Following Elon Musk’s chaotic acquisition of Twitter in October 2022, some U.S. government agencies have adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to the platform. Recent headlines about his tenure certainly do not inspire confidence.
Over the past month, a wave of layoffs and resignations has left key engineering positions vacant, raising cybersecurity risks. A Media Matters study suggests that half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers stopped advertising on the platform in 2022, in part driven by a spike in racist remarks and radical content, and also due to the now-suspended Twitter Blue Verification program, as online trolls began impersonating legitimate entities for $8 per month.
These problems are serious and should be addressed to ensure the platform’s survivability – but in the short-to-medium term, there are key reasons for U.S. agencies to remain on Twitter. Owing to Twitter’s ability to facilitate concise, real-time interactions with large audiences, the platform has become an irreplaceable component of government communications strategies for the time being. Moreover, China’s increasing presence on the platform makes it another key arena for geopolitical competition, and U.S. diplomats must remain on the platform to promote their own narratives.
How U.S. Diplomats Utilize Twitter
U.S. diplomats have been leveraging Twitter in their duties for at least a decade. Ambassadors such as Robert Ford were pioneers in this craft, with Ford using Twitter to circumvent traditional media to communicate directly with Syrians while rebutting falsehoods. Yet these practices have also evolved beyond just issuing formal diplomatic messages.
Humour, for example, is a regular feature in U.S. diplomatic tweets. In 2015, Russian media featured a photoshopped image of the U.S. ambassador, John Tefft, attending a rally of Russian opposition politicians. The U.S. Embassy responded by tweeting their own photoshopped images featuring Tefft at historical events such as the moon landing, creating a response that was more palatable to regular audiences than a formal communique.
These posts are not always targeted at rebutting falsehoods either. In November 2022, the U.S. Embassy in London tweeted a video where a U.S. diplomat supporting England’s World Cup Team was “fired,” sparking a light-hearted exchange with British diplomats. Humor can be used to both ridicule and reaffirm, while creating content that is relatable to regular users.
This is not to say there is a unified approach to Twitter by U.S. diplomats. Ambassadors often reflect the values of the administration that appointed them – for example, the U.S. Ambassadors to Kenya (Kyle McCarter) and Germany (Richard Grenell) during the Donald Trump administration were known for aggressive tweets. McCarter lambasted reports that the United States abandoned the Mombasa-Nairobi motorway project as “total rubbish,” while Grenell regularly argued with reporters to the point of them blocking him.
In contrast, current ambassadors such as David Pressman (Hungary) and Nicholas Burns (China) use more measured language. Pressman has called out Hungarian President Viktor Orban with light sarcasm over his reluctance to engage President Joe Biden. Likewise, Burns has responded to accusations of U.S. hypocrisy over human rights by Chinese media with measured candor, admitting his country’s flaws but also pointing to their desire to improve.
Both Twitter styles have drawn criticism, one for being too forceful and the other for being too immature. Nonetheless, Twitter remains a key tool for modern U.S. diplomats, and one they should seek to master.
Chinese Diplomats on Twitter
Chinese diplomats have only been active on Twitter since 2019 but have become adept at amplifying their views. Between June 2020 and February 2021, the Oxford Internet Institute found 189 official Chinese government accounts tweeted over 200,000 times amplifying anti-Western content from allies such as Russia and Iran.
On one hand, Chinese officials adopt a cordial approach to certain countries, emphasizing the advancement of ties and “win-win cooperation” through formal posts. Yet the past few years have seen a proliferation of “wolf warrior” accounts that use hostile language to criticize Western countries. By tweeting doctored images or decrying other world leaders as “running [dogs] of the U.S.,” the intention is to project an image of strength to external audiences. Such provocations often pay off by attracting more followers to these accounts, ensuring that future tweets reach a wider audience.
China’s weaponization of social media is quite different from the United States’ approach. They also seem unconcerned by Musk’s acquisition of Twitter; indeed, laxer content moderation guidelines may enable more wolf warrior accounts. With that in mind, remaining on the platform, and innovating to meet these narrative challenges, will be key for U.S. diplomats.
Internal Verification and Thinking Like an Influencer
Observers are still divided over how Twitter will survive the challenges ahead. Some caution that Twitter might yet implode as technical errors mount and both users and advertisers depart; others suggest that Twitter become more like Telegram, another social messaging app with minimal moderation, and survive on lower revenue due to the mass exodus of staff. Both general scenarios pose significant questions for U.S. agencies, especially over the issue of fake accounts. The State Department may have to step up its monitoring of official diplomatic Twitter accounts to prevent impersonators from causing harm (for example, by promoting cryptocurrency scams) and damaging Washington’s image.
Simultaneously, U.S. diplomats should avoid purely “fighting fire with fire” when it comes to aggression. While they should rebut disinformation, it is important to avoid making Twitter diplomacy a race to the bottom. Doing so would only devalue the platform as a diplomatic tool for the United States and enhance its utility for rivals that seek to project strength.
Rather, as Chinese diplomats become more outwardly hostile, U.S. diplomats should seek to become more approachable. Many diplomats are already undertaking such approaches. Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, is notable for tweeting about non-policy content such as basketball games. U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Jonathan Kaplan often posts pictures of meals and local wildlife. U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong Gregory May tweeted a video of himself speaking Cantonese in December 2022, asking his audience for pointers.
While such posting habits may seem quaint, they help endear foreign officials to local inhabitants by showcasing an ostensibly genuine concern to learn more about their host country. These posts can also lessen tensions in bilateral ties by portraying foreign diplomats as regular people outside of their official roles. Indeed, it may sometimes be useful for diplomats to see themselves as part-time social media influencers.
Twitter represents a valuable new frontier for diplomacy whose potential has yet to be fully tapped. While the platform does face long-term issues, U.S. diplomats should continue using and experimenting with it in the interim, rather than ceding it to Chinese influence.