war rooms’14 that aimed to organise and coordinate the activities of volunteers on social media during Israeli military operations (interview, Petah Tikva, 7 January 2016). Satisfied with the outcome, government officials kept searching for more continuous, and at times covert, ways to mobilise participation through social media technologies and ‘orchestrate this from above’ in the ‘struggle for hearts and minds’ (interview, Jerusalem, 3 January 2016; see also Ravid 2013). These attempts peaked in 2015 with the establishment of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy (MSAPD). Entrusted with leading the struggle against the BDS movement in order to secure a positive representation of Israel abroad (Blau 2017), the MSAPD operates in partnership with an unknown number of private citizens and NGOs in the attempt to form a pro-Israel network with the ministry as a central node. As explained by the ministry’s director: ‘We are fighting against a network, [and] only a network can act against a network. Not individuals… not embassies, not consulates… Only a network in which all parts act together in synergy’ (The Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information 2017: 29).15 For this purpose, the ministry adopted a ‘no-logo policy’ that aimed to conceal its involvement with the organisations forming this network, arguing that publicity would harm effective cooperation (The Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information 2017: 23). Despite the covert mode of operations, some of the committee’s activities are nonetheless public, providing ample illustration of how parts of this heterogenous pro-Israel Hasbara network operate in practice.
In 2017, in cooperation with several civil society organisations, the MSAPD launched a public campaign called 4IL, which, similarly to its predecessor, first staged various instances of misrepresentation as an unresolved political issue, and then proposed a solution to the citizens willing to participate. In one of the main videos of the campaign, a millennial who is frustrated with ‘fake news’ decides ‘to tell the whole world the real truth about Israel’ and thus help ‘protect’ the state. The video then seems to ridicule how hard it is to do that, which, according to the video, includes participating in offline political and cultural events and posting the pictures on social media, suggesting ‘the easy way’ as an alternative: ‘Want to defend Israel? Log on to 4IL, download the app and share the truth’. (4IL 2017b). On the main page of the 4IL website, visitors are greeted with an embedded loop from the previous video and another call to action: ‘EVERY TWO MINUTES A NEW LIE ABOUT ISRAEL IS SHARED ONLINE. You can put an end to this. Influence the conversation’! (4IL 2017a). For this purpose, the website provides various content, such as articles, videos and political cartoons. These items were meant to be disseminated on social media platforms through embedded social buttons, thus, similarly to the 2010 campaign, inducing government-sanctioned content with the credibility typically associated with the subjective everyday experiences of individual users. The smartphone app ACT.IL, which the users were encouraged to download while visiting the website, took this logic one step further.
Despite actually being the focal point of the website, the app was described as a ‘a student initiative’ (4IL 2017a) that was launched, according to a ministry-sponsored publication, by students with previous experience with advocacy ‘war rooms’ as ‘a civilian project… dedicated entirely to waging Israel’s battle of Hasbara online’, emphasising that it is ‘not government-supported and has no political affiliations’ (Weiss 2017). Explaining the purpose of the app, one of the students argues: ‘Companies, such as Facebook, remove content following reports from the community […] As soon as content inciting against Israel is posted online, we send a message through the app, and all of its subscribers immediately report it’ (Weiss 2017). In order to understand how this new digital mode of participation functions, I downloaded the app – as prompted by the nation-wide campaign – and explored its interface.16 The app’s home tab included a profile, with a space for username, score, access to messages, and so on. Below, several ‘missions’ were presented, with bonus points for completion, which enabled unlocking new missions and competing with other users. For example, in order to report a Facebook page, a detailed description of how reporting is done was provided, and the user was then directed via a hyperlink to the page in question in order to complete the ‘mission’. In another instance, an article was described as ‘misleading’, and readers were encouraged to endorse this judgement via ‘like’ and comment functions. Other missions included a wide range of other digitally mediated actions, such as retweeting, liking, commenting, sharing and reporting content across social media platforms, including signing petitions and filing complaints on various websites. To foster a sense of community, a news feed was kept by the app, informing users about the missions accomplished by others. Moreover, the application sent push notifications several times a day in order to update users about new available missions.
