In April 2013, Foreign Affairs published “Social Diplomacy: Or, How Diplomats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tweet,” written by digital communications expert and Columbia SIPA professor Alexis Wichowski. Four years later, we live in an era where the public, the media, even politicians and members of government, wake up every morning, furiously refreshing their smartphones to see whether the President of the United States tweeted, and if so, what the topic du jour will be for at least the first half of the day’s news cycle, and how much damage may have been done to a crucial alliance or to the stock market.
Wichowski wrote this article during a time when diplomats and governments shied away from digital media as a mode of communicating with foreign publics. Burson-Marsteller’s 2013 edition of “Twiplomacy,” a study that evaluates social media usage of governments, diplomats, and world leaders found that neither the U.S. Department of State, nor then-President Barack Obama were among the top 25 most-connected users on Twitter, indicating that although President Obama was among the most-followed on the platform (33,510,157 followers in Summer 2013), his tweets may not be reaching the “digital influencers” the office is hoping to reach. According to the study, a quarter of the world’s leaders unilaterally followed @BarackObama–meaning he did not follow them back. This practice is commonplace on Twitter for key “influencers;” Twitter users tend to have a higher ratio of followers to those they follow on the platform. African leaders were among the most controversial on Twitter. Countries like Haiti, which experienced an earthquake and a cholera outbreak two years prior, saw Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe use social media to bring attention to the plight of his people.
The world saw digital media’s revolutionary effect of connecting activists in Egypt, Tunisia, and across the Middle East in 2011, forever changing the way public diplomacy foreign service officers study political movements and craft diplomatic responses to them. However, the largest question mark looming over the future of digital diplomacy hangs over an Android phone in the hands of the man who lives in the White House.
There is no doubt that the 2016 presidential election and President Donald J. Trump’s tenure in office are altering our understanding of how candidates and governments will use Twitter and other digital tools to communicate, and will shape our understanding of the day-to-day governing practices of a president that is highly active on Twitter.
While President Trump (@RealDonaldTrump) has tweeted about many different topics since taking office, one of his tweets from December 2016 raised concerns among the American diplomatic community about the future stability of U.S.-China relations.
While tweeting about taking a phone call from a foreign leader in and of itself does not mean a diplomatic crisis is forthcoming, the public acknowledgement of praise from the leader of Taiwan signaled a potential departure from the U.S.’ decades-long adherence to the One China Policy. This caused a shockwave to reverberate through the media, prompting several explainers like this one from The Washington Post, and this one from The Atlantic. Whether this call was meant to change the diplomatic landscape the U.S., China, and Taiwan face, or the then-president elect did not consider the ramifications of his tweet, this is an example of Mr. Trump quickly learning the currency valuation of his tweets when conducting diplomacy.
More recently, President Trump used the platform to comment on tensions with North Korea, and put the onus of solving the conflict squarely on China’s shoulders. Below are tweets that were sent over several days that reflect a departure from the collaborative nature of the Six Party Talks-approach to diplomatically solving this issue.
President Trump is not the first world leader to stir controversy on the digital communications platform. In August 2014, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan’s Twitter account appeared to go on a random rant threatening war with neighboring Armenia.
However, it was later revealed that the tweets were excerpts from a longer speech that was later posted to the president’s website. These tweets were also from the English language account for President Aliyev, which indicates the audience for these tweets was outside of Azerbaijan and for a primarily English-speaking audience.
Wichowski’s assertion that diplomats stop dismissing the platform’s importance has certainly held up, even while the practices surrounding how diplomats use social media have changed. In Burson-Marsteller’s 2016 edition of Twiplomacy, the authors discuss the digital divide between those governments like the U.S., U.K., Mexico, and Nordic states, that have embraced digital media, and the few governments that still view digital communications as an afterthought. Today, social media is used by embassies, ambassadors, and even individual public diplomacy programs to communicate with foreign publics about a variety of issues. Ambassadors often use Twitter to “humanize” themselves to the public. For example, when Samantha Power was the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, she tweeted often about her love of the Boston Red Sox. Sometimes, she intertwined sports and diplomacy, like in the tweet below with a photo of Power and Henry Kissinger at Yankee Stadium.
