Diplomacy in the Age of Twitter
‘Media pervasiveness’ as the scholars call it, is an undeniable fact of life. Be it the launch of attacks on Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden stealth operation in Abottabad or Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, they are stark reminders of the immense power at the disposal of media to cover real-time actions.
The impact of ICTs has been so deep that it has fundamentally influenced the way the official business of a state is conducted in the realms of defence, foreign affairs, and the entire spectrum of governance as a whole. Given the impact of technological changes, there is an increasing trend on the part of the countries to employ what Joseph Nye described as ‘soft power’ to further their objectives by way of persuasion and attraction.
Nowhere has this impact of media revolution been starker and more profound than in the area of foreign policy. The end of the Cold War led to the establishment of an ‘ideological bond’ whereby policymakers collaborated with the media men in articulating responses to the events happening at breathtaking speed.
This phenomenon known as ‘immediacy of response’ has been further reinforced by the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that have become preferred tools of the policy articulation on the part of the world leaders.
How has social media (SM) in general and Twitter in particular impacted diplomacy and interstate relations?
Changing Role of Diplomacy
Diplomacy is an ages-old profession that has been employed for peace-building and conflict prevention and resolution. However, in popular imagination, diplomats are a breed who sit in their ivory towers to conduct diplomacy in exclusive environments. They privilege privacy and distance from the public. It is presumed as if diplomats live in a ‘Neverland of whisky-marinated escapism’.
However, for those who understand its dynamics, it is a ‘transnational profession’ requiring training, specialization, advocacy and negotiation skills, willingness to learn new technologies, possession of situational and terrain awareness and a ‘steady hand’ at the deck, as diplomat Lawrence Durrell put it.
At the heart of diplomacy is the art of communication, an ability to simplify complex processes, and communicate with credibility and fluency, using a combination of eloquence and economy in the use of the language.
However, a new diplomatic order has taken birth that is very accurately defined by Ambassador Tom Fletcher as the age of a ‘naked diplomat’. The people’s access to the internet and open-source digital tools of communication has empowered them in ways more than one. Thanks to greater democratization, there has been an increasing demand of transparency and openness in the policymaking and deployment processes, real-time communication and countering fake news in a post-truth era.
The diplomats do not have the comforts of secrecy and the trappings of the past. They are having to leave their ‘ozone chambers’ to become more interactive, networked, people-centred and people-friendly. This dynamic is propelled by the sheer number of people in the cyberspace with some media platforms having as much following and subscriptions as the population of many countries.
As events explode across 24-hour information landscape, people belonging to all professions take to fast-paced and flexible social media platforms in an attempt to construct meanings from the world of noise around them. This is where the role of diplomacy assumes even greater relevance.
Where do the diplomats go from here? How do they deal with diplomacy in an undefined market of ideas that continues to be shaped by all kinds of news wherein fact-checking is not the norm and there is little to distinguish between lies and truths?
In such an instance, the core work of diplomats must go on and the traditional challenges will continue to be alive. There will be disputes to negotiate, refugees to help, partnerships to strengthen, trade to promote and terrorism to eliminate. However, the need to inform and communicate and to ensure transparency and openness will not recede.
Forms of Diplomacy in the Modern World
1. Traditional Diplomacy
It is the kind diplomacy in which governments engage with each other to manage bilateral, multilateral or international relations through negotiations.
2. Public Diplomacy
In this kind of diplomacy, a government/state makes conscious efforts to influence, inform and engage with the foreign audience. It uses various means to project its soft power to the international public.
3. Citizen Diplomacy
Citizen diplomacy comprises engagement and interaction between citizens of different countries irrespective of their governments and states.
4. Business/Economic Diplomacy
Under this category, countries try to engage with businessmen, investors and traders of other countries to convince them to invest in their lands. For this purpose, they offer various incentives to attract the foreign capital.
What is Twiplomacy?
