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Twiplomacy on Trial

The growing violence across the Muslim world is testing how diplomacy and Twitter can work together.

By: /
14 September, 2012
By: Claire Schachter
Deputy Editor of

The term ‘Twiplomacy’ has gained currency of late as Twitter becomes more and more of a fixture in the foreign policy world.

  • Twiplomatic spats are making headlines: a snarky exchange between those in charge of the American embassy in Cairo’s feed and those on Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Twitter feed, is still radiating, impressive given the giga-watt speed of the Twitter news cycle.

  • A recent global study by PR firm Burson-Marsteller and number of international conferences are considering the subject.

  • Hilary Clinton has gotten a lot of attention for her emphasis on social media, specifically Twitter, as a crucial tool for diplomats and foreign service officers. She has made a push for the State Department to become social-media savvy from the top down. What her successor does will determine whether U.S. foreign officers continue to set the trends in Twiplomacy, or whether other nations such as China, which has seen a surge in microblogging, will take the lead.

  • A recent episode of CBC’s The Current considered both the potential and limitations of using this technology to ease the tensions that plague states seeking to navigate a shrinking world.

But policy direction from the top is not the only thing that will determine the extent of Twitter’s utility in the diplomatic arena. At every level, Twiplomats are beginning to realize just how tricky controlling this new medium can be. The growing numbers of feeds and tweets, both official and personal, inevitably increases the opportunities for awkward, potentially damaging interactions in the public sphere.

There clearly are limits – even risks – to tweeting on behalf of a government, embassy, or statesperson. No doubt the “oddly informal” tone of the U.S. Embassy to Egypt’s Twitter feed will soon become more formal, at least for the immediate future.

Currently, Canada lags behind this trend – John Baird’s most recent tweet was on September 10, and before that August 20th. But if DFAIT decides that Canadian diplomats should ramp up their Twitter presence (or find themselves being pushed in the Twiplomacy era by their American counterparts) they will need a finely calibrated, consistent voice – one that balances personability with professionalism. This is not an easy task, particularly when tweets are much more likely to be written by staffers rather than the diplomats themselves, and when the medium depends on rapid-fire responses, demanding that oversight be light or non-existent.

The growing violence across the Muslim world presents the Twittersphere with yet another opportunity to show how this popular and public technology is impacting the traditionally elitist, closed-off world of traditional diplomacy. Over the next days and weeks, Twiplomacy will remain on trial.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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