Tweets in International Public Diplomacy

The following is a brief and informal summary of the study conducted by Liam Monninger under UCLA’s Internet Research Intiative during the 2018/19 academic year. The full study is not currently available.


We live in the age of the Twitter politician—domestically and internationally. Representatives of the state tweet not only to their constituents, but ostensibly to other states as well. It is understandable to regard this latter practice as significantly departed from the statecraft of old; carefully composed white papers and expensive television addresses now seem to share the stage with sentence fragments loaded and fired from armchairs in a matter of seconds. However, that these ‘medialogical’ differences have produced a fundamentally different and ultimately consquential environment for public international diplomacy is uncertain.

In an effort to form an introductory understanding of the ostensibly ‘new’ medium of international public diplomacy that is Twitter, I collected tweets from four heads of state—Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Hassan Rouhani and Benjamin Netanyahu—and quantiatively evaluated the press-release response these tweets received from other foreign ministries. My analysis did not identify a significant pattern among any of the variables surveyed. If representative of the whole of the state-level Twitter interaction, such would suggest that tweets may yet to have become predictable or consequential instruments of public diplomacy. This observed unpredictability and inconsequentiality fails to support existing models of public political communication.

Public Diplomacy and the Rise of the Tweet

In order to understand the current status of the tweet as a medium of public diplomacy and the concern of this work, it is best to establish a foundational understanding of public diplomacy itself and the media which have hitherto enabled its practice. Such begins with a definition.

What public diplomacy is as an analytical category has historically been subject to debate. Early 20th century scholarship tended to regard the topic broadly—referring less so to a particular practice than to a general appreciation of the influence exerted by the public on matters of foreign policy. By the middle of the 20th century, however, a more instrumental understanding of public diplomacy had come to the fore; public diplomacy was understood as the means by which one state affects a foreign public to influence another state. Such instrumentality is, by and large, axiomatic in modern scholarship. However, the efficacy of such a narrow understanding—one which only considers foreign publics—has been questioned in recent scholarship. Blending these new and old understandings of public diplomacy, I suggest the following as a useful analytical definition: public diplomacy is those attempts of a state which are intended to influence another state by means of the public—not the foreign public particularly but simply those entities which might be considered public generally and globally.

So, how have states sought to influence other states by means of the public? Here, it is helpful to acknowledge that—while one may speak of other forms of public diplomacy such as foreign aid and humanitarian missions—talk is relatively cheap and, as a result, most public diplomacy occurs via mass media. Such mediated public diplomacy has been, in one regard, ever evolving and yet, in another regard, unchanging. That is, states have employed increasingly diverse mass media in attempts to use the influence of the public over foreign regimes. However, all of the traditional media of public diplomacy—from bomber dropped leaflets to carefully arranged television addresses—have shared one important charateristic: they all broadcasted information; they do not readily allow for two-way communication.

The coming of internet media brought a challenge to this ‘old’ public diplomacy and the promise of the ‘new’; but, this promise was not fulfilled. The structural conduciveness to dialogue, ease of use for all and the ostensible equality of content—found particularly in social media—stood in seeming antithesis to all those media which had come to be used by the state. Despite the structural differences, a brief read-through of posts from the most active state-run accounts in the world will show behavior that is anything but new; states seem to use social media largely to broadcast, just as before. Such is nowhere more true than in the use of Twitter wherein few leaders engage in dialogue with their constituents or their piers.

There is, then, a curiosity which lingers: if the new media of public diplomacy are so different yet their use is so similar, can their effects be the same? or, minus the comparison, how does the use of these new media in public diplomacy influence other states? It is this curiosity which I hope to begin to address insofar as it concerns the use of Twitter by heads of state.

Theory, Methods and Results

My evaluation of tweets in international public diplomacy rests on a series of assumptions known collectively as medium theory. In brief, medium theory is the deterministic branch of media studies which suggests that a unique medium will have unique effects in a unique context—and that it is the medium which determines these effects (at least to some extent). This notion is perhaps best encapsulated by the one-liner: the medium is the message. Importantly, this understanding of media is compatible with the instrumental definition of public diplomacy provided above; if the medium determines the effects of communication, one can hope to use said medium as an instrument to achieve a certain outcome. In the case of my analysis, I examined the manner in which a medium (the tweet) produces perceptions, values, etc. (influence over a targeted state) in a given context (public diplomacy); I evaluated the extent to which the use of a tweet in the context of international public diplomacy produces a predictable outcome.