Unlike the 2010 MPDDA campaign, where public participation involved talking to foreigners face-to-face, enabling a wide range of complex and nuanced subjective experiences to become part of the mediation process, participation in the 4IL campaign is preconditioned by the scripts of social media platforms.17 In comparison to the 2010 campaign, the app thus enables higher thematic granularity and precision in its steering of civic participation towards specific political performances, such as reacting to a specific comment within a thread in relation to a specific news item within the platforms’ data stream. Moreover, the app has facilitated a new kind of temporal continuity in these steering efforts, where participation is not limited to occasional encounters with alterity but can be systematically integrated into the everyday life of the citizens and performed easily and frequently with the assistance of push notifications and links to social buttons. This very process, however, simultaneously seems also to diminish the political agency of the participating citizens. Instead of reflecting the ambiguous and subjective experiences of individual citizens, participation is flattened and fragmented into a multitude of homogenous digitally mediated micro-performances, which aim to increase the visibility of pro-Israeli content while attempting to make counter-narratives invisible.18 To use Latour’s terms, the app reduces public participation from a ‘mediator’ of governmental messages, which can ‘transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry’, to an ‘intermediary’ which ‘transports meaning or force without transformation’ (Latour 2005: 39); a form of ‘Double Click’ participation which ‘tries to avoid all opportunities for metamorphosis’ (Latour 2013: 200).
While the ACT.IL app still requires some user discretion in going through with each of these micro-performances, a small-scale Twitter app experiment – apparently set up by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (IMFA) – illustrates that, in principle, even that might become redundant in some digitally mediated participatory practices, thus taking the ‘Double Click’ logic to its technologically afforded extreme consequence. While the IMFA traditionally had a more conservative approach to Hasbara, digital communication technologies have become increasingly central also to their activities, marked by the establishment of the digital diplomacy department in 2011 (State Comptroller report 2016: 835). As noted by the IMFA director general, ‘we are in the middle of a revolution. The Digital Revolution […] is profoundly relevant to diplomacy [and] requires us to rethink how we work, how we preserve and enhance our ability to impact on the world around us’ (Rotem 2017). Specifically, in interviews, officials expressed concerns with being ‘in competition for attention’, which requires being more ‘creative […], daring […], innovative’ (interview, Jerusalem, 26 July 2016). Though no details about these initiatives were provided, a few months after the interviews, after following a few Twitter accounts related to the ministry, I received a Twitter message which might shed some light on how some aspects of this new digital diplomacy may unfold in practice.
The message appeared to be automatically generated, based on my assumed interest in Israel, extending an invitation to join a ‘digital task force’. By clicking on the provided link, I was directed to the webpage of an initiative where a new type of call to action was extended. The call claimed that due to ‘echo chambers and fake news, factual information about Israel is rapidly becoming victim to “alternative truths”’. In order to help ‘counter this alarming reality’, the webpage invited the user to join ‘an online community of information spreaders which retweets […] important information about Israel automatically […] and makes sure the truth about Israel is loud and clear’. After pressing the ‘JOIN IN’ button, I was taken to a page related to Twitter’s API and asked to authorise the application to use my Twitter account. The logo and description indicated that this Twitter application was developed by the IMFA, to ‘enable daily automatic retweets of facts about Israel, curated by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’. This authorisation enabled the application to see my timeline, who I follow, follow new accounts on my behalf, update my user profile, post tweets from my account and access my private messages (Author’s field notes).
In order to examine how this mode of enlistment operates in practice, I decided with a modicum of trepidation to provide the application with the requested authorisation. In the following weeks, several tweets appeared on the timeline of my account that to all intents and purposes looked as if they were in fact retweeted by me. The tweets did not appear to have any politically controversial content, focusing instead on positive representations of Israel in relation to technology, tourism and coexistence. Moreover, this experiment clearly seemed to have a limited scope. Each of the tweets was retweeted at most a few hundred times, and after a few weeks they stopped appearing altogether (Author’s field notes). Such retweet apps and bots, including other forms of automation, were in common use on Twitter by both commercial and political actors until 2018, when the platform decided to significantly limit the ability of users to engage in coordination and automation of tweets and retweets (see Roth 2018). Nonetheless, this experimental Twitter app illustrates how the technological affordances of digital mediation in the present media environment enable the transformation of digitally mediated participation from a transformative mediator into a passive intermediary, where besides the initial API authorisation participation no longer seems to require any input by the participant. Especially noteworthy is the desire of government authorities to enlist these new technological affordances into their everyday political practices. If the 2010 campaign attempted to mobilise the bodies of the citizens into participatory diplomatic practices, with new media technologies simply providing state-endorsed information, what was mobilised into participation just a few years later was already a certain hybrid between a knowing subject with subjective everyday experiences and a knowable data-object, consisting of a social media profile which can be conveniently enlisted for specific purposes and steered with increasing precision and (potential) reach. Through these seamless and increasingly automatised participatory processes, a certain paradoxical dynamic begins to emerge, where the technological affordances of social media which aim to facilitate participation go hand in hand with increasing the governability of the participants.