Twitter diplomacy, or Twiplomacy, takes place when the political leaders and the governments take to Twitter to issue statements about the foreign policy issues and give reactions to the statements of others.
Not more a platform for celebrity feuds and fashion statements, Twitter has increasingly come to be used as a preferred tool for the communication of foreign-policy positions. According to Twiplomacy, the most-followed world leaders on Twitter have one thing in common: they have discovered Twitter as a powerful one-way broadcasting tool.
Why Does Twitter Matter?
It was Barrack Obama, then a Senator, who was the first global leader to join Twitter in 2007. By 2013, 78% of the 193 UN members had some kind of presence on Twitter. This figure had increased to 97% by 2018.
With most global leaders actively using Twitter, they have started to comment on the foreign-policy related stuff through their tweets.
Why Do World Leaders Use Twitter?
Compared to traditional modes of diplomacy, e.g. backdoor communication, telephone calls, Twitter has three distinct advantages:
1. Increased Accessibility
Twitter offers the world leaders increased and unhindered access to the larger audience. Compared to Twitter that allows unfiltered messaging and engagement with the people, traditional media tools such as press statements and communique rely on editing, filtering and managing multiple stakeholders. While traditional modes of communication may take time to reach the target group, Twitter messages are delivered within no time. This way the leaders can also bypass the complex bureaucratic processes and iterations required by the government agencies. This mechanism delays the flow of information. Twitter helps the leaders to reach diverse and more global audience directly, something that the traditional modes of communication cannot achieve.
2. Message Control
With direct access of the users being handily available, a leader can control the meaning, tone and tenor and the integrity of his message. He can bypass the iterations with the government organizations which means there is few filters available that can affect the originality of his message. He can, thus, easily and clearly convey what he actually wants to convey. One major advantage of controlling the message is that a leader can shape the domestic agenda by building support for a foreign policy issue. This way, he can learn about how the domestic audience perceives his foreign policy agenda.
3. Accelerated Network Effects
Twitter provides world leaders the space to shorten feedback loops. Within minutes of tweeting, they can learn about what the people are thinking about it and what the reaction of other leaders is to a stated position. This effectively removes the need of a government agency and a third person to provide the feedback. And then through the process of likes and retweets, the message of a leader gets amplified on other people’s Twittersphere.
Impact of Twitter on Diplomacy and Interstate Relations
In the current information era, Twitter diplomacy has several implications for the diplomatic relations between the countries:
I. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Success of Twitter Diplomacy
President Trump may have scrapped the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), famously known as Iran nuclear deal, the fact remains that the years between 2013 and 2015 represent the watershed period for the success of Twitter diplomacy. Following the telephonic conversation between President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in 2013, Iran used Twitter diplomacy in the most innovative of ways to reduce tensions that have been the hallmark of the US-Iran relations. In the absence of any formal diplomatic ties that got severed in 1980, Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter to convey their earnest desire to conclude nuclear deal with P5+1. They promoted Iran as a progressive and peace-loving country that is willing to do a deal with the West. Twitter diplomacy was at the heart of melting of the ice between the arch-rivals.
II. Narrowing Space for Diplomats
Before the advent of ICTs, diplomats and state representatives were at the heart of diplomatic activity. They would employ the traditional means of conducting diplomacy by meeting their counterparts in countries they were posted in, collect reports, and hold careful deliberations. Their recommendations to the headquarters back home were the outcome of critical discourse analysis. However, with the information explosion, the nature of their interaction with the political bosses has changed. Provoked by the immediacy of incidents, when political leaders react to situations on social media platforms such as Twitter, they are likely to over-react disproportionately. The kind of wise counsel that was available to them in good old days is absent. Their articulations on Twitter end up making the job of career diplomats quite tough.
