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Twitter and diplomacy: A tool or just trouble?

Published on 06 September 2012
Updated on 01 November 2023

Editorial note: Today, Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) are the most popular e-tools used by diplomatic services. However, controversies surrounding X’s usage and policies make its future unclear, prompting us to revisit Aldo Matteucci’s 2012 thoughts on Twitter’s diplomatic role (for the latest news, check out our X updates).


In December 2008, Colleen Graffy, the newly minted deputy undersecretary of state for Public Affairs, tweeted about her experience in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon. In 2009, Alec Ross, a social network guru at the US State Department, tweeted to inform his Twitter world that he had ‘challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest’. On 25 May 2011, Sweden’s MFA Carl Bildt sent a tweet to his homologue Khalid al Khalifa of Qatar: ‘Trying to get in touch with you on an issue.’

Carl Bildt's tweet to Khalid al Khalifa of Qatar.
Carl Bildt’s tweet to Khalid al Khalifa of Qatar.

Did any of these three tweets serve any ‘diplomatic’ or ‘public policy’ purpose (see The Digital Diplomacy Handbook by Antonio Deruda)? I’m definitely dumb: I don’t see any, though I see uses tweets may be put to. 

Should diplomats tweet about their private lives?

The first two tweets might project a ‘human-angle’ in diplomacy. Along the same lines, I expect soon a tweet from a high-ranking diplomat: ‘Gathered Toby’s poop on morning walk’ (36 characters with spaces). The first ones to try the ‘human angle’ story were Adam and Eve when they told Yahweh that they were hiding from him because they felt ‘naked’ (as we all know, they were haplessly trying to distract God’s attention from the fact that they had snacked on a forbidden apple).

Hurried and harried journalists love human-angle stories, and tweets might provide them with cues before a press conference. Tweets can provide ‘basic plots’ on which the diplomat can expound during a press conference, thus soaking up quality conference time. When properly contextualised, the human-angle provides easy and entertaining copy. Readers lap up such sop, particularly if it is titillating, or funny (like the problematic swimming suit at Keflavik).

Colleen Graffy tweets about Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.
Colleen Graffy tweets about Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.

Incidentally, in the merciless war climbers of the greasy pole wage on each other, anything goes, according to the principle: ‘It does not matter what they say, as long as they talk about me.’

Bildt publicly justified his tweet as evidence of his knowledge of ‘modern means in a modern world’. It only showed that he did not know how to send an SMS or did not have the Minister’s phone number, or was a control freak (take your pick). Or he might have hammed up to al Khalifa, who is a notorious twitterato. An SMS would have achieved the same goal – alerting his counterpart – without letting the world know that Carl Bildt was up to ‘something’ or other.

Can tweets supersede normal diplomatic communication?

Tweets are nothing new. Lonely Swiss cowhands in the Alps would use an empty milk pail as a blow-horn to alert a mate on the other side of the valley, or the master down below. American Indians sent up puffs of smoke (134 puffs max?), and the Chinese lit fires on towers along the Long Wall. It was faster than a marathon jog, and safer, but more subject to misinterpretation.

For quick information about events, tweets are great. Beyond this, just as with other public signals, one does not know what happens when the tweet spreads beyond the recognised circle of recipients. The message may go viral, or fizzle.

Tweets then are good for facts and factoids. Will they supersede normal diplomatic communication? Hardly. Such communications have content. Content cannot be compressed into a few characters – or…

I may be wrong here. Diplomatic content has been cast in a few, or even just one word. Had he been able to tweet, John Bowie may have used it to reply to General Santa Anna. Come to think of it, Mao Zedong might have loved Twitter. Many entries in his Little Red Book are, or can be made, Twitter-size. Mussolini could have spread his ‘to believe is to obey’ faster than having slogans painted on walls.

On Twitter, people always talk back

Tweets are great to spread a message, except that followers may talk back. General George Patton (no friend of mine) gloriously brushed aside warnings that ships bound for Africa were being loaded with ordnance without a plan for orderly disembarkation, with what may have been a tweet to stevedores: ‘Load them anyhow; we’ll sort it out later.’ Had such a tweet reached the grunts, who fought without proper equipment on account of Patton’s breezy attitude to logistics, he might have been at the receiving end of tasty and salty tweets (it might have done him some good). His disdain for logistics cost many soldiers’ lives.

Which brings me to the ‘darker’ side of Twitter. Twitter is good for orders, slogans, and commands, provided receivers cannot talk back. Angelina Jolie has closed her Twitter project: she got many insults over the year she operated it. When people can ‘talk back’ with impunity, they will.

So, you don’t want tweets to start conversations, lest you be at the receiving end of unwelcome comments. You want the flow to be one-sided. Twitter is all about ‘shutting up’ the other.

Ambassador Dmitri Rogozin, a Russian representative at NATO, sends tweets like this: ‘How many times should it be reminded how dangerous it is? The bear will come out and beat up those miserable hunters!’ in Russian. The text is just a threat and very effective (it does help the Ambassador that ¾ of his audience is in Russia). No reply is possible unless his counterpart can best Rogozin’s one-liners.

To conclude, Twitter seems to me just an electronic version of the age-old and homely graffiti. Nothing new under the sun, it seems.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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