Digitally mediated action at a distance and why participation is not enough
In Science in Action, Latour uses examples such as the mapping of Sakhalin and innovations in Portuguese ship building technologies19 to illustrate that it is possible ‘to act at a distance on unfamiliar events, places, and people […] by somehow bringing home these events, places, and people […] By inventing means that (a) render them mobile […] (b) keep them stable […] and (c) are combinable’ (Latour 1987: 223). If such ‘immutable and combinable mobiles’ (Latour 1987: 227) can be found, mobilised and retrieved from faraway places, through for example cartography, collections of artefacts and plants, scientific charts and tables, and so on, and then used in new expeditions, then a marginal point can become a centre which dominates others ‘at a distance’. Encouraging us to forsake a priori analytical distinctions between technology, politics, science and so on, understanding such processes, according to Latour (1987: 222), requires tracing ‘the unique movement that makes all of these domains conspire towards the same goal: a cycle of accumulation that allows a point to become a centre by acting at a distance on many other points’.
The movement which carries ‘action at a distance’ from one point to another is enacted through a heterogeneous actor-network, or an assemblage, and it is clearly relevant today not only to technoscience but also to governance and public participation in politics (or technopolitics, if you wish). Latour’s concept of ‘action at a distance’ was indeed a central inspiration for governmentality studies, which applied Foucault’s (2002, 2008) genealogies of the Western state in examining contemporary – and often neoliberal – modes of government. These studies invoked the concept of ‘governing at a distance’ in order to illustrate how contemporary political power is often exercised not through a ‘direct imposition… but through a delicate affiliation of a loose assemblage of agents and agencies into a functioning network’ (Miller and Rose 1990: 9–10). In these assemblages, two simultaneous movements often take place, which we also observe in the cases of digital diplomacy described above. On the one hand, a certain process of responsibilisation extends ‘a call for action’ as a form of ‘interpellation which constructs and assumes a moral agency and certain dispositions to social action that necessarily follow’ (Shamir 2008: 4). Such attempts ‘to activate action’ (Garland 1996: 452) are accompanied by knowledge production, through which the behaviour of the newly sparked public can be steered ‘at a distance’ – that is, without direct government intervention and imposition – towards specific governmental ends (Löwenheim 2007; Tsinovoi and Adler-Nissen 2018). This way, in Latourian terms, the participating individuals can be enlisted into a movement steered at a distance by a governmental centre of calculation.
The aforementioned examples of participatory diplomatic initiatives provide ample illustration of such a movement of ‘governing at a distance’ where technological and political elements are woven together into working towards the same predefined goal through a functioning network. In line with Marres’ (2007) discussion of public participation as a pragmatist response to unresolved issues in which the individuals are implicated, the articulation of misrepresentations by Israeli authorities evidently attempts to ‘spark a public into being’, first in reference to the foreign press and then to various digital media outlets which allegedly spread fake news. At the same time, in line with governmentality studies (Dean 2010), it is clear that these campaigns constitute very specific subject positions for the participants as morally superior and guilt-free (Adler-Nissen and Tsinovoi 2019), while also providing narrow technological scripts to channel this participation toward specific ends. This way, unlike Marres’ (2007) notion of public participation as an organic and spontaneous response, participation in these examples comes into being as the result of a strategic and calculated movement. This type of action also significantly differs from the accounts of influence campaigns using paid commentators (trolls) or social bots by states such as Russia (Jensen et al 2019; McCombie et al. 2020), since it does not rely on paid labour or direct interventions, but on the freedom of the participating users to partake, or at least sign up, voluntarily.
