To Tweet or Not to Tweet? High Commissioner for Cyprus Mr Euripides Evriviades asks whether this is the question.
In a previous incarnation, I was Political Director of my ministry. It was the time of the Arab Spring. I vividly recall a young, energetic, ambitious colleague rushing into the office saying: “Social media caused this revolution. There is no leader. Facebook and Twitter did it.” I was nonplussed. “I have a face,” I said. “I have books. Do I have facebook? What is this twitter? How does it taste?”
Thus began my journey from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century via the global information highway. I had serious apprehensions (and in some ways I still do) as to the added value of living in twitterland. Is input commensurate to output? What are the pros and the cons? How is effectiveness measured? Is it self-promotion? Is it desirable to engage in megaphone diplomacy? Should diplomats simply shut up and stick to traditional diplomacy? Is it superficial? And what if I put my foot in my mouth? Why risk it? I got over my trepidations two or three months after arriving in London and observed what was happening in this great metropolis. I then started tweeting in earnest. So after 17,000 tweets, 9,731 followers and a following of 1,051, what is my answer to the question to tweet or not to tweet?
The technological advances of the twenty-first century and the evolution and revolution of social media have ushered in a new era in our globalised entwined village. They have impacted almost all spheres of human activity including, unavoidably, diplomacy. This phenomenon known as iDiplomacy or twiplomacy has proven to be yet another tool in the diplomatic tool box. Twitter has come a long way since @jack the founder posted his first tweet in 2006. Over the years, it has become a medium of choice for world leaders, governments, foreign ministries, journalists, celebrities, think tanks, academics, religious leaders, entrepreneurs and NGOs, to mention but a few. They share information in real time, engage the citizen and try to influence the public at the local, national and international levels. Even diplomats, who are not exactly known for being eager to adapt to change and take risks, are on Twitter. Social media has undeniably revolutionised the way public diplomacy, politics and a host of other issues are conducted, framed and debated. They are the ultimate opinion molders.
Twitter has impacted the way diplomats exchange information by facilitating a faster and more inclusive way of sharing information, opinion and positions. It has been beneficial in decreasing the gap between non-state actors, citizens and their representatives. Diplomats, especially Ambassadors and High Commissioners, often suffer from an image problem. They are perceived by many as aloof; not engaging; sometimes full of themselves, who wine and dine for the ‘good’ of their country; living in a bubble. By engaging through Twitter, the diplomat popularises diplomacy; takes the mystique out of the profession and gives credence to its true mission. This is good. I recall that in older times, Ambassadors had a visit card which had their name written on it, the country they represented, and the capital in which they were serving. The message was clear: don’t call us; we will call you. Those days are rightly long gone.
It is essential that diplomatic tweeters use their accounts in a politically correct manner. They must ensure that their messages are, by and large, meaningful. It is desirable that some tweets be on the light side, with humour too. With 140 characters, they have to be concise, personal and authentic. As #Shakespeare400 reminds us: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The language cannot be wooden or stiff, nor should it always be laden with things like government information. This balance is tricky; often difficult to strike. Twitter can also be superficial. Some join anonymously as GCHQs — flying below radar observing what others post. Others suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), which makes Twitter time-consuming. Tweets can get amplified within seconds. Information and opinions can be perceived differently by many. Consequently, word management and the right context are imperative.
Twitter has downsides too. This level of exposure for any diplomat comes with shortcomings and risks. While social media tends to support our values, in the past it has also unleashed forces such as extremism, discrimination, bullying, abuse, bigotry, ignorance, hatred and terrorism, all of which oppose these values.
Social media cannot replace traditional diplomacy. It complements it. The fundamentals remain the same. Nonetheless, Twitter can be used as a helpful tool for public diplomacy. Our mandate is to inject the diplomat’s public persona into the promotion of the holistic interests of one’s county. Twitter helps you do that. Public diplomacy reaches its full potential by making people stakeholders and part of the extended diplomatic family. Like it or not, social platforms are vital for twenty-first century diplomacy.
#Shakespeare400: “All the world’s a stage // And all the men and women merely players…” If a diplomat wants to be a player (however small) then the answer to the controversial and debated question “To tweet or not to tweet” is … (you guessed it): to tweet!