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July 11, 2020

The era of Twiplomacy


July 11, 2020

Fast-paced technological changes have fundamentally influenced the way the official business of a state is conducted in the realms of defence, foreign policy, and the entire spectrum of governance.

The emergence of social media platforms has given birth to ‘immediacy of response’ with the result that world leaders are increasingly taking to Facebook and Twitter to articulate their policies.

Diplomacy has been employed for centuries for peace-building, conflict resolution, and the promotion of trade. However, for those who understand its dynamics, it is a transnational profession that presupposes the need for training, advocacy and negotiation skills, willingness to learn new technologies, and a ‘steady hand’ at the deck as diplomat Lawrence Durrell put it.

A new diplomatic order has taken birth. The people’s access to the internet and open-source digital tools of communication has empowered them in significant ways. Thanks to greater democratization powered by digital tools, there is now an increasing demand for transparency, participation, and openness in policymaking around the world.

This dynamic is propelled by the sheer number of people in cyberspace, with some media platforms having as much following and subscriptions as the population of many countries. According to Oberlo, an online marketing platform, there are 330 million monthly active users on Twitter out of which 145 million people use it actively on a daily basis.

As events explode across the 24-hour information landscape, people belonging to all professions take to fast-paced, and flexible social media platforms in an attempt to construct meaning from the world of noise around them. This is where the role of diplomacy assumes even greater relevance.

Twitter diplomacy takes place when political leaders and governments take to Twitter to issue statements about the foreign policy issues and give reactions to the statements of others. Twitter has increasingly come to be used as a preferred tool for the communication of foreign policy positions. The attraction and power of Twitter as an effective public outreach tool is sinking in globally.

Compared to traditional modes of diplomacy such as backdoor communication, formal meetings, and telephone calls, Twitter enjoys three distinct advantages:

First, Twitter offers the world leaders increased and unhindered access to larger audiences across the world. The traditional media tools such as press statements and communique mainly rely on drafting, editing and filtering. While traditional modes of communication may take time to reach the target audience, Twitter messages are delivered within no time. This way, leaders can also bypass the complex bureaucratic processes to issue an instant response. Twitter helps leaders reach a diverse and more global audience directly, something the traditional modes of communication are hard-pressed to achieve.

Second, with direct access being handily available, a leader can control the meaning, tone and tenor as well as the integrity of his message. S/he can bypass the processes of formal communication that can affect the originality of his message. S/he can thus easily and clearly convey what he actually wants to put across. One major advantage of controlling the message is that a leader can shape his/her agenda by building support for it.

Third, Twitter provides world leaders the space to shorten feedback loops. Within minutes of tweeting, they can learn about what the world in general and the targeted recipients of the message in particular are thinking about their policies and what the reaction is likely to be to a stated position. And then through the process of likes and retweets, the message of a leader gets amplified in other people’s Twittersphere.

In the current information era, Twitter diplomacy has several implications for the interstate as well as multilateral relations.

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, collecting reports, and holding careful deliberations. Their recommendations to the headquarters back home were the outcome of critical discourse analysis. The constant need for quick reply dictated by domestic considerations, however, runs the risk of provoking a hurried response to a complex challenge that may not be the outcome of inter-institutional consultation.

In the era of Twiplomacy, bilateral relations are more fragile and ‘undiplomatic’. The new diplomatic normal has increased the risk of unintended tensions and conflicts playing out between countries. The most recent example is the acceleration of tension between the US and China in the context of an ongoing trade war and the feud over Covid-19. In 2018, a tweet by the Canadian foreign minister asking the Saudi authorities to release rights activists provoked the Kingdom to expel the Canadian ambassador, cease flights to Canada, and suspend students’ exchange programmes.

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 professionals and the ministries for information and foreign affairs to offer expert and carefully deliberated advice.

Twitter diplomacy is inherently multifaceted and 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.

The phenomenon of fake news 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 public diplomacy. Online images can operate in the off-line world as a source of news stories to augment disinformation and half-truths to achieve the desired objective.

When leaders post a controlled message, it gives others a peep into their personality and thinking pattern. By tweeting without any controls, they risk exposing their emotions, preferences and likes and dislikes.

Twitter diplomacy facilitates friends and foes to analyze and understand a leader’s psyche and thinking on critical issues. They can identify the foreign policy approach as well as the pattern of decision-making. Adversaries can easily spot and exploit vulnerabilities and even find ways to provoke him/her into a reaction that undermines the long-term interest of that country.

There is no denying the fact that Twitter diplomacy has given global leaders added clout and wide access to diverse audiences. However, this innovative mode of global engagement is not without its risks as the implications of this kind of diplomacy for global peace, security and interstate relations are noteworthy. There is a need for a more detailed academic investigation into the impact of Twitter on diplomacy and interstate relations.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222