III. Fragile and Undiplomatic Relations
Relations are more fragile and ‘undiplomatic’. Diplomacy has increased the risk of tensions and conflicts playing out between the countries. The most recent example is the acceleration of tension between Canada and Saudi Arabia in August 2018. A tweet by the Canadian Foreign Minister asking the Saudi authorities to release the rights activists provoked the Kingdom to expel the Canadian ambassador, suspend flights to Canada and halt student- exchange program. Thus what started as a casual tweet snowballed into a diplomatic standoff between the two countries. A slight error and misunderstanding can result in an escalation of tensions.
IV. Statement of A Formal Position
Tweets conveying unfiltered messages end up stating a formal foreign-policy position of a country to the rest of the world. With the leaders controlling the message, there is little space for the professionals and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs to offer expert advice and amendments to the text. The example can be found in an exchange of contradictory messages between US Secretary of State James Mattis and President Trump in December 2018. While Mattis suggested that the troops be kept in Syria, President Trump posted a video announcing the withdrawal of 2000 troops. The Trump tweet represented the formal position and caused considerable embarrassment, forcing the administration officials to clarify the withdrawal details.
V. Top-down Twiplomacy
Top-down Twiplomacy means that the organizations, institutions and even foreign governments keep on monitoring the accounts of the leaders to stay informed of the announcements. The top-down approach also forces the domestic organizations to eschew their positions in favour of a formal position by the top executive lest they should end up embarrassing him/her in case of a contrary opinion.
VI. Twiplomacy Inherently Multifaceted
Twitter diplomacy is inherently multifaceted. Both the contents and images can be a powerful tool to develop or undermine inter-state relations. The online actions of an increasing number of actors such as government representatives, wider indistinct audiences and non-state actors can have consequences for diplomatic relations among the countries.
VII. The Blurring of Lines between Propaganda & Information Warfare
Digital disinformation has added to the complexity of Twitter diplomacy. The calibrated use of false information to deceive and misguide an audience has blurred the lines between propaganda and information warfare. The online images can operate in the off-line world as a source of news stories to augment what has been termed as a culture of ‘fake news’. The example of an encrypted WhatsApp message involving Brazilian presidential candidate De Silva is a case in point in the 2018 elections. It is not just states or state-sponsored groups that distribute false information. The citizens and civil society interest groups actively share information online, like and retweet certain posts, thus taking a practical part in disinformation.
VIII. Manipulation of the Domestic Audience of A Foreign Country
One way of deployment of digital disinformation is to try to manipulate the domestic audience of a foreign country. Russia is the most pertinent example that has led different online campaigns with an objective to target certain state institutions such as eroding trust in the US media as the fourth state.
IX. Exposing Preferences, Emotions and Likes
When leaders post a controlled message, it gives others a peep into their personality and thinking pattern. By tweeting without any filters, they risk exposing their emotions, preferences and likes and dislikes. This way they allow their personality to inform and overwhelm the decision-making. The pertinent example is Modi’s thank-you tweets after winning elections in 2014 when he thanked countries starting with Canada, ignoring the US for two consecutive days. It signalled his prioritization and preferences vis-à-vis other countries.
X. A Peep into a Leader’s Psyche and Decision-making
Twitter diplomacy facilitates foreign friends and foes to analyze and understand a leader’s psyche. They can identify the foreign-policy approach as well as the pattern of decision-making. The adversaries can easily spot vulnerabilities and exploit fractures in alliances and even find ways to provoke him/her into a quagmire.
There is no denying the fact that Twitter diplomacy has given the global leaders wide access to diverse audiences by facilitating them to convey their unfiltered messages and getting them amplified through accelerated network effects. However, the examples of India, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Canada show that the implications of this kind of diplomacy for global peace, security and diplomacy are quite serious. The governments can reduce the risks by prescribing guidelines and protocols and imparting social media training to the emerging leaders. The danger is that if the harmful effects of Twitter diplomacy are not managed in a rational way, a war of words between the feuding leaders can lead to a real war with horrible consequences.
The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex and is a regular contributor to The News
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Amanat222