The scripts of social media platforms afford a deepening and widening of such cycles of action at a distance. As noted by Latour (1987: 228), ‘if inventions are made that transform numbers, images and texts from all over the world into the same binary code inside computers, then indeed the handling, the combination, the mobility, the conservation and the display of the traces will all be fantastically facilitated’. As I have illustrated in this chapter, these general affordances of digital mediation,20 combined with the ‘explosion of profiles’ prompted and then accumulated by social media platforms (Latour 2011: 806), enable rendering individuals, or at least their digital extensions, as ‘immutable and combinable mobiles’ which can increasingly intermediate governmental messages. In the 2010 campaign, individuals were sent off ‘empowered’ with narratives conveyed by a static web page, which then required embodied mediation in face-to face encounters, involving the complex subjective everyday experiences of the individuals, which leaves a space for ambiguity and transformation. Seven years later, in alliance with the affordances of social media platforms and mobile devices, these cycles of ‘government at a distance’ no longer depend on embodied mediation but on enlisting user profiles that can intermediate governmental messages with a minimum of modification and involvement. By eliminating the need for embodied performances, these technological affordances not only enable steering participation at higher levels of thematic granularity and temporal continuity, but also – through API authorisation, for example – potentially eliminating the need for any individual action to be taken altogether by the participating user, leading to a new, radical mode of ‘Double Click’ participation in politics.
In these emerging natively digital politics – politics enacted through ‘the objects, content, devices and environments that are “born” in the new [digital] medium’ (Rogers 2013: 19) – the political rationality that aims to enlist the body politic into governmental movements, combined with the technological affordances of social media platforms, can in principle extend the logic of ‘governing at a distance’ on an unprecedented scale, due to the multiplication of surfaces through which individuals, together with their digital extensions, can be acted on from remote centres of calculation. Extending the reach of this technique is, however, not the same as increasing its impact. While data on these activities is at times difficult to trace, a recent report monitoring the activities of the MSAPD app indicates that it has a rather negligible impact on the online conversation, involving only a few hundred page views and Facebook interactions during the monitored period (@DFRLab 2019). Similarly, the IMFA tweets were retweeted only a few hundred times, suggesting a very limited user base. Despite the intentions of apps such as ACT.IL to ‘recruit millions around the world for one giant powerful internet-based task force working to defend the State of Israel’ (Weiss 2017), the extent to which such interventions can capture global user attention on a mass scale and then translate it into political impact is questionable. Nonetheless, what is perhaps most interesting about these examples is the evident appeal of ‘Double Click’ participation to governmental authorities, and the manner in which the ubiquity of digital mediation enables the extension of this technique of government into any digitally mediated domain. Perhaps what is emerging from these cases is, then, not only a story about new forms of participatory diplomacy, but also a more generalisable new mode of technopolitical ‘action at a distance’ that can be applied to a multiplicity of other issues
In political theory, there is a long tradition of associating democracy with open-endedness, plurality and ambiguity. From this perspective, a democratic situation must not only be participatory, but should also imply a modicum of political openness, contestability, creativity and even transgressive playfulness (Agamben 2000, 2010; Žižek 2008; Mouffe 2009; Rancière 2004).21 In this chapter, however by tracing the associations between public discourses, governmental logics and affordances provided by digital interfaces, I have described cases where public participation was sparked strategically, retrieved into centres of calculation, fragmented into ‘immutable and combinable mobiles’ and then recirculated. This process increasingly reduces political participation from complex political mediations in favour of homogenous and governable intermediations; a mere part-taking, enlisted and absorbed into the a priori calculations of specific governmental movements. Participation is thus enacted in these examples as somewhat of a Janus-faced phenomenon, wherein that which manifests itself as democratic participation to the users is also a resource which can be mobilised strategically by the authorities in order to address the assumed credibility deficit of the state. This kind of enactment of public participation in practice, where civic participation turns into an instrumental intermediary for governmental ends, appears to be incongruent with the typical democratic tropes of plurality and openness. Instead, it illustrates the extent to which the formation of publics in natively digital politics can be easily sparked, steered and governed, and emphasises the imperative to study public participation in practice, as a situated and multi-faceted phenomenon.
