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  • Lital Shochat Chertow

The Junior Diplomat's Guide to Social Media

Who should you follow? Which world leader tweets the most? What is Twitter-talk? Your path towards mastering Digital Diplomacy starts here

Social media apps on a smartphone (illustration)

The term “Digital Diplomacy” has recently become a buzzword referring to innovative diplomacy in the social media age. From merely a means to redistribute and share items and events covered in other media, social media platforms have become a vital tool in for today’s diplomat. They are undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to influence public opinion, and – if successful – can sometimes inadvertently influence government actions.

Given their popularity, one would assume official government agencies would start flooding the web with viral campaigns. Unfortunately, governments are only now starting to come to terms (often too slowly) with the new world evolving around them. But unlike formal bureaucracies, many heads of state actually thrive in this new type of diplomacy, turning to the Web before other media when they like to be heard and spread their message.

Twitter especially has become a sort of diplomatic barometer – a tool for predicting and analyzing the world of international relations. In an interview, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said he believes it’s “really important to hear directly from our leadership and I believe it’s really important to hold them accountable. And I believe it’s really important to have these conversations in the open, rather than have them behind closed doors”.

The advantages these channels of communication offer are numerous: by Tweeting to local or foreign audiences, leaders sidestep media gatekeepers (editors, journalists, and commentators) and bureaucracy (foreign ministries, delegates, and diplomats), and deliver the message exactly the way they want it to get through. Direct communication between leaders, such as the “Moscow-Washington hotline” established in 1963 in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis a year earlier, is of course still indispensable. Yet, just like then,

leaders today must adjust to modern technology.

Though some governments and foreign ministries are still weighing the pros and cons of using social media, many are already active daily, using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to reach out to their various audiences worldwide. Some governments encourage and even officially instruct their diplomatic delegations to Tweet regularly in order to promote their policy and activity in different countries and languages, thus targeting as wide an audience as possible.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, for example, tags relevant representatives or other influential entities on Twitter on a regular basis. The French government regularly tags its ministers, since an image tag gets bigger exposure and will usually guarantee a retweet – increasing the chance of it reaching its target audience.

The Diplomatic Emoji Language (you heard it right…)

Commands of languages has always been a unique feature of the diplomatic world. Not only do they serve as a bridge between cultures, they are also crucial for communicating messages and interpreting them correctly. Diplomats nowadays must adopt not only the new means of communication, but also to the new language(s) that come part and parcel with social media platforms. Gone are the days of “The Long Telegram” and detailed memorandums - governments today need tp know how to convey messages of no more than 140 characters. In 2017, due to the growing use of Twitter by official government organizations, Twitter Inc. doubled the maximum number of characters to 280 per tweet.

Though most countries still use the written word to communicate via social media platforms, a new diplomatic language seems to be emerging – often invented from scratch. In 2015 the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched its own set of original Emojis as part of its annual Christmas calendar. As part of the move, it invented the sauna Emoji, and offered it for international encoding and use. The same year, the World Wildlife Fund also created its own series of Emojis, featuring 17 endangered species, under the hashtag #EndangeredEmojis.

Twiplomacy 2017 - How World Leaders Connect on Twitter (all screenshots taken from "Twiplomacy" website)

It is a well known fact the biggest feats of traditional diplomacy are often accomplished behind the scenes, and Digital Diplomacy is no different. It too has a hidden dimension, as we are soon likely to discover the use of those very same social media platforms by a certain country to influence the results of a presidential campaign in another.

That said, one thing is certain; when it comes to using the internet to run your foreign affairs publicly, one leader rules supreme – the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump). In an interview in the Financial Times in April 2017, he was quoted saying that “without the tweets I wouldn’t be here… I have over 100m (sic) followers between Facebook, Twitter [and] Instagram. Over 100m. I don’t have to go to the fake media.”

And he’s probably right: with approximately 52 million followers on Twitter (as of May 2018), Trump has no reason to run to the traditional media, as it follows him and every word he tweets worldwide, whether logical or gibberish. For those wondering, former US president Barak Obama currently has over 103 million followers on Twitter alone (surpassed only by pop singers Katy Perry and Justin Bieber). But Obama and Trump are not unique: as of 2017, over 850 world leaders - representing 92% of UN member states - were active on Twitter (see image above).

Has the blue tweeting screen taken over the green marble of the UN General Assembly hall in New York as the new arena for international diplomacy? The data definitely support such claims.

Leaders on Twitter

Whether you are recent cadet course graduates or seasoned diplomats, if you wish join the social media party but don’t know who you should follow around the globe, has all the answers for you. This website can tell you everything you need to know about world leaders and organizations’ activity on Facebook, Tweeter and Instagram.

Twiplomacy 2017 - Most Effective World Leaders 2017

You’ll find, for example, that amongst the top ten Most Effective World Leaders (all data accurate as of 2017) are four Middle Eastern heads of state: Turkey, Jordan, and two from Saudi Arabia; Trump’s two accounts (his personal one and official POTUS account); The Pontifex; Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro; and, coming in last, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It is no coincidence that the Pope, Trump, and Modi are (in that order) also the three world leaders who have the largest number of followers. Being the three most influential people in world politics, it’s no wonder they sit at the top of the list, and every word they tweet bears meaning for, and has influence over, hundreds of millions worldwide.

When observing the 50 Most Influential World Leaders on Twitter list, one sees a striking gap between King Salman of Saudi Arabia in first place (with an average of 213 thousand retweets per tweet), and his runner-up Donald Trump (with an average of 79 thousand retweets per tweet).

In terms of Israel-Iranian tensions, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hold the 12th place in the list, whereas Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes only 18th. Interestingly, despite the major role the European Union leads in international relations, European heads of state are largely absent from this list. And unfortunately, you also have to scroll down quite a bit to find female leaders on the list: the first woman to appear is UK Prime Minister Theresa May in 24th place, followed by Foreign Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj, coming in at 27th.

So, for anyone who wishes to enter the world of Digital Diplomacy, this is the short list of leaders (official ones, anyway) you should hit the “Follow” button for. Good luck!

Lital Shochat Chertow

Lital Shochat Chertow is coordinator of the “Diplomacy 2030” desk at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. She previously worked as spokesperson for the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and later at the Jerusalem Municipality spokesperson unit. She has extensive experience in the field of public relations and media consulting for a wide range of government offices, municipalities, NGOs, and others. Lital served for five years in the IDF Spokesperson Unit, where she continues to serve in reserve duty as a Captain in the Northern Command spokesperson unit. She holds a BA in Political Science and International Relations from the Hebrew University, and is studying for an MA in Government with a specialization in Diplomacy and Conflict Management at the IDC Herzliya.


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