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The growth of Cyber diplomacy

May 2017 

President Trump’s enthusiastic use of Twitter is not as surprising as you might think; it’s an example of the way the internet is gradually altering how governments and politicians communicate with each other, their electorate and the rest of the world, by encouraging them to eschew traditional diplomatic channels.

President Trump may be one of the higher profile Twitter users, but at least 70% of the world’s Heads of State also use it.  The US Government alone has over 200 Facebook pages and over 150 Twitter accounts; the world’s politicians have countless more personal accounts on both, and they all closely watch each other’s Tweets, Posts, Likes and Retweets.

This is in complete contrast to the measured way diplomats used to work.  It is now much more difficult to have discreet, private, long-haul negotiations; the old notion of quiet diplomacy, which has been the backbone of many a treaty or international agreement, is much harder to achieve if even just one of the parties is Tweeting about progress.

This digital diplomacy has changed the way governments interact and consequently it may significantly influence how the Brexit talks turn out, for good or ill.

It’s the instant, long distance, two-way communication that the internet allows that makes the difference.  Politicians and their diplomats can not only deal with each other that way, they can include us, and many do.  There is evidence that social media is being used not only to make announcements, but to gather opinions, mould policy and reach agreements. 

For example, during a big conference to negotiate a treaty (such as Brexit), it is not at all uncommon these days to see the participants publishing their progress on Twitter or Facebook, especially if there are good many countries involved.

Twitter with its 140 character limit, forces people to wear their hearts on their sleeves.  This, in turn, can lead to a very rapid reaction from others; not just people who are also at the conference, but others in far-off lands; all their comments are given equal weight by the internet platform.  Provided there is enough of a reaction, the negotiators can quickly develop a sense of the defining mood of the people who care about a particular issue.  I can’t believe this wouldn’t shape the progress of a big negotiation.

Imagine the Brexit negotiations reaching stalemate (not hard).  I believe that if Twitter is used skilfully by the negotiators they can have their positions re-enforced or weakened by the sort of online responses they are getting on a day by day, or even hour by hour, basis, and use this to drive their points home or even temper their positions.

The internet is a new tool of diplomacy; one which was unconsidered even ten years ago.

I may be over optimistic about the positive effect it could have on the way governments work but it’s undeniable that the age of cyber diplomacy has been born.  I believe that many governments have set up offices to follow the social media presence of their allies and enemies; South Korea has even publicly created a new position in its foreign ministry to monitor and interpret President Trump's tweets.

Incidentally, there is an elephant in this room.  It’s ironic, to say the least, that Mr Trump uses Twitter to refer to The New York Times, CNN and the others as “failing”; Twitter itself has never made a profit nor even come close to it; at the moment, it is losing about half a billion dollars of its shareholders’ money every year and the share price is a fifth of what it once was.  Clearly this can’t go on for ever; maybe Mr Trump will nationalise it.

Now, that would be entertaining.