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Twitter for diplomats: Libya incident illustrates trade-offs

Twitter for diplomats: Libya incident illustrates trade-offs

Danielle Cave has argued that Australia could benefit from a less cautious approach to digital diplomacy. For example, the increasing informality of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's Twitter presence has led to new audiences. Would Buzzfeed have bothered to interview Bishop if she hadn't agreed to perform the interview entirely in emojis?

But it's one thing for an official to tweet emojis and pictures of Koalas primarily to a stable and prosperous Australian audience. It's entirely another thing for a diplomat to tweet personal, emotional responses to unconfirmed reports of killings amid the chaos of a civil war, especially if locals believe the war is the result of a military intervention led by the nation the diplomat in question represents.

A couple of months ago, the US Ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, quit Twitter.

'I have concluded it is best to cease efforts to communicate via Twitter insofar as it distracts from our goal of peace & stability 4 #Libya,' she wrote. 'We shall continue to post official statements on our embassy FB account. To all those responsible & thoughtful Tweeps out there, thank you.'

Just before her farewell, Jones tweeted that eight civilians had been killed in air strikes at Tahourna, a town near Tripoli. However, a Reuters account of the event cites a town municipality spokesman claiming the air strikes had hit an empty farm. Libyan military officials then told Reuters the air strikes had in fact hit a barracks belonging to the Islamist militant group Libya Dawn. The officials also claimed eight civilians had been killed, but in an attack by Libya Dawn militia.

After a backlash from other Twitter users and a demand for an apology from Libyan military officials, Jones ascribed her claim to sources on both sides, and (perhaps inadvisably) attempted to reiterate the point that 'violence serves no-one'. 'Fascinating reactions when I didn't assign blame just decried the ongoing violence. Says so much about #Libya and why peace so difficult,' she wrote.

A few hours later, she quit the social media service altogether. [fold]

Ambassador Jones was evacuated from Libya in mid-2014 along with all other US personnel, and thus saw Twitter as 'the only way to reach out...given the security situation'. Comments in the weeks prior hinted at her frustration with the responses she was receiving: 'Pop quiz: when have I or any US official specified that group(s), ie MB [Muslim Brotherhood], or individual(s) must be part of a nat'l unity gov't? Answer: Never.' The first of her parting messages on Twitter ('Dear Tweeps – and not so dear Tweeps –...') made her frustrations clear.

Social media can provide diplomats with an unprecedented level of access, but it also gives the audience an unprecedented level of access to diplomats, making communal backlashes like the one that afflicted Jones that much easier to see and to join.

Organisational oversight and social media training can alleviate some of these risks. But training cannot cover every contingency, especially in digital environments as fraught with misinformation and speculation as Libya. And while organisational oversight can reduce risk, it also compromises the personability and immediacy of an official's social media presence. There is an unavoidable trade-off between vetting and quality. The more resources a diplomatic organisation devotes to overseeing the social media presence of an official, the blander and less effective it will be.

Photo courtesy of Twitter user @SafiraDeborah.

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