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It's Not New, But "Twiplomacy" Is Increasingly Refined

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, October 11 2013

"Real-time fire hose" (Wikipedia)

Oh, the things you can read on “that real-time fire hose of public opinion known as Twitter,” as the New York Times so aptly called it.

During the United Nations General Assembly meeting that took place in the last few weeks, it was the place to go for progress reports on negotiations over Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons. It was also where the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, announced his “historic” phone call with Barack Obama, the first exchange of its kind between the United States and Iran in more than 30 years.

A few days later Hassan Rouhani and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey had a much retweeted moment Twitter exchange themselves.

In spite of the New York Times's tendency to treat anything related to Twitter as new—“twiplomacy” is not. It's been a thing since world leaders began signing up for the service—starting with Barack Obama in 2007 (although he technically wasn't a world leader until 2009). It has been a subject worthy of study since at least 2012, when the public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller released “Twiplomacy,” the first global study of world leaders on Twitter.

In 2012, techPresident observed that “Chief among Twitter’s main functions is its ability to showcase candid moments and impulsive statements.”

But like all good diplomats, most ambassadors and heads of state want to avoid the kind of impulsive tweets that could expose them to embarrassment. They learn to curb their online speech as they curb the rest of their speech.

What Twitter does offer is a way to reach an audience—whether of fellow diplomats or the general populace—without their message being filtered through the media.

The New York Times reported that one anonymous government aide “said that it could be used to pre-empt journalists from being the first to get their interpretation of events before a wider audience.”

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth, told the Times that “its immediacy enabled officials to cut through bureaucratic review and media filters.”

“In today’s society, Twitter is maybe the most rapid and efficient channel if you want to feed out messages or other information you want to share,” Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, told the Times by e-mail. “Either broad scale or carefully targeted.”

It might interest you to know that Barack Obama is the least connected world leader, in spite of being the most followed, according to a 2013 Twiplomacy study. @BarackObama, @WhiteHouse and @StateDept only mutually follow four other world leaders: Russia’s Prime Minister @MedvedevRussiae, the UK government @Number10gov, Norway’s Prime Minister @JensStoltenberg and Chile’s President @SebastianPinera.

For a more in depth look at the politics of the Twitterverse, see the full Twiplomacy Study 2013. For an abridged version of that report, see the Twiplomacy 2013 infographic.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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