When leaders tweet – University of Copenhagen

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10 December 2015

When leaders tweet


How does it affect the outcome of negotiations, the countries' images and mutual interrelationships when top politicians leak part of the negotiation process to the media and through Facebook updates and tweets? Associate professor Rebecca Adler-Nissen from the University of Copenhagen will be researching these questions in a new project.

The European Union - meeting

One hundred and sixty-five heads of state have personal Twitter accounts, and two-thirds do their own tweeting.* Some even do so while embroiled in important international negotiations on peace agreements and EU refugee quotas. This provides journalists – and all other users of social media – with insights into what goes on behind the otherwise firmly closed doors of the world of diplomacy. But when top politicians leak parts of the negotiation process to the media and through Facebook updates and tweets, how does it affect the outcome of the negotiations, the countries’ images and mutual interrelationships, and the effectiveness of the diplomatic approach to tackling international tensions? Associate Professor Rebecca Adler-Nissen of the University of Copenhagen will research these questions.

The President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is seated at the negotiating table with the other 27 EU heads of state, working on an agreement on the refugee crisis. His attention is partly directed toward his mobile phone.

Ilves is one of the 165 heads of state and government who has his own Twitter account.* And he uses it. A lot. Even during vital negotiations, he keeps his 97,000 Facebook friends and 60,000 Twitter followers up to date – almost minute by minute.

Challenged by Twitter and Facebook

Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a European head of state to comment 'live' from negotiations, but international diplomacy has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. The doors to the once hermetically sealed rooms, in which important agreements were negotiated in complete confidence, have been pushed slightly ajar by politicians and government officials who willingly comment on the progress – or lack thereof – during negotiations, keen to be the first to tell the world about the final outcome in 140 characters. Sometimes the result is out on social media even before all of the parties present at the negotiations have been fully apprised of the final outcome. Part of the art of diplomacy is saving face – and making sure others do not lose it. But now the general public has become part of the diplomatic toolbox.

'International diplomacy is in a state of flux. Heads of state, ministers and government officials are responding to the demand for more openness in an intense 24-hour media cycle, jockeying for position and trying to make themselves heard by issuing short, improvised one-liners on Facebook and Twitter directly from the negotiation room,' says Rebecca Adler-Nissen.

Confidentiality was the key

'In Ohio in 1995, when the US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and chief negotiator Richard Holbrooke brought the warring parties in Bosnia together and negotiated the Dayton Agreement that put an end to three-and-a-half years of civil war, confidentiality, time and concentration on the negotiations were the key to reaching a deal,' she recounts.

'Today, top politicians and diplomats sit with their phone out during the negotiations – like teenagers at the dinner table – and we need to look at how it affects the classic diplomatic processes and international co-operation that that confidentiality and discretion are no longer necessarily the order of the day around the negotiating table.'

Diplomacy in 140 characters

Critics postulate that the new media reality presents a challenge to diplomacy’s ability to generate trust and peaceful solutions to international problems. Adler-Nissen will study what happens in practice with the project Diplomatic Face-Work, which has just received a grant of DKK 11 million from the European Research Council (ERC).

'Politicians and diplomats still negotiate agreements behind closed doors, but they also present themselves and their national interests more proactively via Twitter and other social media. Using interviews, participant observation and digital methodology, we will study what this openness and jockeying for positioning means for nations’ images in the eyes of the rest of the world and for diplomacy’s ability to build trust and arrive at peaceful solutions to international problems,' continues Adler-Nissen, whose project will pay particular attention to closer economic co-operation in the wake of the Euro crisis, negotiations on free movement of people in Europe and negotiations with EU candidate countries and neighbouring states.

@carlbildt tweets

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, another regular tweeter, with more than 450,000 followers, has used Twitter to sharply criticise Russia for its handling of the Ukraine crisis. However, this backfired on him in March 2014 when he used his account (@carlbildt) to compare Ukraine’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych (at that time in exile in Russia) with Vidkun Quisling, who was Prime Minister of Norway in exile during the German occupation. Bildt wrote that Yanukovych was “sitting on foreign soil begging a foreign army to give his country to him”. Bildt’s own prime minister and foreign ministry complained that the tone of this tweet forced Sweden to adopt a harder line than the other EU countries. But what is the real effect of top politicians tweeting?

'We see how some diplomats tease each other in tweets to entertain their online followers, and how the whole language of diplomacy – which is by definition polite and formal in order to avoid offence and misconceptions – is changing dramatically. You can’t be all that diplomatic in 140 characters, so the tone of international dialogue has changed,' Adler-Nissen points out.

Two more EU grants to UCPH

As well as Rebecca Adler-Nissen, two other UCPH researchers have received Starting Grants of €1.5m (about DKK 11m) from the European Research Council (ERC). Starting Grants are EU grants to young researchers who have distinguished themselves internationally. The two other grants are for:

Associate Professor Mark Spencer Rudner of the Niels Bohr Institute in the Faculty of Science to study how, over the last decade, quantum theory has identified a number of interesting and useful new properties of solid matter that could, for example, pave the way for new developments in quantum computing. However, finding materials that produce these properties is still a major challenge. Meanwhile, rapid development in experimental physics has opened up new possibilities for dynamic control of systems, e.g. through the use of lasers. Can these experimental developments be used to produce the required properties “on demand” in more readily available materials?

Associate Professor Andres J. Lopez-Contreras, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, to study how genetic mutations in our cells, caused by damage to our DNA, lead to cancer and other diseases. The project will study Chromosomal Common Fragile Sites - genetic regions that are particularly susceptible to this type of damage. Despite their fragility, they have endured the rigours of human evolution. What biological function do these unstable regions serve that has made it necessary for our genes to retain them?

*Source: Twiplomacy – a study of top politicians’ use of Twitter, by the communication agency Burson-Marsteller.

Associate Professor, PhD Rebecca Adler-Nissen
Department of Political Science
Phone: +45 45 35 32 33
Mobile: +45 30 22 40 75
Mail: ran@ifs.ku.dk