In-depth | Politics

digitaldiplomacy.ks

By - 31.10.2016

Improving the image and recognition of Kosovo through internet based platforms.

Defining ‘digital diplomacy’ is difficult, especially as there seems to be an open debate between different thoughts and schools regarding its exact nature. A crude explanation would be that digital diplomacy is using the internet and other new information communication technologies to achieve diplomatic objectives.

Different countries have used digital diplomacy to achieve different goals. For example, Israel has used the internet to help foster relationships with Israel supporters around the world and communicate with its diaspora. Digital diplomacy has also helped demonstrate Israel ‘beyond the conflict’; its culture, diversity, advanced technology, tourism and more.

In recent years, Kosovo has taken its own tentative steps towards embracing the digital diplomacy revolution. Although it has a small population of around 2 million people, over 80 percent of its citizens are reported to have access to the internet, presenting huge potential in this field — if such a human capacity can be harnessed effectively.

A digital diplomat can be anyone with a computer and access to the internet.

But why is digital diplomacy important for Kosovo? There are a number of reasons, but one of the most pressing is the need to improve the image of Kosovo in the eyes of the international community. Those that have contact with foreigners that live here, know that for most of them their image of Kosovo (before arriving and getting to know the country first-hand) is limited to a place that went through a war, has a majority population of muslims, and suffers from ethnic tensions and poverty. Although there is some truth in these stereotypes, the reality is not so grim.

“Kosovo is not a garden of flowers, but transmitting that image of normality would help a lot,” says Arianit Dobroshi, one of the first ‘digital diplomats’ of Kosovo. “It would also help with investments and tourism. But if you can not show the world that Kosovo has come a long way since 1999 and the war, you will always have problems.”

Digital diplomacy for the people

A digital diplomat can be anyone with a computer and access to the internet, as long as he is pursuing the above goals. Dobroshi, who studied aviation related fields in the USA and Netherlands, was one of the first to explore this opportunity, all the way back in 2005. He created a news portal in English,  Kosovareport (the link is an archive, the webpage was closed a year later), that was aimed at the international community.

Independent initiatives for digital diplomacy like Dobroshi’s have been constant on the web over the years. They have promoted tourism, sports, culture, foods and Kosovar society on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social platforms. There are also a number of blogging and news websites for the English speaking audience.

Digital diplomacy’s greatest success in Kosovo came through taking on one of the world’s most popular websites. From as early as 2010, Kosovo’s Facebook users had started groups petitioning Facebook to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Eventually a widespread petition circulated that appeared on change.org, amongst other online locations. The petition stated: “Kosovo is recognized by over 100 world countries and is an independent state, we regret that Facebook.com still qualifies Kosovo as a Serbian province. As every other country, we have the right to register in Facebook.com as a citizen of Kosovo.”

Thousands of emails, hashtags, and status updates from some of the 860,000 registered Kosovar Facebook users, persistently appealed to Facebook officials to recognize Kosovo as a state. The default choice for Kosovo citizens was to register under the name of Serbia; though the majority choose Albania or, as a protest, some went as far as to register under the state of Antigua.

Then in 2013, Kosovo had a ‘status update’ — Facebook recognized it as a distinct region. It was an act that had repercussions not only in terms of recognition diplomacy; (Facebook has over 1.71 billion monthly active users), but also for commerce. People could now register local businesses in Kosovo, to promote their products to potential customers through Facebook without being thwarted by the ‘Serbia’ designation.

The state presses the @ button

It was in July 2012 that the government of Kosovo first became involved in the medium, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) launched a Strategy on Digital Diplomacy. The project was driven by Kosovo’s former deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, and the strategy was drafted by UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office communications expert, Zeenat Khanche, in close coordination with his office.

The strategy document cannot be found online, however K2.0 obtained a copy from the British Council. It states that digital diplomacy is vital to Kosovo, as the country’s image is hampered by intentional propaganda, a perception of a slow pace of reforms, old prejudices and a lack of pro-active digital content originating from Kosovo. It concludes that driving forward foreign policy goals requires a long-term campaign.

