According to a new study done by PR firm Burson-Marsteller, two-thirds of the world’s leaders have joined Twitter, including 16 members of the G-20. But while Twitter is a powerful tool, it has its limits and will never replace traditional diplomacy.
Tweets resonating from world leaders encompass 43 different languages, with English and Spanish leading the way. Of these leaders, President Barack Obama’s @BarackObama feed is the most popular at 17.8 million followers, 76 of which are either other leaders or official government Twitter accounts. The study showed that, altogether, leaders have sent more than 350,000 tweets to almost 52 million followers.
Such statistics point to a new wave of diplomacy sometimes dubbed “Twiplomacy.” But unlike true diplomacy efforts, which require two-way communication, the tweets sent out by world leaders often fall on deaf ears and lack conversation among the participants. This is what Heritage expert James Carafano calls “broadcast mode” in his book Wiki at War. The ability to reach many people is important, but that is only half the story.
To be effective, governments must hear as well as speak. Most government leaders aren’t actively listening to other leaders or citizens on Twitter—true diplomacy isn’t really happening. Furthermore, most Twitter accounts go dark following elections, indicating that leaders see Twitter as a tool to speak to voters but little else.
The rise of “Twiplomacy” has also reduced the amount of time that governments have to react to certain events. Because news can be broadcast as it happens by anyone with Internet access, governments may be forced to make hasty decisions due to public pressure. The combination of public pressure and the flood of unconfirmed accounts could result in more harm than good.
The Internet and its capabilities demand recognition and should be taken advantage of. However, just as the airplane did not replace the infantryman, the virtual world will not replace the physical one. Our diplomatic efforts should be balanced according to their effectiveness, not their popularity.