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Is ‘unfriending’ on Facebook a new feature of diplomacy?

Published on 07 September 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024
As my number of friends on Facebook creeps towards an abitrary figure above which I have decided that the list would be unmanageable, I am at a loss to decide who to defriend. Will they notice? Will they be upset? Will they care? And then I see today’s headlines in the Washington Post

Hungarian prime minister uses Facebook page to ‘unfriend’ IMF, rejects alleged loan conditions

In a nutshell, Orban posted a video message on his official Facebook page saying that Hungary ‘could not accept pension cuts, the elimination of a bank tax, fewer public employees and other conditions in exchange for an IMF loan that other officials have said could be about €15 billion ($18.9 billion).’ The fact that I’m hard pushed to believe tht the IMF would actually furnish a list of its negotiating terms is neither here nor there. If you’re interested in the details, you can read all about it on Hungarian Spectrum. What I’m more concerned about is the idea that declarations on Facebook become a new diplomactic norm! There’s difference between unfriending and defriending. To defriend , we have to be connected. The IMF does have a Facebook page with 6050 likes, but it’s hard to see if Hungary or the PM himself recently unliked them. Unfriending is simply airing your less-than-friendly feelings for all your followers to see and the rest of the world to pick up on. Can this be proper? Is this a seemly way for a Head of State to conduct himself? I’m reminded of the recent Twitter tiff that the Estonian President engaged in and am on the brink of despair. Protocol is very much a part of diplomacy and I’m more than a little concerned that the temptation provided by social media might undermine these values. If the rules of the game change (or disappear altogether), will diplomacy become a free-for-all?
7 replies
  1. Olaph Terribile
    Olaph Terribile says:

    Mary, in my opinion social
    Mary, in my opinion social media platforms such as Facebook should not be used to send diplomatic signals. I believe that the message under discussion was targeted more for the local media, to be picked up and used for local consumption.

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      I agree, Olaph. Yet I think
      I agree, Olaph. Yet I think social media platforms will increasingly be used in diplomatic signalling.

  2. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:

    Mary said: “social media
    Mary said: “social media platforms will end up being the ONLY way of communicating and thus limited to the 60% of the world who have Internet access”…well Mary, before we make wild projections – let’s look at the figures on the ground. I don’t know (nor do I want to know) how many people participate in Orban’s Facebook page, but I suspect it is a few thousand. Hungary over 8 million (if I rememember). Orban’s comment would not have risen above the level for “background noise” but for regular media, which picked it up. So the real political exchange is not on Facebook, it is in the mainstream media. Facebook is just the detonator, or the stinkbomb (see my blog entry). We will not be communicating only by social media.

    The next question is that of anonymity. Secret ballots was introduced in US elections around 1880. Before one had to stand up and be heard voting. That’s why Jefferson called for a Yeomen’ Republic: he did not want the mortgage holder to know (and influence) the vote. If you take the comment on social network as some frorm of vote, you’d have to allow it being anonymous – including the rude motivation. BTW the old way was to have “round-robin letters”…


  3. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I’ve noticed that some people
    I’ve noticed that some people seem to feel free to express negative feelings openly on social media – much more than they would do in person, I imagine. For example, in an online course I am attending, some participants posted forum messages that were so rude and negative towards course assistants that the organisers felt the postings had to be removed from the classroom (while messages with constructive but strong criticism have not been removed). I am fairly sure these participants would not have expressed themselves in the same way in a personal, face-to-face interaction – I assume they would have felt the need to make their criticism more polite and constructive. Interestingly, the strongly negative postings – at least those I saw – were all posted anonymously. It makes me wonder if for some people, interaction through social media is somehow less real. Or perhaps we have trouble conceiving of the reader as a real person, when we cannot see him or her? This might explain the failure to apply norms of diplomatic interaction (or just plain decent interaction) via social media?

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      You make an interesting point
      You make an interesting point, Hannah, about the criticisms coming without signatures. Apparently, in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, the US Supreme Court said that ‘[a]n author’s decision to remain anonymous . . . is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.’ All well and good but publishing anonymously online may well turn the public against these ‘anonymous cowards’ (a term coined by Slashdot). And, in Mr Orban’s case at least, he did sign off on it. Perhaps I’m simply old-fashioned in expecting better-than-average behaviour from elected leaders.

  4. Vladimir Radunovic
    Vladimir Radunovic says:

    Mary, this is an interesting
    Mary, this is an interesting observation!
    Social media certainly are a new means of communications – also in diplomacy; posting such a video there instead of giving a heated interview to a major TV station does not make much “protocol” difference any more, so I am not surprised. “Unfriending” might be too much 🙂
    It is the expectations that I am confused about: did Mr Orban think with this he would influence the negotiations any more than with an interview to a popular media? I hope not, and I hope he did it for populism only.
    Otherwise, he and his crew are well into the “peak of inflated expectations” on “eDiplomacy Gartner Hype Cycle” that Jovan and Pete presented at https://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/e-diplomacy-between-hype-and-reality – and we can expect a “disillusionment” soon!

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Good point Vlada – another
      Good point Vlada – another concern I have, coming on the back of the Estonia tiff, is that social media platforms will end up being the ONLY way of communicating and thus limited to the 60% of the world who have Internet access. The Hungarian blogosphere is rife with bewilderment today and thoughts of a ‘bogus’ list of demands are floating around. Had he stuck to the waning print media, I wonder would this have gained nearly as much traction in such a short period of time – or had the effect of the 1.7% drop in the Forint against the euro.


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