Twitter has become the new soapbox of diplomats. It’s even given rise to a new lexicon — Twiplomats practicing Twiplomacy.
OTTAWA—When North Korea detonated its big bomb this week, foreign ministers around the globe took to Twitter to voice their condemnation.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond branded the detonation a “provocation . . . which I condemn without reservation.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the test, which remains unconfirmed as a hydrogen bomb. “The United States and nations around the world unequivocally condemn North Korea’s latest nuclear test,” Kerry tweeted.
And Canada’s foreign affairs department posted the reaction of its minister, Stéphane Dion, who warned that North Korea’s conduct poses a “grave” risk to security.
All that activity this week drove home a trend that has emerged in recent years — the rise of digital diplomacy.
Twitter has become the new soapbox of diplomats. It’s even given rise to a new lexicon — twiplomats practicing twiplomacy.
Indeed, the website Twiplomacy writes that Twitter has become the “channel of choice for digital diplomacy between world leaders, governments, foreign ministries and diplomats.”
Its 2015 study found that more than two-thirds of all heads of state and government have personal Twitter accounts.
“Foreign ministries around the world have embraced Twitter with a vengeance and social media is the new medium for what you would call quick time responsive reaction,” Fen Hampson, director of the global security and politics at Waterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, said in an interview.
In an era of the 24-hour news cycle, tweets are a quick way for a politician to get their views into the daily discourse, 140 characters of condemnation, praise or caution.
Diplomacy is often the art of the understatement, careful words to send a country’s message, often delivered quietly to a foreign envoy behind closed doors.
Today though, that initial message or response to a breaking crisis is just as likely to be delivered via social media. Digital diplomacy is quick, to the point and noticed, sometimes by millions. Kerry, for example, has just over one million followers on Twitter.
“The public doesn’t read communiqués anymore,” said Hampson, who is also a professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
Former foreign affairs minister John Baird was an enthusiastic user of Twitter and encouraged the department and its diplomats to have a more active presence on social media.
Rick Roth, Baird’s long-time director of communications, said the department saw social media as a way to communicate “more quickly and to communicate more directly with people.”
News releases, the traditional way of putting out a message, can take time to get through the necessary approvals and they rely on the media to distribute them.
“We used social media to get our message out cleanly, in digestible little bites that the public could consume,” Roth said in an interview Thursday.
“If a bombing in the Middle East happens, we were able to convey condolences and condemn the cowardice of the attack within 140 to 280 characters,” he said.
Global Affairs Canada — the country’s foreign affairs, trade and development department — uses a number of Twitter accounts to promote its trade and development activities, foreign policy as well as distribute traveller advisories.
Social media discourse invites critics and Dion’s message to North Korea sparked a few criticisms.
“Right up there with being condemned by Mrs. Smithers grade 5 language arts class. None too intimidating,” said one Twitter user.
“Kim Jong Un: ‘Canada? What is a Canada?’” said another.
The era of rapid-fire communication also carries risks. A Palestinian envoy in Ottawa was forced from her post and had to apologize in 2011 after retweeting a link to a video viewed as anti-Jewish.
The website Twiplomacy cites the emergence of “hashtag diplomacy” to bring attention to specific issues, such as #BringBackOurGirls to highlight the plight of more than 250 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. And yes, #DigitalDiplomacy is a hashtag, too.
But don’t mistake social media statements for real action, cautions Hampson, especially with a country like North Korea. Having endured tough economic sanctions, a tweet won’t change the country’s direction.
“Twitter is no substitution for effective, concerted action. Condemnation is easy. Figuring out what you’re actually going with an intractable problem like this is a lot harder,” Hampson said.
“The West can suck and blow and tweet to (its) heart’s content.”
Roth agrees that the traditional tools of diplomacy will continue, face-to-face discussions, phone calls, diplomatic notes and demarches, the diplomatic protest.
“All that stuff will continue. It’s just another means to do the job,” Roth said.