Twiplomacy: Theoretical Challenges, Practical Realities

Fergus Hanson on the challenges of a wired, real-time world.
By: /
October 17, 2012

When, in 2011, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was unable to get in touch with his Bahraini counterpart during the heat of the protest movement there, he opted to publicly shame him via Twitter.

And when protesters breached the U.S. embassy compound in Cairo after an amateur video ridiculing Islam was posted to YouTube in September 2012, the embassy tweeted:

If you had told any foreign-policy mandarin 10 years ago that the Swedish foreign minister and the world’s only superpower would be communicating critical messages in posts limited to 140 characters, you would have been soundly ridiculed. While there are still some Luddite foreign ministries trying to ignore the changes afoot, theirs is increasingly a losing position.

In October, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine, went so far as to say, “social media has evolved into the most powerful, galvanizing catalyst of our time – for better and for worse. It is arguably as significant an event in our shared human history as the industrial revolution.”

But to what extent has Twiplomacy changed the actual practice of diplomacy? There are at least three notable challenges.

First, networked communication facilitated by the diffusion of cellphones is changing the way people communicate, and old power hierarchies in the process. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation, Alec Ross, characterized this shift in the following way: “I think that part of what connection technologies do, is they take power away from the nation state and large institutions and give it to individuals and small institutions.”

Another illustration of the power of these tools to disrupt the foreign-policy establishment came with Invisible Children’s launch of the Kony2012 video. This previously obscure non-governmental organization’s half-hour video on Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, was launched in March 2012 and quickly amassed more than 100 million views.

The diffusion of cellphones across the globe, and the shift towards networking these, has produced a second tough challenge for diplomacy, which Philip Seib, professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, has dubbed “real-time diplomacy.”

Every communications revolution has challenged governments and foreign ministries by constricting their decision timeframes. But the point has now been reached where information not only travels instantly from almost anywhere on Earth, but is also democratized. Information is unfiltered by traditional gatekeepers like newspaper, radio, or television editors. Gone are the gentlemen’s agreements between editors and officials to hold back or restrain sensitive reporting. These sorts of traditional approaches are now largely redundant when it’s possible for people like IT consultant Sohaib Athar to live tweet events such as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Notwithstanding these technological developments, some of this change seems much more dramatic than it really is. The fact that it used to take days or months for information to reach policy-makers did not mean policy-makers had all that time available to formulate a policy and make a decision. Unless policy-makers were actually conveying the information themselves to headquarters, this travel time was dead time, and upon receiving the information, they would still be under pressure to respond in a timely way. Improvements in internal communications also allowed policy-makers to effectively buy time by making processing and transmission more efficient (for example, by replacing hand-written letters with typed letters and typed letters with emails).

It also remains true that for many (probably most) foreign-policy issues, policy-makers are still under no real public pressure to act expeditiously. The public has an extremely high tolerance for the negotiation of tax treaties, free-trade agreements, reciprocal health-care arrangements, and the like. Policy-makers have even been able to drag out global negotiations for years on issues as pressing and potentially catastrophic as climate change.

It is only in a limited number of high-profile issues that decision-making timeframes have been dramatically curtailed.

A third related challenge that Twiplomacy has created for foreign-policy practitioners is the potential for rapid and, in some cases, nation-brand-damaging incidents. Feeding this trend seems to be the fact that journalists in many countries now use social media as a source for breaking news, and as a means of gauging public reaction to events.

Events that in the past might have gone unnoticed beyond a small community now have the potential to explode internationally, causing massive economic losses, and even deaths.

On July 12, 2010, Terry Jones­, a radical reverend from Florida, wrote a series of Tweets attacking Islam, one of which read: “9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day.” He followed that up with a Facebook group soliciting people to join his “Burn a Koran Day.” By September, Al Jazeerareported, “A Facebook page in support of the burning had more than 16,000 fans by Friday and was on the increase, while fans of opponents’ pages numbered in the hundreds of thousands.”

The story spread and the consequences on the ground were very real. The New York Timesreported the fallout from one of the protests the reverend’s actions sparked:

Stirred up by three angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters on Friday overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

The dead included at least seven United Nations workers — four Nepalese guards and three Europeans from Romania, Sweden and Norway — according to United Nations officials in New York. 

So, yes, Twiplomacy is changing the traditional diplomatic environment and serious foreign ministries are trying to adapt. How they are doing so varies widely, but one foreign ministry that hasn’t been shy of stepping up to the challenge is the U.S. State Department. The fascinating way it’s using new technologies is the subject of my Brookings Institute paper, “Baked in and Wired: Ediplomacy @ State.”

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Also in the series


Why It's Tough for Embassies to Get Social Media Right

Brian Fung on why the 21st century is a tough time to be a control freak.

Social Media, Diplomacy, and R2P

Sean Aday on the power of social media as a witness to atrocities.

Twiplomacy: Worth Praising, but with Caution

Philip Seib on the good and the bad of Twiplomacy.

Twiplomacy: Using Canada's Voice in the Age of Digital Diplomacy

Renee Filiatrault on the importance of maintaining a disciplined voice online.

Social Media as a Tool for Public Diplomacy

Jennifer Charlton on the reach and transparency of social media.


E-Diplomacy Beyond Social Media

Andreas Sandre on how technology as a whole is changing diplomacy.

From Diplomat to Twiplomat

Danish diplomat Karen Melchior on learning how to be a Twiplomat.

What It Takes To Become a Twiplomat

Anja Türkan on getting your government’s message heard by foreign audiences.

Who is DFAIT Following on Twitter?

How is the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade using social networking?