For this purpose, facilitating an inclusive and continuous conversation between STS and political theory is an essential step. While this entails several challenges – particularly in the context of international politics (Barry 2013) – the ubiquity of digital mediation, which has the potential to turn political practices such as diplomacy into a loose and porous assemblage of public, private and algorithmic mediators, raises serious questions about the role of materiality and technological expert knowledge, which STS is well placed to address. At the same time, as these technologies become increasingly governmentalised – that is, enlisted into broader assemblages through which sovereign entities govern the behaviour of large populations – STS faces new questions concerning governance that fields such as political science and international relations have been addressing for many years. Indeed, if the concerns of institutional politics are increasingly conflated with the politics of science and technology, the disciplines dedicated to their respective studies should follow suit.
1 The Web 2.0 business model includes various principles such as using the web as a platform, providing services instead of products, ‘harnessing collective intelligence’, software ‘architecture of participation’, database management and so on, which characterise companies that managed to survive the ‘dot-com’ financial crisis in the end of the 1990s (O’Reilly 2009).
2 Digital diplomacy can be broadly defined as ‘the use of social media for diplomatic purposes’ (Bjola 2015, 4).
3 For example, the 2003 Eurobarometer survey indicated that Israel was perceived as the biggest threat to world peace (European Commission 2003, 78), and the 2007 and 2012 BBC surveys indicated that Israel has had one of the worst influences on world politics (Knesset Research and Information 2010).
4 For a discussion see Adler (2013) and Adler-Nissen and Tsinovoi (2019).
5 From here on, all sources originally in Hebrew, such as interviews, documents, news items, and so on, were translated by the author.
6 The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is a coalition of civil society organisations claiming to represent Palestinian interests by appealing to the international community to put pressure on Israel through academic and cultural boycotts, economic divestment, and governmental sanctions (Ananth 2013; BDS 2017).
7 See Endnote 11 for examples.
8 While diplomacy is typically understood as a government-to-government form of communication, public diplomacy refers to a state attempt at ‘direct communication with foreign peoples, with the aim of affecting their thinking, and ultimately, that of their governments’ (Malone 1985: 199).
9 For more on the conceptual distinction between public diplomacy and propaganda, see Melissen (2005) and Snow (2012).
10 As these were understood by governmental Hasbara experts (interview, Jerusalem, 3 January 2016).
11 For instance, critics mention the unfair depiction of foreign reports (Rabinovsky 2010), the dissociation between international critique and Israel’s policies (Bronner 2010; Caspi 2010) and even the undermining of the peace process through a narrow, right-wing understanding of Israeli identity (Haaretz 2010; Ynet 2010).
12 Here I paraphrase McLuhan’s (2013) famous title Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
13 Illustrating this sentiment, Kuntsman and Stein (2015) discuss the example of amateur digital forensics, where lay social media users attempt to expose possible manipulations of conflict images online and share these on social media.
14 The exact term used in the interview is Chapak (חפ"ק) which in Israeli military terminology refers to central command room.
15 As such, in Callon and Latour’s (1981) terms this describes Hasbara in its ‘unscrewed’ state (see also Birkbak 2016), as a heterogenous multiplicity rather than a uniform actor.
16 The latest version of the application can be accessed at: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/act-il/id1141853455
17 On the concept of script see Akrich (1992).
18 For a more detailed review of the concept of visibility in this context see Tsinovoi (2020).
19 This specific example is based on an earlier study by John Law (1984: 235) were he associates innovation in naval technologies and maritime practices with the ability to exert ‘long-distance social control’ as part of the Portuguese imperial expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
20 For more on the general affordances of digital representations see Manovich (2001).
21 This distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the Political’ has also been made in some STS accounts (see, for example, Barry 2001).
4IL, ‘Stop the Hate. Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy’ (2017a), <https://web.archive.org/web/20180305230400/http://www.4il.org.il/eng/> [Accessed 5 March 2018].
4IL, ‘Do the Right Thing – The Easy Way!’ (2017b) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxKrn8Aqa0A> [Accessed 21 August 2017].
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