When diplomats laugh: the role of humour in digital diplomacy


On 3 June 2018, Iran’s religious leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei turned to Twitter and vowed to eradicate Israel.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington DC replied to the Ayatollah’s threat with a meme from the cult movie Mean Girls asking ‘Why are you so obsessed with me?’.

The Israeli meme soon ‘went viral’ and garnered more than 25,000 retweets and 80,000 likes. The meme also attracted media attention from international news outlets, such as i24 and Newsweek, as well as national publications, including the Washington Post and the Independent.

Israel’s Embassy is not the first to incorporate humour into its digital messaging. The advent of digital diplomacy has seen a growing number of diplomats employ humour on their social media accounts. Three recent examples offer insight into how humour is used for diplomatic ends.

Undermining a rival’s credibility

The first example dates back to August 2014 when Russian paratroopers were captured in Crimea. Commenting on the incident, a Russian official stated that the soldiers had simply gotten lost and crossed the border by accident. In response, the Joint Delegation of Canada to NATO tweeted the map below to help soldiers distinguish between Russia and ‘not Russia’.

In this instance, the Canadian Joint Delegation turned to humour to demonstrate just how ludicrous Russia’s response was, and to undermine Russia’s narrative that it had not invaded Crimea or violated the territory of Ukraine. Thus, Canadian diplomats (in this instance an intern) employed humour to undermine Russia’s credibility and promote Canada’s own interpretation of Russia’s actions as an invasion.

Canada’s map garnered some 39,000 retweets and 22,000 likes. These figures are important given that social media algorithms substantially limit diplomats’ ability to disseminate messages among global audiences. The majority of tweets published by the Joint Delegation of Canada to NATO are only seen by those who follow them directly or who have expressed an interest in NATO, diplomacy and foreign affairs. Yet viral tweets reach an exponentially larger audience. Thus, humour is used by diplomats to breach the confines of social media algorithms.

Enhancing your own popularity

In May 2017, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine published a meme from the Simpsons television show alleging that Russia and the Soviet Union are one and the same.

Here, humour was used to increase the likeability of a diplomatic actor. As a recent report by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence reveals, humour can be used to craft a more attractive national persona. As it found itself in the grips of a Russian invasion, Ukraine sought to rally support from foreign nations and their publics. By turning to popular culture, Ukrainian diplomats attempted to refashion Ukraine’s online image and, by doing so, increase its attractiveness. The meme also bore an important message — Russia is a duplicitous actor that cannot be trusted. Ukraine’s meme thus demonstrates that diplomats use humour to increase their own country’s appeal, and reduce that of another.

Distinguishing national values

Lastly, in March of 2018, the Russian Embassy in London tweeted its own humorous message suggesting that Agatha Christie’s detective Poirot should investigate the Salisbury gas attack.

The Russian Embassy turned to humour to challenge the values associated with the British government and the West. Traditionally, western governments and media outlets are highly critical of Russian investigations into the murder or disappearance of political activists, journalists and dissidents. The Russian Embassy’s tweet depicted the UK’s Salisbury investigation in a similar light, suggesting that the UK was conducting a secret investigation, the validity of which should be questioned. The tweet also suggested that, like Agatha Christie, the UK government had concocted a fictional narrative blaming Russia for the attack. Thus, Russian diplomats attacked the values which supposedly distinguish the West from Russia.

The case of Israel

The Israeli response to Iran’s threat incorporates all of these elements. First, by answering the Ayatollah’s hateful tweet with a meme, Israel distinguished itself from Iran in terms of norms and values. As, while Iran called for the destruction of Israel, Israel has taken the high road and refused to reciprocate. Second, the tweet may have increased Israel’s likeability as it challenged the stereotype of Israel as a nation that solves disputes through military means. Third, by appealing to a millennial cult movie, the Embassy breached social media’s algorithmic restrictions. Fourth, the tweet undermined two narratives — the Iranian narrative of openness and a desire to live peacefully with other nations and the European narrative of attempting to salvage the Iran Deal. Indeed, most news stories on Israel’s meme also discussed France and Germany’s attempt to reconcile with Iran. This association enabled Israel to undermine the credibility of the Iran Deal; for why should the world appease a country that vows to destroy another?

It should, however, be noted that in most cases humour is used as a digital tactic and not a digital strategy. Digital tactics aim to obtain virility, increase an actor’s online reach and attract short-term media attention to a specific issue. Digital strategies, on the other hand, use digital means to achieve offline diplomatic goals — be it the ratifications of a treaty or the removal of international sanctions. While humour can be a powerful digital communication tool, there are clear limits in so far as it can engineer substantial change.

Ilan Manor is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. His recent monograph on digital diplomacy was published as part of Brill’s Research Perspective in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. He blogs on issues relating to digital diplomacy at www.digdipblog.com.

In the January 2018 issue of International Affairs he reviewed Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ‘The chessboard and the web: strategies of connection in a networked world.’

Ilan Manor