To quantify the predictability of the outcomes of a tweet in international public diplomacy, I performed statistical analyses which focused on correlation and modality. The datapoints for my statistical analyses were (1) tweets from four heads of state—Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Hassan Rouhani and Benjamin Netanyahu—which (a) contained threatening and/or slanderous mentions of another state annd which (b) fell within a 650-day window between January 20, 2017 to October 31, 2018. I, then, examined the correlation between several variables respresenting characteristics of each tweet—specifically its viewership—and several variables representing the outcomes of each tweet—specifically the press-release response it received from the foreign ministry of the state it had mentioned. I also examined the modality in the response from various actors in search of particular pattern of response which might be common amongst some or all actors.

Ultimately, I found little evidence to suggest much predictability in the response given to tweets from the four heads of state by foreign ministries. Almost none of the partitions of my dataset revealed any correlation between the the viewership a tweet received and the response it garnered. The modality of response, while perhaps visually compelling, provides equally little indication of predictable response. Other characteristics of the tweets surveyed—such as presence of embedded content and length—were initially considered; however, further statistical analyses which accounted for these characteristics were not deemed worthwhile.

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In any study of public diplomacy, the underlying question is why: why do states engage with one another in the public eye? why not keep things private? Scholarship has provided many potential explanations which are derived of diverse theoretical origins. This study fails to support three of the most popular models which have traditionally been used to explain logic of public diplomacy: the commitment device, agenda setting and norm promotion.

i. Commitment Device

The commitment device model suggests that actors can tie their hands by making statements in public which generate audience costs. Such hands-tying, if effective, should result in the changed behavior of another actor. As I was unable to observe any relationship between the audience of a tweet and the response, I cannot support this claim.

ii. Agenda Setting

The agenda setting hypothesis, as it is sometimes referred to, argues that communication of a topic in the public eye (via the mass media) can increase the salience of said topic. In the context of my analysis, we might consider the state who makes the initial tweet as the topic and the volume of reponse as its salience. While most tweets studied herein do illicit some form of response, this response is wildly inconsistent—when considered in relation to the audience size or not. Hence, it is difficult to find any clear support of the agenda setting hypothesis.

iii. Norm Promotion

Similar to those of agenda setting, norm promotion models of political communication suggest that mass communication can establish certain standard of appropriate behavior. While the data collected certainly do not provide the opportunity to study an array of norms, it certainly does not appear to be the case that there is any norm relating to the response given to tweets by foreign ministries. That is, simply put, the lack of a pattern in the response given by foreign ministries to tweets is not indicative of an understandable norm which might have formed around the praticing of tweeting and responding itself.

To the extent that this study does not support these popular models, one may ask: is it perhaps the case that the objective of these tweets is something other than influencing another state? After all, if we can neither explain nor even discern the logic of Twitter in the context of public diplomacy, is it perhaps the case that this is not the context wherein the logic of these tweets lies?

To this I would conclude with three points. First, I must admit, the limits of my study in its scope and data collection confine that which I might argue to the realm of speculation; I simply don’t have enough data to strongly determine much of anything. Regardless of these limitations, I might suggest that, yes, it would appear that the logic of tweeting as an ostensible act of public diplomacy may be more motivated by other concerns—perhaps winning reelection or appeasing interest groups, for example. However, I would say, third, that the most important implication of this study is that the application and effect of tweets in the context of international public diplomacy is likely highly complex and rife with uncertainty. It may be that these tweets are intended for a foreign state; it may be that they are intended for a domestic populace; it may be neither; it may be both. The knowledge of these and other possibilities itself has likely precluded the development of a discernable Twitter logic. From complexity comes uncertainty and from uncertainty comes unpredictability—such is the fate of the ‘diplomatic’ tweet.

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