Given that the landscape has changed so much Twitter since Wichowski’s article was published, here are a few recommendations for diplomacy practitioners to use when using Twitter to communicate:
Don’t try to make or change policy only through tweets: This may seem like an obvious suggestion, however, given that President Trump’s tweets were recently referenced by the North Korean regime as reason for a ratcheting up in hostilities, I’ve included it here. The nature of the platform is such that it purposefully limits the actual space for a Twitter user to express his or her point with true detail and nuance. Therefore, tweets should be used to highlight events or articles rather than be the sole platform to announce a shift in complex policy details.
Use well-made infographics and video: When working within the limited confines of 140 characters, it’s important to use every bit of space the platform gives to communicate with detail. This means using infographics and video to further communicate statistics and facts. For example the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Programs Twitter account does an excellent job of combining media with tweets. Below is an example that promotes a program by highlighting due dates for the application by using links and an infographic:
Remember that Twitter doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Social media managers are often overlooked, or considered an afterthought in the communications process. Leaving them out of the overall strategy formulation is where mistakes are most likely to occur. By ensuring that the entire communications team views Twitter and other platforms as important tools in the communications toolkit, in addition to press releases, television spots and other press hits, is critical to an effective communications strategy. However, the converse is also true, especially if an ambassador or a head of state manages their own account. We saw a scenario regarding this suggestion break down when President Aliyev’s account tweeted out inflammatory tweets without linking to a longer statement or speech to contextualize them. Having a plan for if a tweet goes viral, for good or for bad reasons, is integral to an effective communications strategy. Keeping people in the loop regarding what tweets will be sent is critical to ensuring any response is coordinated and deliberate.
In the four years since Wichowski’s article was published, diplomats have undoubtedly learned to embrace the tweet, and even the SnapChat story, and the Instagram post. Practitioners no longer view Twitter as some “bizarre or childish revolution” as Wichowski said, and its impact on diplomatic relations and communications will only become more prevalent, especially due to “breaking news” nature of President Trump’s use of the platform. Given all of this, it is critical that diplomats and heads of state alike treat social media as a component of their communications strategy and not as a stove-piped communications apparatus.
While studying abroad with the GW School of Business in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics over the past three weeks, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a site visit to visit an NGO which combines sport with education and empowerment for the betterment of society.
Fight for Peace (FFP), known as Luta Pela Paz in Portuguese, is a boxing and martial arts gym in Complexo da Maré that was founded in 2000 by Luke Dowdney, a social anthropologist from England. Dowdney moved to Rio in the late 1990s to complete research on his masters thesis on street children and the drug trade, and has since built FFP into a world renowned sport for peace NGO that has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee and countless governments and foreign ministries for its life-changing work. In 2015 alone, 1,913 young people attended Fight for Peace, and 34% were girls. Last year, the organization expanded to London, and is operating a similar socially-conscious sport NGO model there as well.
Life in Complexo da Maré, a favela in Rio, is far from predictable. Violence from within the community, as well as increased raids by police and other law enforcement have fostered a cyclical environment of danger in a very densely populated community. After speaking with a panel of young people at FFP, what I thought was most striking was that while all of them are fearful for their safety and the safety of their families, they are not resolved to doing nothing with their lives, and are vocal about their aspirations. While I didn’t meet them prior to entering the program at FFP, I can imagine that the values the organization teaches using their custom “theory of change” methodology have empowered these young people to become the leaders that they are today.
The young women of the group were particularly inspiring to me. Their very presence in the room was a testament to the importance of a program like FFP in a community where their voices may be marginalized. Some were young mothers, others were finishing high school and didn’t have a concrete plan for the future prior to joining FFP. All of them talked about the importance of FFP in empowering them to become leaders in their community, and leaders at FFP. The mothers are now teaching their children the values instilled in them through the methodology learned at FFP.
In the lead up to the Olympics, the media portrayal of Rio, and in particular of the favelas, really dehumanized the people living there and reduced their stories to tragedy porn. While life is by no means easy for the participants of FFP’s Rio gym, spending time laughing, joking, and sharing our cultures was an important part of my Rio experience. It allowed me the opportunity to see their community with my own eyes, and be able to take away a more complex understanding of their lives and the impact that FFP has had upon them, and empathize with their feelings of fear of uncertainty.
