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Diplomacy in social media: Changes in political communication


One gets distressed and vents it on social media. One gets happy, jubilees it on social media. One gets a funny or insulting me and without second thoughts share it. These are some of the impulsive actions and reactions among the average person up to politicians and government representatives.

Social media has changed the dynamics of political communication. One doesn’t need to comb for examples. A number of world leaders provide the international community with some of the most bizarre messages. There is an argument that public figure misuse social media because they are unable to separate their political or institutional identities from their personal views.

Yet, the real question is why world leaders use media platforms. The simplest answer is to communicate directly with the population. Interestingly though, there are just a few cases that a world leader uses social media to interact directly with citizens, which suggests that the use of these platforms are a top-down channel to broadcast information, opinion, and own agenda.

The use of social media for political communication by world leaders has increasingly become widespread, say Pablo Barbera and Thomas Zeitzoff in their article ‘The New Public Address System: Why Do World Leaders Adopt Social Media?’ According to their study, by January 2014, the governments of 76 per cent of UN member countries had an active presence in Twitter or Facebook. As of March 2019, 94 per cent of the 193 UN member states had social media accounts.

Social media have the potential to extend government services, increase civic participation, solicit innovative ideas from the masses, and improve decision-making and problem solving – as well as to function as surveillance tools for political views up to freedom of expressions and all in between.

From the Arab world to Asia, to South America, to Europe, presidents and prime ministers are active on social media. On either Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and so on, they all have their own accounts — while circumventing mainstream media organisations.

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, communicates with his followers about everything from announcing new policies to respond to public complaints. Donald Trump, President of the United States, has his own social media accounts; Trump is an avid Twitter user. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, are some other examples of political leaders’ use of social platforms.

Nevertheless, in early February 2019, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her decision to delete her personal Facebook page. She asked her followers to go to the governmental accounts instead. In mid-March 2019, Kenya’s President Uhuru

Kenyatta temporarily deleted all his social media profiles.

Is it good or is it bad for government agencies or politicians to have a presence on social media? For one side, institutions can quickly get information to the people and receive feedback. Two clear-cut benefits of using social media in government institutions are a) to build an awareness; b) crisis communication. The benefits of personal accounts for prime ministers and presidents are unclear so far, except to promote their own agenda.

Social media may not be a substitute for traditional diplomacy, but it is changing how leaders communicate with each other and citizens from around the world.

The social media bubble is emotionally charged and divisive. In fact, the flood of information, controversial and offensive content can reach the point of cyberbullying and hate speech. It is degrading public discourse.

Scholars researching on government and politicians’ use of communication new technologies consider social media as an uncharted territory and point to governments’ lack of experience and knowledge regarding implementing social media.

Indeed, social media has changed diplomacy. It has changed the way we communicate. It is a powerful platform for changes and awareness, but it is a double-edged sword.

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