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Diplomats, trolls and memes

Diplomats, trolls and memes



Barack Obama's tweeting entranced the media earlier this week, but he isn't the only US official making Twitter-related headlines;  the social media service has recently played host to a number of high-profile disputes involving senators, ambassadors and spokespeople.

US Senator Tom Cotton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif continued to trade blows following Cotton’s letter to Zarif in March regarding nuclear negotiations, and US officials sparred with the mayor of Ankara over US rhetoric on police activity in Turkey compared with Baltimore.

In a wide-ranging piece for the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner looked at these examples and examines how 'trolling' – acting provocatively in an attempt to induce an emotional reaction – has become an increasingly popular tactic in diplomatic exchanges:

Does diplo-trolling really matter? Turkey remains a NATO ally. The same week that Cotton trolled Zarif, progress was made in the Iran nuclear negotiations. Isn’t the rest just bread and circuses? A useful distraction for officials trying to conduct actual statecraft?

Not necessarily. In the short term, social media engagement can raise the costs of negotiation. As a general rule, trolling is a weapon of the weak designed to harass the powerful into engaging their arguments; on the Iran negotiations, for example, Cotton is far less important than Zarif. This is not all bad — sometimes trolls, by engaging political leaders or spokesmen, bring transparency to a heretofore hidden set of policies. And to the trolls, this is a form of negotiation.

The problem is that crafting international agreements is hard work on a good day. Coping with online trolls simply adds to the transaction costs of negotiation.

In asking how digital platforms like Twitter will influence future foreign policy leaders, Drezner also included these spectacular quotes from Senator Cory Booker on the social media tactics of Islamic State:

In the long term, the more interesting question is how future generations of leaders — immersed in a world where texting, Twitter and Instagram are primary modes of communication — think about foreign policy. This past week, for example, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a voracious tweeter, despaired about the Islamic State’s social media power at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing. “I know something about memes,” he said. “Look at their fancy memes compared to what we’re not doing.”

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