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Public Diplomacy and Computational Propaganda


Author: Gohar Aznauryan, second-year Ph.D. student, Multi-Sector Communication


The development and more active usage of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has led people to connect to and stay connected to their devices. Consequently, that made ICTs an inseparable part of their routine, thus, making the production of all the information led to information-based intangible goods becoming a significant part of the world’s leading economies; their GDPs rely on various sectors’ information, knowledge-based assets, and services (Floridi, 2016). 

First used in the mid-1960s by diplomat Edmund Gullion (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (1964–1978)), the term Public diplomacy (PD) is a modality through which a country would communicate its messaging and interact with external audiences potentially interested or already supporting a country’s interests.  

This research examines the PD through the high points in the development of ICTs, analyzing concepts at those respective times through studies completed, and evaluates the effectiveness of the augmented list of actors and their capacities to fight propaganda. The study will discuss propaganda, its comparison to or being a part of PD, and the propaganda in the infosphere, and conclude with the question of a way of identifying propaganda online, which will help PD to differ from in the forms of ICTs and platforms. 

The 4th Revolution – Infosphere

Luciano Floridi, an Oxford University Information Ethics professor and scholar, introduces the notion of the infosphere in his book “The 4th Revolution” (2016). The book reflects on the previous revolutions by noting the first revolution – the Earth moving around the sun by Copernicus and Galilei, following with Darwin’s revolution describing the origin of humankind from apes, and ending the list with the third revolution known to humanity-Freud’s assertion of a human’s subconscious.

Infosphere, or the digital space, is constant in people’s lives, where we spend some or most of our time doing work tasks, reading, or communicating with family and friends.  Floridi explains this phenomenon as us living “onlife”- the combination of online (virtual) and offline (physically present). 

With information-based technology and economy making the world more digital and allowing distanced and remote communication, our lives are at the intersection of online and offline realities; people are becoming more attached to their devices, consequently making the population enter the next phase of evolution named by Floridi as “hyper history.” 

The further advancement of ICTs increased their use, basing their work on technology, making its importance equal to or close to older revelations.

Covid-19, expansion of infosphere 

The recent major historical event, the global COVID-19 pandemic, enhanced the progress of ICTs, allowing people to transfer most of their outdoor lives indoors, or as can be noted, in/on screens. Even though the digital format of employment has existed for a period, it boosted its settings during the pandemic, increasing capacities and thus allowing companies to keep their employees and continue the processes remotely. 

“By means of low-cost computing, the cloud, big data, analytics, and mobile technologies, material things can share and collect data with minimal human intervention. In this hyperconnected world, digital systems can record, monitor, and adjust each interaction between connected things. The physical world meets the digital world—and they cooperate.” (Oracle) 

Brannen, Ahmed, & Newton (2020) reported that the data flow increased while the quarantine was active on the Internet of things, which consists of transferring data and connecting devices. 

The pandemic contributed to people spending more time online, rather than offline, given its nature also gave rise to propaganda and misinformation circulation.  

During Covid, besides the corporate sector, the governmental institutions shifted their activities to remote platforms as much as possible, including the PD functions.

Public Diplomacy 

The advancement of technology impacted the scope of the traditional PD. As a result, it now allows constant interaction with international audiences and extends the capacity and borders of the existing term of PD, welcoming the private sector members to use the same tactics to be present in a “no-longer state-centric environment” (USC Annenberg, 2018) and operate in on a global scale. 

Bjola, Cassidi, and Manor discussion on the PD in a Digital Age in their article for the Hague Journal of Diplomacy (2019), where they note that the advancement of ICTs and their extensive usage is likely to empower new actors in the field of diplomacy, supports the statement mentioned above on the extension of PD’s capacity. 

The executives of communication and technology companies have gained the power to make decisions affecting international audiences as well as influencing decisions to be made by others. The value of their voice gives them enough power as a diplomat, and their companies contribute to economic strength. The policies approved by them within the scope of their companies and the operations of their technologies may impact the diplomatic sphere and/or cause changes in the foreign relations field. As written in the article, Denmark was one of the first countries to appoint a tech Ambassador in 2019, responsible for managing the relations with tech companies in Silicon Valley and China. 

Despite the furtherance of ICTs in PD and the increase in the audience, this cooperation may lead towards a negative direction: spreading disinformation. The authors suggested that Machine Learning (ML) is a communication tool to be used specifically for this purpose, noting that despite ML serving as a solution, the written algorithms can also contribute to users engaging with disinformation campaigns.

Similar to the infosphere blurring the line between online and offline lives as proposed by Floridi, the authors of this article mention the noticeable blur between the lines of foreign and domestic affairs as user engagement increases, and those two combined create new audiences for PD

The study’s authors are filled with positivity when discussing PD in the digital age. They note that it will be essential to maintain creative and positive relations with the digital technologies and to stay committed to the mission, which will result in a bright digital age presence of PD in terms of how “communities and societies not only interact with each other but also how they redefine themselves as social and political actors in the digital age.”