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To help achieve these aims, the 54-page document lists a number of key recommendations and goals. The realization of the strategy, and the attempts to achieve these goals, were supported by the Norwegian and British Embassies, the British Council and the Ipko Foundation, who, according to Selimi, made its implementation possible.

The Wiki Academy

Doruntina Demiri is a project manager at the Ipko Foundation, which launched three major projects to help the strategy achieve its aims: Wiki Academy, Digital Kosovo, and AppCamp. The achievements of Wiki Academy, for as long as it lasted, and Digital Kosovo, can be considered perhaps the strategy’s greatest successes.

Wiki Academy featured a large number of people that gathered to change the content of Wikipedia. Remembering the days of the Wiki Academy, Demiri explains that it came as a result of the contested neutrality of wikipedia articles. Although Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source by scholars, it is still the most popular encyclopedia web page, and ranks highly in Google search results. Up until 2012, the information provided there, according to Demiri, was appalling and misleading.

“If you searched Google, the articles that appeared on Wikipedia did not reflect the reality of Kosovo,” says Demiri. “It was presented as a place where the war happened because the Albanians started it, and the Serbs were the victims.” Providing new reliable sources and more detailed information about the war, history and other aspects of Kosovo was the main focus of this project.

Wiki Academy held two editions and gathered a large number of people and professionals from different fields.

“In the first Wiki Academy there were around 40 new articles written about the culture and economy of Kosovo, and many encyclopedic pictures [were added]. In the second edition we targeted different cities of Kosovo, and each team from those cities had to write something that belongs to those cities,” says Demiri, adding that now people can read more accurate online articles about Kosovo.

“Today you can still see weird content on Wikipedia, because Albanians are not active.”

Arianit Dobroshi

According to the MFA, overall there were 57 new Wikipedia articles written, and over 1,400 new images published. However, Demiri believes that the two academies are not enough to improve Kosovo’s image, and there needs to be a team that is actively engaged in editing wikipedia articles.

Arianit Dobroshi, Kosovo’s original digital diplomat, was also part of the Wiki Academy, alongside his group Free Libre Open Source Software Kosova (FLOSSK), which he describes as an organization of hackers, ‘in the most positive meaning of the word.’

FLOSSK had previously been active in improving Kosovo’s online image on Wikipedia. They participated in two international competitions: “Wiki Loves Monuments,” for promoting cultural monuments, and “Wiki Loves Earth,” for protecting natural monuments.

According to Dobroshi, editing Wikipedia is not without its struggles, mostly because editors from Kosovo are not active. “Today you can still see weird content on Wikipedia, because Albanians are not active,” he says. “Especially those from Kosovo. It’s the Albanians from the diaspora who contribute the most.”

According to him, if you are not active on the web, then what you read about Kosovo will be written by others, mainly Serbs, and many times it will not convey the true image of today’s reality in Kosovo, or of Kosovo’s recent history

Describing the situation with Wiki Academy, Dobroshi explains that “after we published these articles on Wikipedia, the Serbs started changing them. It is a bit difficult maintaining them, because it’s hard keeping the community alive. They did lots of work when the academy was held, but afterwards they dispersed.”

Demiri says that the IPKO Foundation is trying to create a community that would edit and maintain articles on a weekly basis, in cooperation with Dobroshi and his organization FLOSSK.

“Because Kosovo was not listed as a state, it was hard to buy on Amazon or register at a University.”

Doruntina Demiri

Arjeta Emra is a director at British Council Kosovo, who had a key role in implementing the Wiki Academy project. Emra believes it is up to the government to hold training on Wikipedia and Google, adding that lobbying should be consistent and not ad hoc, and should be intensified with platforms in languages other than Albanian and English. Emra adds that the British Council has now shifted focus, and is implementing a similar initiative in Albania, hoping to improve the overall image of Albanians in the world.

Digital Kosovo

A major battleground for the strategy was the fight over an ISO code for Kosovo. Without an ISO code, which is given by the UN, Kosovo did not appear in the list of states on many websites. This means that the 1,523,373 internet users in Kosovo, were unable to use a number of basic online services including registering their businesses, booking flights or ordering goods.

