By Alejandro Hernandez
In December 2021, when President Vladimir Putin was still threatening to invade Ukraine, the official Ukrainian Twitter account published a meme describing how being Russia’s neighbor can give you the worst type of headache. Two months later, when Putin invaded, the tweets and memes did not stop. The account continues to be active and is keeping the conflict a trending topic, shaping the narrative in favor of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president.
Other countries, like Canada, have also joined the strategy to delegitimize Putin through Twitter, mocking memorandums from the Russian UN delegation:
During the Ukrainian war, using social media for public diplomacy — which focuses on engagement between a country and foreign citizens to influence them in one’s favor — has been essential in pressuring world leaders and private companies to sanction Putin and condemn the war. While a tweet cannot stop a tank from rolling into your country, it can raise the stakes of even considering using the tank. Foreign ministries must learn how to effectively do that because it is the future of diplomacy.
Many theories of International Relations (IR) have often dismissed public diplomacy as irrelevant to geopolitics because it does not influence the behavior of countries, nor impacts power struggles. That might have been true in the pre-World War II era, but the United States has constantly engaged in public diplomacy since the Cold War, promoting democracy and its values. The Soviet Union did the same when denouncing how the US incited civil wars in Asia and Latin America.
More recently, small states like North Korea have learned to be the center of attention through social media. A tweet from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un can spark concern among world citizens and pressure governments to engage with him. Terrorist groups and guerillas have used a similar tactic to announce their agendas, launch threats or recruit supporters. Indeed, public diplomacy used to be difficult for small actors because mass communication required resources and power, but not anymore. Yet this new diplomacy has advantages and disadvantages.
A big advantage is that non-profit organizations and global institutions like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can use social media to conscientize about refugees in the Middle East and South Saharan Africa, not just Ukraine. These organizations should learn from Ukraine’s Twitter account (although in a less satirical way) on how to create visibility and engagement, which is the goal of public diplomacy. While digital diplomacy cannot completely change public opinion—citizens usually already know who and what they support prior to using social media—actors can bring attention to specific issues and erase the now common apathy about hunger in Yemen or a coup in Myanmar.
Big countries are already doing this. Contrary to what classical International Relations scholars think, superpowers have shown a huge interest in social media. China, for example, has launched an effective foreign communication tactic through Twitter, which it has used to shape narratives around the origins of COVID-19. Chinese diplomats have increased their use of social media to denounce other countries (like Australia and the U.S. when they impose sanctions), promote China’s investments in South America and Africa, and express assertive diplomacy to intimidate opposing neighbors.
The distinct disadvantage of Twitter diplomacy, however, is that it is erasing traditional diplomacy as a tool to mediate conflicts. The whole point of diplomatic traditions is to create formal channels of communication that are well-thought-out, premeditated, and have carefully-tailored protocols which experts implement to prevent misunderstandings. Contradictions between what an embassy says and a tweet from a world leader, which constantly happened during the administration of former President Donald Trump, can escalate conflicts and make de-escalating them more difficult.
Furthermore, digital public diplomacy can be a source of misinformation. When users around the world do not trust information from their governments, foreign ministries can exploit this and feed conspiracy theories that work in favor of their image.
Yet as much as governments are trying to regulate them, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even Tik Tok are here to stay. Like the radio and television before, social media will require new strategies to conduct foreign communication. International relations scholars, along with foreign ministers, need to understand the capabilities and dangers of digital diplomacy and learn how to use it. With the pandemic ever-present and digital media being the new normality for communication, diplomacy will be forced to move from fancy dinners to Twitter wars, and actors that understand this will have the advantage.