What It Takes To Become a Twiplomat

Anja Türkan on getting your government’s message heard by foreign audiences.
By: /
October 24, 2012

The recent outrage over an anti-Islamic video on YouTube has, unsurprisingly, raised more questions about the impact of social media in diplomacy than answers. The video stirred up religious fears and aggressions all over the globe, followed by rampant attacks on the American embassies in Libya and Egypt, as well as their national leaders and diplomatic staff. These tensions led to the eruption of a spat on Twitter between the American embassy in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Over the past decade, international events have become increasingly intertwined with social media. As a result, international conflicts and a wave of protests have become more visible, and have revealed the full complexity of an intensive usage of Twitter in the field of diplomacy. The way events unfolded following the spread of the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims illustrates the challenges and perils governments face when digitally engaging with foreign governments and specific audiences under crisis conditions. Some optimists who have argued that social media will serve as the universal remedy and help resolve foreign-policy problems were taught quite a lesson as these events played out.

My concern is that the online spat between the American embassy in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood will lead the U.S. State Department and its European counterparts to over-restrict their communications strategies in the immediate future. Addressing international conflicts and other sensitive issues via social media should of course be subject to clear, strict policies. In such instances, approval should still be required – in this case by the ambassador – with regards to medium, content, tone, and process before sending out tweets. In all other matters, though, I believe there should be more autonomy for diplomats and individual staff members. Even if diplomats are relatively used to over-bureaucratic communication procedures, they should obtain permission to transmit messages or information quickly and spontaneously to publics in most situations. A different approach would be counterproductive and not appropriate.

In fact, therein lies the problem. This incident is strengthening my perspective that the seemingly unchoreographed and bureaucratic social-media strategy of the U.S. administration and other heads of state indicates weak points in their foreign policy in North Africa and the Middle East. Governments first need to get their policy right, identify their nation’s aims and reasons for involvement, and then communicate along those lines. In the end, a communication strategy that includes social-network sites is still about serving the government’s interests and purposes. Moreover, it should contain guidelines on how to manage interreligious and intercultural conflicts, since similar incidents will undoubtedly occur in the future.

Another limitation of Twiplomacy is the loss of control. As Sean Aday, associate professor of Media and International Affairs at George Washington University, states, “In a new media environment, the messenger has much less control over the reception of that message than they did in a traditional media world.” In the Twittersphere, both your target audience and anyone else who subscribes to your Twitter account can see your tweets and interact with you. Their responses, however, can cause inconveniences, altering and/or contradicting your original message. On Twitter, the number of potential damaging effects and irritating interactions can rise exponentially, since the medium also amplifies and quickly enforces the voices of radicals who take advantage of the technology for their own political ends. The Muslim Brotherhood’s online exchange with the U.S. embassy in Cairo displayed how well an extremist group is able to master digital communication regarding its content, tone of message, and connectivity.

The question that lingers most is the following: How can governments increase their international engagement on Twitter to make it more efficient for matters of diplomacy?

First of all, many Twitter accounts run by diplomats and other practitioners in international relations don’t produce substantive content. The 200-something Twitter accounts created by the U.S. State Department, for instance, do not necessarily generate real conversation or interactive engagement. Ramping up your Twitter presence does not suffice. That said, in order for Twiplomacy to be effective, it is desirable for ambassadors and diplomats to use their Twitter accounts in more innovative ways as a means of reaching out and engaging with their target audiences around the globe.

Second, diplomats can use digital diplomacy to interact with people in countries where their government no longer has a physical diplomatic presence. As an example, this year, Canada broke ties with Syria and Iran while the U.S. State Department and several European countries – among them Germany, France, and the United Kingdom – closed their diplomatic missions in Damascus for diplomatic and security reasons. For these countries, “virtual diplomacy” became a way to facilitate dialogue and maintain interaction with citizens and other non-governmental groups in Syria. Good examples, unsurprisingly, come from the pioneer, the United States, which has experimented with various technologies in order to protect ties with local communities. Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, for instance, hosted a Google Hangout in Farsi and addressed the Syrian people via the Facebook fan page of the U.S. embassy in Damascus (though it appears he stopped writing personal notes on the U.S. agenda in Syria at the end of July).

While Twitter and other social-media outlets can often fill this gap, if diplomats are to engage with underserved audiences, they have to consider new methods on how to reach them. For instance, foreign offices will face great obstacles if they use only one language for communication. It is essential that diplomats or staff members converse in the language of the foreign public audience. Besides language barriers, there are also certain countries that only use domestic social-media networks, as is the case in China with Sina Weibo, Russia with VKontakte, and Cuba with Red Social. In such instances, diplomats need to be where their target audience is so they can reach them on the right platforms.

In her opening remarks at this year’s Social Good Summit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Anyone can be a diplomat. All you do is hit ‘send.’” I disagree. Diplomats of the 21st century may be making use of Twitter, but knowing how to get your government’s message heard, and, moreover, being able to appropriately connect, directly communicate, and advance online conversations with foreign audiences requires one to be more than just tech- or media-savvy. For this to happen, diplomats must also be cautious, empathetic, sensitive, and spontaneous, and must know the local politics and language of the country in question. The increasing number of global-scale digital disputes demands a great deal of intercultural communication skills, as well. Diplomatic attempts to address the recent events surrounding the anti-Islamic video demonstrated how difficult it is to give a concise, 140-character response that conveys the right tone and avoids political duplicity. Nowadays, diplomats need to be able to contextualize information and present it tailor-made for their audiences.

Given the complexity of international affairs, public diplomacy requires navigating nuances and subtleties that cannot always be conveyed in a single tweet. But Twiplomacy is only one aspect of governments’ online interactions. Limiting digital diplomacy to Twitter while ignoring other social-media tools that could open up dialogue and expand one’s audience is a misguided approach. All social networks and innovative technologies must be considered in order to maximize the effectiveness of digital diplomacy.

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.


Twiplomacy: Theoretical Challenges, Practical Realities

Fergus Hanson on the challenges of a wired, real-time world.

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.

Who is DFAIT Following on Twitter?

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