Social media ‘weiplomacy’ teaching Canada’s Beijing embassy new tricks

Investigative Journalism

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Published with The Canadian Press, Aug. 4, 2012.

Diplomats toiling away in all corners of Canada’s Beijing embassy are learning “weiplomacy” and being encouraged to start thinking 140 Chinese characters at a time, as social media updates make diplomatic staples appear obsolete.

Internal Foreign Affairs memos detail the embassy’s careful June 2011 launch of a “weibo” — or microblog — in China, a country that keeps a tight grip on Internet speech and bans social media behemoths Twitter and Facebook.

“We entered the world of weibo with an open mind, and have often been surprised by what we have found,” said a note by the embassy’s public diplomacy head weeks after the first status updates hit the “Canadaweibo” account on Chinese Internet portal

It was a big first step for Canadian diplomats looking to carve out a place in the fast-growing world of Chinese cyber-diplomacy.

A series of memos from last summer obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information show embassy staff quickly learning that 20th-century diplomatic standbys don’t translate well for the 300-million users of the Twitter-style website.

“Chinese netizens are indifferent or even hostile to tweets that appear bureaucratic and formulaic,” a memo advised.

“The DFAIT (Foreign Affairs) staple of Canadian VIP + local counterpart shaking hands in formal settings is the one image guaranteed to elicit mocking comments.”

What works best, they found, are tweets on travel, food and studying in Canada, as well as posts about jobs and visas.

But not all Canadian diplomats in China rushed to their keyboards to tap out bite-sized updates when the account went up.

Workshops were held “to demystify the process of tweeting, and to discuss how weibo can be of use to other sections, and not be seen as an added chore,” a memo states.

The weibo documents highlight the power of microblogging to let embassy staff stickhandle around state media controls for access allowing them to “take the pulse” of web-savvy Chinese citizens.

“Our ‘weiplomacy’ is allowing us to reach out to new audiences and, increasingly, to engage in dialogue with them,” a memo states.

“This means we can project our messages, but it also means we can hear what the audience is really thinking.”

Foreign Affairs spokesman Jean-Francois Lacelle said in an email the embassy is developing “different ways” to track public opinion through the weibo service, aside from basic metrics like comment tone and number of replies and retweets.

The embassy account currently posts several updates a day to more than 231,000 followers.

The memos show diplomats were also excited about gaining “high value” comments from Chinese Internet stars and “opinion leaders,” describing an unnamed Chinese actor who touted Canada’s education system and multiculturalism in a tweet exchange with the embassy.

The “most positive” weibo discovery was its power to build an online community and open the door to public weibo exchanges on “substantive issues,” with the memos citing a conversation with Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Fan Lixin, who has directed documentaries on migrant workers in China.

But Canada’s push to expand energy and resource exports to China may come to dominant the embassy’s weibo feed, said Josh Greenberg, a Carleton University professor who studies political uses of social media.

“It’s going to be driven by those broader trade priorities” rather than culture and tourism promotion concerns, he suggested.

And the direct access provided by the weibo could cut both ways, and put diplomats in a difficult spot should anti-Canadian sentiment begin to boil over on the social media site, Greenberg said.

“What would happen if some of the embassy’s weibo fans started to criticize Canadian corporations and Canadian companies (in China), and start to ask questions of the Canadian embassy?” asked Greenberg, who pointed to previous instances of weibo outrage against Chinese government actions.

Weibo host has been criticized for censoring tweets and deleting accounts that could upset the country’s Communist government, which runs its own Internet filtering system.

The portal — its logo is an open red eye — has 1,000 employees patrolling the site for posts that could inflame authorities.

But the memos say censorship hasn’t been a problem for embassy diplomats, who said they “test our boundaries carefully” and don’t shy away from tweeting on potential flashpoints such as the rule of law and food safety.

Though one tweet last summer on the controversial extradition of a Chinese businessman was reportedly removed by censors, it was later reposted without incident, according to the memos.

Spokesman Lacelle said the only thing diplomats can’t post are tweets that could jeopardize the safety of Chinese weibo users.

The memos state that replies to embassy tweets were “generally positive or neutral” with only a handful per thousand comments deemed rude or hostile, though staff decided not to delete negative remarks for sake of transparency.

Potential weibo fodder is sent from across the embassy’s sections and Canada’s three China consulates for review by the mission’s public diplomacy desk — not minders back in Ottawa — with even Canadian Ambassador David Mulroney submitting to the vetting process.

Canada’s account was created following weibos being set up by embassies from the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Australia and Japan.

Photo credit: Jon Russell/Flickr CC