Twitter Diplomacy, by Alison Vicrobeck

28 Jun

Editor’s Note:  Alison came to Global Action through her friendship with a former Fellow and from the Columbia Journalism School.   She has been a remarkable addition, quickly picking up the nuances of UN security, development and human rights policy and gently reminding all of us how to “communicate the UN” with sensitivity and fairness. Here she reflects on the rapid evolution of her Twitter “brand” at UN headquarters (@alisonvicrobeck) and notes some of the strengths and potential pitfalls of Twitter engagement.  

Six months ago, I was a complete UN outsider. From where I stood, the UN was an impenetrable fortress, protecting the world’s most important diplomats who were tackling the biggest issues facing the globe. I thought, if you were lucky enough to visit the building, you were still just scratching the surface. You could see ambassadors, presidents and other world leaders running into secret meetings behind closed doors, but you would never ever be privy to any of what they were discussing. Especially not in the most intimidating room of all: the Security Council.

On my first day as a fellow for Global Action, that’s exactly where I went. I sat in on a meeting about the situation in Libya. I felt as though I had gotten the golden ticket to the world’s most exclusive club. And I still feel that way. But I also found out that you don’t have to physically be in the room to know what’s happening. You don’t even need a UN badge. All you need is an internet connection and a Twitter account. In fact, you may find out more by lurking on Twitter than by sitting in the conference room.

Twitter — for those of you less familiar with it —  is a social media platform that specializes in what they call “micro-blogging”. Every day, Twitter’s 300 million active users send out “tweets” or short messages that can be read by anyone. It was long believed to be targeted at youth, but it has become a new and important tool in diplomacy. Almost every major UN body or delegation has at least one twitter account – with the Security Council being a notable exception. Every event has a hashtag that diplomats, press secretaries and reporters use to tell the world what is being said at the UN and what they think of it. People call it “Twitter diplomacy,” “digital diplomacy,” “twiplomacy” or “eDiplomacy”.

What I’ve observed is that at any given UN event there are three types of conversations happening at once: the one on-the-record, the one off-the-record, and the one on Twitter. They’re all complementary, but sometimes, the one online is the most interesting one. On many occasions while live-tweeting, I’ve had people from a panel or meeting retweet me in the middle of the event. In other words, while they were supposed to be taking part in this “official conversation” they were also following the one happening online.

Recently there has been a push for more transparency at the UN. I’ve heard many diplomats – and people from civil society – say they want to get the media and the public more engaged in UN affairs. Without a doubt, Twitter seems to be the way diplomats are choosing to do that, as demonstrated by the very public election of the next Secretary General (#NextSG) or the next non-permanent Security Council members (#UNSCElections).  Some candidates even created Twitter accounts exclusively for these elections.

Twitter has become the space where everyday people can play a role in diplomacy. During the Q&A session for candidates in the upcoming elections – both for Secretary General and Security Council – some questions came directly from Twitter. And people also become more influential when delegations retweet them as has happened to me on several occasions. When a delegation or an ambassador retweets me, my interpretation of what they said appears on their official Twitter page. This is huge because their followers are accepting (or at least considering) the value of my summary interpretation of the “official statement” from that delegation or diplomat.

What diplomats share on Twitter can be as politically impacting as what they say during speeches or public appearances. Diplomats use Twitter to interact with each other and their followers. Sometimes who and what diplomats chose to retweet or tweet says more about their relationship with other delegations than anything they might say in a Security Council or ECOSOC meeting, because Twitter is the perfect medium to help straddle the line between official statements and comments shared in secret behind-closed-doors.

Twitter compels diplomats (and those like me who follow their activities) to reduce their ideas and policies to 140 characters. They are then bite-sized and accessible to the public in real time. Often a play-by-play of major meetings can be found online even before the media is briefed. And because a lot of social media is about being shareable and interesting, tweets are entertaining or sometimes even humorous, making diplomacy something even the average person can learn to appreciate.

But tweeting makes diplomats vulnerable to something average people do all the time: making mistakes. For this reason, some states have decided not to have official accounts. The repercussions of an angry or awkward tweet can have serious real-life implications. We live in a time when virtually everything can be screenshot and made to go viral, even if the “offending” tweet is deleted at a later time.

Twitter, by its very nature, encourages rapid or even instant outreach. This means that every individual tweet that is sent out doesn’t get approved by the MFA or by the state’s government, even though Twitter followers will view the tweets as representing, at least in summary form, “official” statements. This raises the prospect of diplomatic representatives (or their interns) tweeting – deliberately or inadvertently – opinions that divert from their state’s official positions. In diplomacy, every word counts. So, an “impolitic” tweet has the potential to compromise deals that are happening behind closed doors and possibly even “sour” existing relationships.

Regardless of whether or not states choose to start tweeting, Twitter and social media in general will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in public diplomacy. Such media makes the UN a much less intimidating place to the general public, and certainly to people like me. I now know that even when I am not physically present at UN headquarters, I can go on Twitter and feel like I’m in the room with the diplomats and other observers.


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