War and peace in the age of Twitter
Several recent episodes have highlighted the potential of Twitter diplomacy to both make peace or enhance relations and raise tensions or wage war
Twitter—the ubiquitous social media messaging service limited to a mere 140 characters—has become integral to the diplomatic toolkit of leaders and countries. According to Burson-Marsteller’s 2016 Twiplomacy study, 173 heads of state and government, representing almost 90% of all UN member states, use Twitter to reach a “combined audience of 324 million followers”. Only 20 countries, mostly in Africa and the Pacific region, do not have a presence on Twitter.
Of the leaders, US President Barack Obama (@BarackObama, @WhiteHouse, and @POTUS) tops the list. While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (@narendramodi and @PMOIndia) is ranked third and fourth, respectively (after Pope Francis), the combined following from the two Twitter handles puts him in second place. India’s foreign minister (@SushmaSwaraj) is not only ranked 10th but is also the most followed female world leader.
A more accurate measure of influence of leaders is the number of tweets and retweets they generate. Here President Obama still tops the list, while Prime Minister Modi is ranked a respectable seventh. Significantly, US president-elect Donald Trump is ranked third.
Clearly, the medium has also proved to be a great equalizer among states with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Turkey and Indonesia also making the top 10. Most of these leaders have used Twitter to buttress their established foreign policies.
However, in addition to the growing use of this media as an extension of traditional diplomacy, several recent episodes have highlighted the potential of Twitter diplomacy (or Twiplomacy) to both make peace or enhance relations and raise tensions or wage war. Consider the following:
• In mid-2014, a “hashtag battle” broke out between the US and Russia when both used the same hashtag—#UnitedForUkraine—to convey their contrary perspectives.
• In November 2014, Prime Minister Modi tweeted that he had invited President Obama to India. The US replied via a tweet: “@ invite of @narendramodi President Obama will travel to #India in Jan 2015 to participate in Indian Republic Day celebration as Chief Guest”.
• In May 2015, the US state department used Twitter to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, two months before the formal re-establishment of ties. However, a similar effort with Iran failed to yield results.
• In December 2016, a fake news report claimed that the former Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, threatened Pakistan with “nuclear attack” if Islamabad sent troops to Syria to fight Daesh. In response, Pakistan’s defence minister, Khawaja M. Asif tweeted a counter threat, “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.” In doing so, Asif not only tweeted the first ever nuclear threat but carelessly exploded the myth that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is solely Indo-centric.
However, the leader who has used Twitter most dramatically and disruptively is, doubtless, president-elect Trump. In his role as the global disrupter-in-chief, Trump used tweets to purportedly signal a reversal in Washington’s long-standing stances on Taiwan, nuclear weapons and the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
These episodes indicate that even as Twitter struggles for its continued existence, it is becoming the preferred medium of some leaders to communicate policy pronouncements pithily and promptly, both nationally and globally. In doing so they are deliberately challenging traditional diplomatic practices.
This trend is evident among those leaders (many of whom are among the top 10 influencers) who are wary of the media and are unwilling to be bound by staid and classic diplomatese. Indeed, these disrupters, who follow few other world leaders (if any), are using this social media as a formidable one-way broadcasting tool to disseminate their radical and often anti-status-quoist views rather than as a way to facilitate dialogue.
So, can Twitter prompt a war or initiate a peace process? The answer is a definite maybe.
As recent events underline, the medium can be used to threaten war or an attack (even a nuclear attack) as well as initiate a peace process. However, while the former can be a unilateral act, the latter would require at least a bilateral, plurilateral, or multilateral dialogue to succeed.
Moreover, as the recent tweets by Trump have highlighted, using the medium alone to convey a dramatic shift in established policy will invariably lead to disagreements—both nationally and internationally. Some of these might spill over into military confrontation.
Clearly then, the ability of tweets to increase tensions, which might inadvertently lead to conflict, is greater (especially when the traditional channels of diplomacy are closed) than the capability to wage peace (which would require some degree of face-to-face negotiations).
Thus, like the Kremlin watchers of yore (who sought to discern the power status through politburo ranks and photographs), states will invariably have to create Twitter watchers to, at the very least, keep track of significant policy and personnel shift in key countries, if not declarations of war.
Of course, the potential dangers from Twitter could be checked if leaders and states followed two principles of Twiplomacy: “Social media should be a dialogue” and “post with caution”. Sadly, neither one of these will appeal to leaders who are keen on using Twitter as a tool for disruption. That poses the biggest challenge in the age of Twitter.
W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings Institution.
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