Propaganda and Public Diplomacy

Within the terminology of PD, information was also treated as propaganda. 

“Propaganda” is defined as the “systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, esp. in a tendentious way to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas, doctrines, etc., disseminated; thus, the vehicle of such propagation.”

(Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989)

Rhonda Zaharna, Director of the Global Media program in the School of Communication, American University, Washington, D.C., in her article for the War, Media and Propaganda book (2009), discussed the steps undertaken by the United States beginning from the first World War in promoting its messaging for the international audience. 

During times of conflict, the fiercer the fights, the more effort would go into the information campaign. After the World Wars, followed by the Cold War, the latest peak mentioned in the article as an information campaign initiated by the U.S. was created after the 9/11 attack to fight against terrorism. For each political event, presidents of the respective terms started and created commissions and offices responsible for the information campaigns. 

The author mentions the silent debate throughout those events of either government-sponsored information activities should be considered propaganda or PD. 

Zaharna discusses the main difference between the PD and propaganda, defining each in the following ways:

Public diplomacy, by definition, is just that – open public communication in a global communication arena. Because the audience is free to accept or not accept the message, persuasion through coercion or control is not applicable. Instead, influence is achieved through gaining audience trust and confidence.Propaganda deliberately manipulates the communication through various techniques so that some aspect is hidden from the audience, and the audience feels compelled to accept the message. With coercion as the goal, information control and deception are essential to effective propaganda. 

The main difference is compulsive behavior towards the information, whether posted online or offline, the standing of the community towards the published information, and vice-versa is a way of understanding and interpreting information, which also leads to taking into account the environment. 

“In the international political arena, communication and information are used to effectively gain public trust and support for a government’s policies.” 

With a clear understanding of the importance of the environment and the level of trust towards the source of information disseminator, PD actors can build their strategies and use the technologies in their favor. However, as Bjola, Cassidi, and Manor noted, as much as PD may be beneficial within the infosphere, it can also play oppositely. 

In the digital sphere, the social networks (S.N.s) having the largest audiences than ever, some even more than a country with the most extensive number of citizens, trigger accusations of propaganda, especially in times of political elections and events, having the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections as the most vivid example and discussed case, and the recent case, as mentioned above, the Covid-19 pandemic. In the months of quarantining, several non-profit agencies, with the support of large tech companies, began campaigns to stop the spread of misinformation regarding the disinformation, followed by encouraging vaccination, both spreading internationally. 

Wrapping the ideas and the comparison between PD and propaganda, it is principal to determine if there are places that can regulate the flow of information/disinformation in a digital environment. 

Fighting propaganda with ML

“The high number of users makes it very easy for any kind of information to diffuse very quickly to influence the perception of the user itself.” (Tundis, Mukherjee, Mühlhäuser, 2021)

In the analysis of how ML fights propaganda, Tundis, Mukherjee, and Mühlhäuser examined one type of Text as an Art Form written on a single row (called “Special Characters for Alphabets”) through a methodological approach centered on two main aspects of a mixed code text analysis that can identify a mixed code in the Text along and normalize into a natural language, and a  hidden propaganda detection, the Convolutional Neural Network classifier with the best performance in the detection of propaganda.

The study categorized different types of existing mixed code, mixing two or more languages in studies of syntax, morphology related to the language, and the graphical writing style.

“The overall performance of the method has experimented on a publicly available dataset containing a collection of 15,847 textual propaganda and nonpropaganda related items. The results showed good performances, by achieving 92% Accuracy and Precision, whereas 91% F1-Score and 90% Recall are on average better compared to the related work.”

Following the results, the notable impact of the proposed system for the research showed its strength in identifying sources and individuals who use mixed code to disseminate propaganda content linked to extremist behavior. 

After the research, the authors identified the need for further studies on “improving the performance of the current algorithm by defining a more efficient heuristic related to the Text Segregation step,” suggesting a more thoughtful and innovative way to segregate the investigated Text to make it also work in a larger context.

Concluding the discussions of research pieces and the innovative approaches to the digital sphere, aka infosphere, the details analysis of the works mentioned above brings to the conclusion that despite the amount of information flow online, it is possible to distinguish between Public Diplomacy and propaganda. With people becoming more and more attached to their mobile devices and spending time indoors online, they can see multiple pieces of the same information without the ability to distinguish between the type of information they are being presented. This inability would harm public diplomacy and, without any actions taken, may prohibit its expansion to the other platforms within the ICTs, such as Virtual Reality, Extended Reality, etc. 

Thankfully, as much as there are risks, there are also proposed solutions, in this case as mixed-code text, used by people to overrule all the policies created by the heads of widely used platforms; the solution exists with high-level accuracy. 

The innovation-driven infosphere can be a safe place for the PD to cooperate with actors of this platform (such as tech CEOs), work with them on improving information dissemination, and increase in reach to engage with more foreign audiences, thus also providing data that can also contribute to the elimination or lowering chances of reading propaganda. 


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