The attention given to each “unpresidential” tweet by US President Donald Trump illustrates the political power of Twitter. Policymakers and analysts continue to raise numerous concerns about the potential political fall-out of Trump’s prolific tweeting. Six months after the inauguration, such apprehensions have become amplified.
Take for instance Trump’s tweet in March 2017 that “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!”, posted on the eve of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first official visit to China. The tweet complicated an already fractious relationship that Tillerson claimed was at “an inflection point.” Another example is Trump’s tweet on 24 January, 2017, regarding US national security and building the proposed US-Mexico border wall – “big day planned on NATIONAL SECURITY tomorrow. Among other things, we will build the wall!” This tweet signalled a steep decline in US-Mexico relations leading to Mexican President Enrique Peño Nieta’s cancellation of a planned meeting with Trump scheduled for the next week.
Such apprehension about the political effects of Twitter have often been linked to characterizations of the micro-blogging service itself as promoting overly negative, irrational, and unmoderated communication. There have even been calls to stop reading so much into Trump’s tweets. Yet we cannot deny that social media is increasingly used in diplomacy, and Twitter is especially rising in popularity as a foreign policy tool.
The power of Twitter emerges through how it challenges conventional diplomatic practices. Political leaders and policymakers frequently use Twitter alongside formal assemblies, social gatherings, and unofficial meetings, which have exemplified diplomacy over time. Two important aspects of Twitter stand out in facilitating this change: firstly, the public nature of tweets means an initial exchange between Twitter users can be shared with a much larger audience, leading to an incredible level of scrutiny. Secondly, the speed of this communication means there is much less time to digest and evaluate information, which can lead to a slow realization of change.
One noticeable outcome of the rapid and public nature of Twitter as a diplomatic tool is the insights it can provide into patterns of representations of both state identity and emotional expression, which are in turn central to the signalling of intentions between adversaries. How a state represents itself and recognizes others, often through boundaries of ‘us and them’, can be imbued with emotions that signal particular foreign policy positions.
We cannot deny that social media is increasingly used in diplomacy, and Twitter is especially rising in popularity as a foreign policy tool.
Consider a well-publicized acrimonious Twitter exchange between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu in November 2015, during the EU-Turkey refugee summit. Tsipras publically “trolled” Davutoğlu over Turkey’s continued violation of Greek airspace and its apparent reluctance to find a solution to the refugee crisis in the Aegean Sea: “To Prime Minister Davutoğlu: Fortunately our pilots are not as mercurial as yours against the Russians #EUTurkey.” Davutoğlu tweeted back that “comments on pilots by @tsipras seem hardly in tune with the spirit of the day. Alexis: let us focus on our positive agenda.” Using representations of Turkey as unpredictable and volatile, Tsipras signaled continued Greek frustrations with Turkish actions. Davutoğlu, on the other hand, avoided escalating tensions further between the two states by framing his response within a positive affective disposition, calling for greater cooperation and understanding.
Another case of Twitter’s role in transformational diplomacy that stands out is Iran and US engagement via the microblogging platform in the lead up to the historic Iran and P5+1 nuclear deal in 2015, which saw sanctions against Iran lifted in exchange for a drawing down of its nuclear program.
Twitter played 2 key roles during this deal.
Firstly, Twitter became an alternative platform to official communication through which key stakeholders – US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Ayatollah Khamenei – could communicate and ‘talk honestly’ with one another, arguably helping to develop stronger trust between these counterparts. Consider the Iranian response to the open letter signed by 47 US Senate Republicans in April 2015, which claimed any executive agreement on the nuclear issue made between Obama and Khamenei could be swiftly revoked. Zarif tweeted directly to the instigator of the letter, US Senator Tom Cotton: “ICYMI my response. In English.” This tweet included a full page rejoinder emphasizing Iran’s good faith involvement in the nuclear negotiations. Zarif’s use of Twitter to reach out publically to Cotton allowed for a clear challenge to the representation of Iran as threatening and Irrational. In doing so, Iran was able to openly advocate for continued diplomatic efforts from all parties to the nuclear negotiations, signaling Iranian resolve to reach an acceptable deal.
Secondly, Twitter provided an alternative platform through which Iran could introduce slight shifts in representations of itself and the US. Key tropes of mutual respect proved to be a win-win; Iran as peaceful and progressive, and the negotiations were an instrumental opportunity in shifting the focus of Iranian communications to promoting positive aspects of its identity, rather than continually emphasizing negative representations of the US. This was a significant and public shift in the dynamics of recognition between these two states. These representations are key to understanding how, despite deep historical animosities on both sides, a more positive relationship was built that resulted in a successful nuclear deal. Unfortunately, Trump’s tweets about the ‘terrible’ nuclear deal demonstrate how easily, and quickly, good attempts at conflict resolution can be undermined. Representations that are deeply ingrained can also be easily deployed on social media, leading to greater potential for hostility.
Ultimately, diplomacy will continue to unfold through time-honored practices of engagement between states. However, dismissing the role of social media as a diplomatic engagement tool, particularly Twitter, means potential openings for transformative change might well pass before they can be acted upon.
Featured image credit: cell phone mobile by Free-Photos. Public domain via Pixabay.