Digitalkosovo.org was launched to help rectify this issue and attempted to integrate Kosovo onto the lists of states on different websites. “Because Kosovo was not listed as a state,” says Demiri, “it was hard to buy on Amazon or register at a University.”

They opened a platform, www.digitalkosovo.org, where individuals could send emails or requests for inclusion to different websites, universities or other establishments through ready made templates that included concrete information and details needed in order for the request to be taken into consideration.

“It is built in such a way so that all you have to do is get in, register and write an email [to the intended organization] and it would go as a request from individuals not from the platform,” explains Demiri. “And of course when they get [thousands of] emails from lots of people it produces a reaction, and usually a successful one.”

She says they had success with airports, universities (including Oxford University), and global companies including Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Dailymotion, Linkedin, Amazon and many others who have included Kosovo on their lists as a state.

#InstaKosova & AppCamp

A project that the MFA launched by itself was the #InstaKosova hashtag, an online photo competition in which, according to the ministry, around 8,000 images were posted by Kosovo’s citizens; depicting lifestyle, art and nature from around the country. Selected images were compiled and presented afterwards in a monograph format. The initiative ran twice, once in 2013 and again in 2015.

A third project launched with the IPKO Foundation, AppCamp, was aimed at gathering young innovators and application developers to build apps for iOS and Android, which would promote Kosovo’s cultural heritage, tourism, food and clothing amidst other things. Developers also created games through which a part of Kosovo’s history would be told.

The participants were mainly university students with knowledge of application building. Even though the participants were talented and created some interesting programs, according to Demiri they had poor teamwork skills and encountered difficulties in finalizing the projects. AppCamp was discontinued after a single session.

The current state of Digital Diplomacy

Since the conclusion of these joint projects between the MFA and its partners, there seems to be no state organized digital lobbying diplomacy; although the website www.digitalkosovo.org is still active.

The MFA’s strategy had presented a number of other recommendations to push Kosovo’s digital diplomacy forwards. In it was foreseen the creation of a Specialist Digital Unit which would have continued to achieve Kosovo’s digital diplomacy aims; from lobbying to receive an ISO code, to targeting opinion formers at non recognizing countries, to joining the media team at the MFA, to improving Facebook and Twitter updates. However, there is little evidence to suggest that such a unit was ever created.

Lobbying through this new medium is cheap, much faster, and has a larger population reach than traditional diplomatic avenues.

The document also proposed that digital diplomacy be incorporated into all the ministries’ and embassies’ operations, helping establish a National Strategy for Digital Diplomacy. K2.0 contacted the MFA to find out the current and future plans for Digital Diplomacy in Kosovo and was told by political advisor Bashmir Xhemaj that the government has “a great plan.”

But the draft program of the Republic of Kosovo for 2015-2018 says otherwise. It states that the objectives for digital diplomacy are ‘fulfilled,’ and shifts attention to other public diplomacy issues. The MFA failed to provide further comments for this article despite numerous requests by K2.0.

Regarding the Strategy for Digital Diplomacy and the reasons why its aims were not entirely fulfilled, K2.0 also requested an interview with Petrit Selimi but, after leaving his position of deputy foreign minister, he was not willing to answer.

Given the emphasis previously placed on digital diplomacy, this lapse in official activities seems surprising. Lobbying through this new medium is cheap, much faster, and has a larger population reach than traditional diplomatic avenues. Everyone interviewed agreed that Kosovo, with more than 80 percent of its population with access to internet, has a huge human capacity, potentially meaning lots of digital diplomats, who if someone were to coordinate and organize into a focused mission, could make a great impact on the international scene.

There is no suggestion that traditional forms of diplomacy such as round table discussions, diplomatic meetings, sending delegations, and opening embassies around the world, no longer serve a purpose. However, all the people with whom K2.0 talked, expressed their belief that Kosovo also has a lot to gain from digital diplomacy; all it takes is willingness and less than the half the funds used for diplomatic dinners.K

Images: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0

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