Sports diplomacy can be tricky–many public diplomacy scholars are skeptical of the results or impact that it can have long term. However, by visiting an organization like FFP, I realized that the true takeaway from public diplomacy or track II diplomacy with a sport component is the learning of best practices that can be applied in other communities around the world to better society. FFP has already partnered with the Jamaican government to implement their theory of change in sports programs within the country. Furthering local level initiatives is likely the best way to see positive impacts of sports diplomacy.
Being in Rio for the Olympics was in and of itself an extraordinary experience. However, being there is kind of like being at Disney World; you’re in a bubble of Olympic proportions. You eat, sleep (or not), and breathe Olympics. Everything from logistics to sport to “news” updates which generally consist of scores and which celebrities visited France House the night before. It can be incredibly difficult to contextualize the Olympics within the confines of the actual city that is playing host. Even more difficult is imagining the impact that they have on the average Carioca (the term citizens of Rio call themselves). Having the opportunity to visit Fight for Peace was by far the most important factor in shaping my opinion of the impact of the Games on the people of Rio both during the two weeks of the event, and after the torch is extinguished. Will there be further investment in peace through sport efforts? Infrastructure developments that will further connect people to major economic and social hubs throughout the city? One of the members of the youth council at FFP was very skeptical of the sustained efforts to improve the daily life of Cariocas post-Olympics. Only time will tell as far as further government involvement. However, it is all but certain that FFP will continue its efforts both in Rio and abroad to foster communities of strong young people eager to make a positive impact on the world.
Last week, I, along with two other GW Global Communications masters students, was fortunate to attend the 2016 International Women of Courage Awards at the U.S. Department of State as part of their social media meet up to share the events of the day and the stories of the honorees. This year, they honored their 100th woman since beginning the awards in 2007. They honored 14 women from Asia, South and Central America, the Middle East, and Europe. You can read all of their biographies here.
Initially, my intention was to discuss the important contributions these women made to their societies and why they are so deserving of these awards. But, upon hearing Vice President Biden’s keynote address, I found myself reflecting upon the important role our elected officials and other representatives of the U.S. government play in public diplomacy.
Humble, and at times self-deprecating, and of course speaking with his signature charm, Vice President Joe Biden delivered a thirty minute long speech that not only commended the courageous the women in attendance for their work to further equality in their own countries; he also spoke at length about the progress the United States still needs to make in the fight for equality.
“Abuse is abuse is abuse. Period,” the Vice President said to thunderous applause. “We have to change the culture not only here in America, but around the world,” Vice President Biden said.
An important part of public diplomacy is the exchange of ideas and sharing of values that make the world a better place for all. More importantly, I’d argue, is the establishment of credibility and trust between cultures for any kind of public diplomacy to be successful.
When America’s leaders acknowledge that our country shares similar challenges with other nations around the world, and say that we are working to solve those challenges, our word becomes much stronger, and our legitimacy and credibility become deeper. This is particularly true for issues of equality and justice for women, which more often than not have blurred international boundaries.
“In America, we make many mistakes. We don’t treat women as well as we should either,” Biden said. “But, we’re working like the devil on it, to change the culture.”
He later outlined his extensive work on the “It’s On Us” campaign that is taking place on college campuses to empower students to speak up when they know sexual assault, sexual violence, or rape is taking place.
For Americans, stories of challenges facing women in other countries can feel like they are a world away. Stories of abuse in Saudi Arabia, Brazil, or China, on the surface, sound like they are not similar to the challenges facing women in the United States. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As scholars, we often talk about public diplomacy as needing to be dialogic in order for it to be successful. This year’s International Women of Courage honorees stood up against corruption in their governments, fought for fair treatment of transgender persons, and equal economic opportunities for women, among other incredible acts of courage. These are all issues that, in some fashion or another, American women are also facing today.
“Women hold up half the sky. More than that, they’re half the population, slightly higher; they’re half the grey matter in the world; half the brain power; probably more than half the energy,” Biden said. “These are things that drive societies to prosper, to give our children better opportunities than we had in whatever society it is.”
This event at the State Department gave them the opportunity to share the steps they took to overcome these challenges, and generate a dialogue with American policymakers for how to further empower women around the world.
Learning from the challenges these women face and how they are slowly but surely working to overcome them is an important part of an effective public diplomacy dialogue. Each of the honorees, in their own unique way, stand as role models for American girls and women who are fighting for gender equality here in the United States.