Twitter diplomacy gives world leaders 140 characters to trigger a crisis

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In politics, words matter. It is why world leaders often agonize to produce carefully crafted messages to broadcast to the world and their peers. But with a growing number of national governments using Twitter to communicate, a head of state can signal a major policy shift in a mere 140 characters.

President-elect Donald Trump's use of Twitter has been a case study in how a short message by an influential figure can potentially change the global landscape. On Tuesday, incoming White House press secretary, Sean Spicer said that Trump's use of Twitter from the White House will be "a really exciting part of the job," and he will continue to use social media as a "direct pipeline" of communication with American people.

"It is going to be something that's never been seen before,” Spicer said.

In addition to the announcement that Trump's tweets will continue from the Oval Office, the president-elect named Dan Scavino as his director of social media.

As Trump's social media presence plays well to a domestic audience, his tweets have already created problems for him on the international stage. A few weeks after being elected, Trump announced over Twitter that he had just taken a call from Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan. Regardless of how Trump intended the tweet to be interpreted, within 24 hours, the government of China lodged an official complaint with the U.S. government.

Beijing responded to what it saw as a breach of protocol and a potential signal that the Trump administration might reverse America's "one China" policy, a commitment made in 1979 whereby the United States recognizes Taiwan as a part of China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging the incoming administration "to adhere to the 'one China' policy" and "handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall China-U.S. relationship."

Peter Apps, founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century, wrote about the incident noting that traditionally, "something as strategically crucial as Sino-U.S. relations are heavily discussed for hours, if not days, at the highest ranks of government. The new president-elect, however, shows every sign of being more spontaneous."

Unlike past White House inhabitants who work to closely control their messages on international affairs, Trump is "a businessman - and perhaps more importantly, a reality TV and social media star - whose arguably strongest skill set is in generating controversy and attention." Apps warned, "Take that habit too far, and you could easily start a war."

The concern over Trump's tweeting is shared by those who study America's nuclear weapons policy, which was also the topic of a recent Trump tweet. On December 22, Trump tweeted, "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."

Tom Nichols, U.S. Naval War College professor of security studies, speaking in his personal capacity, noted that experts who saw the tweet struggled to understand just one word, "expand" to determine whether Trump was in fact signalling a change in America's nuclear posture after decades. "This is like Kremlinology, we are trying to parse individual words," Nichols said. At the same time he advised taking a step back and realizing that a matter as substantial as nuclear policy will not change overnight in response to a tweet.

"We are kind of conditioned to react to the president-elect's tweets," he said, even when there might not be a policy behind the tweet. "But whenever a leader of a nuclear country talks about nuclear weapons, we pay very close attention."

That is exactly what happened last week when a fake news stories triggered a tense Twitter exchange between Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state, and Israel, who is believed to have nuclear weapons. The story posted by AWDNews, alleged that the former Israeli Defense Minister threatened to "destroy them [Pakistan] with a nuclear attack" if the country sent fighters to Syria.

The fact that Pakistan and Israel have no official diplomatic ties, did not stop the two from engaging over Twitter. In response to the story, Pakistan's Defense Minister, Khawaja Asif tweeted a thinly veiled threat against Israel, saying, "Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.

Israel's Defense Ministry tweeted back that the initial story was "totally fictitious." The situation did not escalate beyond the tweets, but it raised questions over the dangerous consequences of misreading messages in an era of instantaneous, mass communication.

Diplomacy in the digital age has become so prevalent that the group Twiplomacy was formed to better understand and facilitate how heads of state, governments, and international organizations use social media as a tool of statecraft. According to its 2016 survey, out of the 193 United Nations members states, 90 percent of them have an official presence on Twitter. All of the G20 governments have an official Twitter presence, except one, and six of the G7 leaders have a personal Twitter account, with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Twiplomacy celebrates governments and foreign ministries being able to communicate directly with millions of people in just seconds, saying in their 2016 report that the social media diplomacy carries the promise of "unconditional communication." Additionally, sending out brief messages to the word can help leaders gauge their policy decisions, according to Twiplomacy founder, Matthias Lüfkens. "Twitter in particular, has even become a diplomatic ‘barometer,' a tool used to analyze and forecast international relations," he wrote.

Having millions of online followers can be a big distraction, so most foreign leaders are not the ones doing their own tweeting, according to Lüfkens. For example, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's social media staff has refused to give him control of his own Twitter handle, "in order to shield him" from annoyances like negative tweets and trolls "which can become quite annoying for high-profile users."

The temptation to respond to online critics is part of the reason some people have encouraged Trump to give up tweeting, even though it was instrumental to his success in the presidential election. In the past four months, Trump was provoked into Twitter wars with former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton, Saturday Night Live, CNN, the New York Times, and others.

After Trump won the election, reporters asked the president-elect and members of his team whether there was a plan to shut down @realDonaldTrump once Trump takes the reins as commander in chief. In a post-election interview on 60 Minutes, Trump promised that as president, his use of Twitter would be "restrained." In the November 12 interview he said, "I'm going to do very restrained, if I use it at all. I'm going to do very restrained."

In early December, Kellyanne Conway, Trump's former campaign manager and soon-to-be counsel to the president, told CNN that Trump had not yet decided how he will approach social media, but the Secret Service will play a role in determining that.

This behavior has led Trump critics to question whether he has the temperament and self control to manage his account from the White House. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post wrote that Trump's recent tweet about America's nuclear weapons program indicates that the president-elect may not appreciate the power of his words, or in this case, his tweets. An early morning tweet-storm misinterpreted by one of America's adversaries, could lead to a chain reaction of "untold, far-reaching, unpredictable consequences."

According to a poll by the Quinnipiac University released in late November, 59 percent of respondents wanted Donald Trump to shut down his personal Twitter after being elected president. Assistant director of the poll, Tim Malloy, said of the results, "Voters tell President-elect Donald Trump, 'You've got the job. Now be a leader not a tweeter.'"

But from the perspective of the Trump team, it might not make sense to abandon the very tool that paved the way for Trump's victories. "I really believe that the fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent," Trump said in his 60 Minutes interview.

Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times is concerned that despite the fact that the combination of Trump's tweeting, his impulsiveness and unfamiliarity with world events "makes a combustible mix." Trump's communications strategy was "genius" and he was able to use social media in a way that none of his opponents could, she wrote, but on a world stage that same tactic could carry dire consequences.

"As the world watches for policy clues from the new administration, the daily tweeting is showing up Mr Trump’s ignorance of diplomatic subtleties and seeming disregard for geopolitical complexities," Khalaf wrote. "The tweeting won’t look so clever if 140 uncensored characters spark a war in some part of the world.

Trump will come into the White House with a ranking of #3 on Twiplomacy's 50 Most Influential World Leaders on Twitter. He ranks #5 in total number of followers.

At the same time Twiplomacy extols the unfiltered, direct communications governments can now provide over social media, they offer a word of caution. "All the world’s a stage – social media has an incredible reach but this can be dangerous if something goes wrong." It is the very question of something going wrong that has many people hoping, though probably in vain, that Trump will give up his Twitter handle for the more traditional forms of diplomatic engagement.

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