Even before Donald Trump, social media had changed the face of politics, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, and the means and methods of communication, gaining access to information, and organizing action.
President Barack Obama is often referred to as the first “social media” President, having successfully utilized social media to get into office, and then effectively using it to communicate with the public throughout his two terms.
Social media further changed the geopolitics of entire regions of the world, such as the Middle East and North Africa when, in late 2010 and early 2011, access to social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube helped to spur the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts against the ruthless dictators largely supported by our “friendly” governments in the West. For the first time, the Arab youth of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and beyond were heard in their own voices, able to articulate their own desires, hopes, dreams and demands.
But in the age of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and even while campaigning for President, the fundamentals of social media and politics once again changed. This time, it is not simply about communication between political elites and their publics, or publics mobilizing to influence political elites, but rather, about the very nature of diplomacy and power-to-power relations itself.
When Trump wants his opinions known, he takes to Twitter. Here, Trump announces (with a 140 character limit) his opinions of other policies, politicians, foreign leaders, countries and his objectives. Twitter has become a key forum for diplomacy in the world today. Trump has managed to start no lack of political crises and challenges with his Twiplomcy, including flaming a confrontation with Mexico, China, and Australia, among others.
There are differing views on the subject of Twitter diplomacy, however. Writing in the Guardian, Mary Dejevsky wrote that with the rise of Twitter diplomacy, “We may be witnessing the end of spin… and the degradation of language it entailed,” as politicians and diplomats are forced to engage in more personable, direct and simple language. This would potentially open the way for “plain-speaking in public life,” challenging one of the very things that causes people to distrust politicians so frequently. Such a “new directness” could and should be welcomed to the world of politics and international relations.
On the other hand, there are many inherent dangers in Twitter diplomacy. As Peter Apps wrote for Reuters, in a future scenario in which nations may be engaged in a Cuban Missile Crisis-like situation, “it is entirely possible that world leaders may be tweeting at each other directly – with the rest of the world, including their own diplomatic and military command chains, forced to watch and play catch-up.” That kind of communication could create no lack of problems in such a scenario, especially with the prospect of a Trump presidency. As Apps noted at the time, with Trump, you had “a reality TV and social media star – whose arguably strongest skill set is in generating controversy and attention. Take that habit too far, and you could easily start a war.”
That truly is a terrifying prospect. It’s one thing for celebrities to have public spats on social media that the rest of us can watch and laugh about, but it’s quite another to turn such a forum into an arena for international relations among those with the power to start wars.
Regardless of the pitfalls or benefits, both authors and arguments tend to take the peculiarities of a Trump presidency into consideration when saying that the form and format may not be as much of a problem and the personality that utilizes it. But the reality is, this personality has made Twitter diplomacy a very real circumstance in the world today. And that likely won’t be changing anytime soon.
Richard Buangan, the Managing Director for International Media Engagement at the U.S. State Department recently acknowledged that, “In diplomacy and media, a conversation can be the most powerful tool we have,” with “the power to transform, empower and create.” He emphasized social media in particular, while speaking at the Arab Media Forum, noting: “Digital platforms created an equilibrium in which the public can now participate in news gathering, new sharing and more importantly, decision-making.” The State Department, he said, was learning to adapt to this new environment. “To stay competitive, we can’t selectively engage,” he said. “News now travels by Twitter or Facebook and social media has shattered the barriers to communication.” A choice between two models – the old and the new – had to be made. “In the old model,” he explained, “power and authority were the old currency to be heard. In the new one, it’s authentic voices and your ideas.” Public diplomacy, he concluded, “is an opportunity to expose an open avenue of dialogue.”
Indeed, the opening has been made. The question is, how will it be used – and abused – in the future?