GOOGLE “KOSOVO”, AND Petrit Selimi knows exactly what you’re going to see: dry, diplo-speak scouting reports at best, and depressing references to past conflicts at worst. It’s not exactly the promotional buzz a fledgling country with sights set on global integration would hope for*. ToSelimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Secretary and a pioneer in Digital Diplomacy, this is a major problem.
“Things on Google were all bad,” Selimi notes, “but Kosovo has moved way beyond this in terms of nation building.” Two glaring issues of the country’s internet presence were the nature of the content and a general lack of material with which to counter decade-old news pieces. To start the digital offensive, Selimi initiated “Wikipedia camps”, at which teenagers would learn the basics of researching and writing articles while creating novel contributions about Kosovar arts, culture, or sports – subjects slightly more removed from the third rail of politics and recent history. The camps served a dual purpose for Kosovo’s government, bolstering favorable content and seeding a crop of web-savvy young programmers. Camp graduates have gone on to develop apps centered around street fashion, tourism guides, and language translation.
While newly competent Wikipedia authors were bolstering Kosovo’s reputation from the ground-up, Selimi and his team worked with multinational social media and news outlets. They convinced the Weather Channel and Washington Times to include Kosovo’s borders on stock maps of the Balkans. They persuaded Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – after persistent phone calls and online petitions – to recognize Kosovo as an independent country. Spain may not have diplomatic relations with Pristina, but you can “check in” from Kosovo on Facebook. If billions of web-users view Kosovo as a dynamic, independent country, the thinking goes, then their governments may follow suit. It’s a “hearts and minds” approach, a charm offensive well executed by the former PR maven who famously convinced a mobile phone company to sponsor a 50 Cent concert in the national football stadium.
Selimi’s digital ambitions are limited only by the country’s manpower, and he’s willing to take a different tack when it comes to thwarting unfavorable impressions ossified from years of click-based heritage. He is intimately familiar with search engines’ formulae, and while he doesn’t go into specifics, there are ways to get around the system. “Yes, those are the dark arts,” he says conspiratorially, with a sly grin. “Generally those algorithms are populist, based on what was clicked before, but that’s not what’s really here, things are changing so fast in Kosovo. There are some things that we try to do…”
One glaring question remains: have these Digital Diplomacy victories led to any real change in more official diplomatic circles? The answer is muddy, difficult to measure, and – perhaps most interestingly – increasingly irrelevant. “The lines between classical diplomacy and the ‘new diplomacy’ will blur to an extent that you cannot really distinguish,” Selimi contends. “It’s as much about digital dissemination as it is about classical means.” He recalls the viral #Kony2012 and #bringbackourgirls Twitterverse calls to action, hashtag diplomacy that has shaped governmental responses if not sustained lastingconsciousness of the underlying issues.
“Nowadays, diplomacy is about nation branding,” says Selimi, “and we can’t allow others to depict us.” He is particularly sensitive about the external impression of Kosovo as a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalists; the population is 95% Muslim, yet churches are scattered across the country, and “we are a bigger supporter of U.S. foreign policy than U.S. citizens are,” he exclaims. As Selimi ponders his next move – a Eurovision entrant, a country code web address suffix – he clearly relishes the underdog role, the David vs. Goliath dynamic that largely defines the Kosovar identity. “People will always try something here, will always work to improve. This is just a tiny little country that’s trying to find a place under the global sun.”
*Perhaps the third category of Kosovo search engine hits tackles the question of sovereignty. As of writing, 108 nations (including the US and most of the EU) recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, while many globally relevant players do not.