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Mean Girls and meaner trolls: the rise of Twitter diplomacy

9 June 2018

10:46 AM

9 June 2018

10:46 AM

You can tell a lot about a leader by the diplomats they choose to represent them. Brezhnev had Anatoly Dobrynin, Nixon had Henry Kissinger, and Benjamin Netanyahu has Regina George. The queen bitch of North Shore High, fictional setting of the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls, is blunt, conniving and vicious with a mid-hallway putdown. Played by sweetness personified Rachel McAdams but scripted by the acid Tina Fey, Regina is not someone you’d like to encounter in double French — or at Camp David. That is no doubt why the Israelis selected her as the latest face of digital hasbara.

Ayatollah Khamenei — probably not a connoisseur of high school chick flicks — had a run-in with Regina on Monday. Iran’s Supreme Leader is on Twitter, natch, and he posted a cheery message to his 500,000 followers: ‘Our stance against Israel is the same stance we have always taken. #Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated: it is possible and it will happen.’

It was hardly the fieriest rhetoric Iran has directed at the Jewish state but the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC felt compelled to reply and sent the Ayatollah a gif of Regina delivering her most quoted line from the movie: ‘Why are you so obsessed with me?’

This is what Generation Z calls ‘throwing shade’, what millennials call a ‘sick burn’, and what people who own their home will have to call their children to have explained to them. We shall call it troll diplomacy — a new tactic in which hostile states flame one another on social media.

Israel is by no means a pioneer. When defence secretary Gavin Williamson squeaked that Russia should ‘go away’ and ‘shut up’, Vladimir Putin’s London legation tweeted a picture of an icy thermometer and the message: ‘The temperature of Russian/UK relations drops to minus-23, but we are not afraid of cold weather.’

Russia was caught up in another episode after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Canada’s delegation to NATO tweeted: ‘Geography can be tough. Here’s a guide for Russian soldiers who keep getting lost & ‘accidentally’ entering #Ukraine’. The accompanying graphic labelled Russia as such and Ukraine as ‘Not Russia’.

Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier is adept at using Twitter to thrust a thumb in the eye of the UK Government. Last August he tweeted all nine position papers put forward by the EU, at a time when David Davis was under pressure to disclose even the most basic framework. Barnier added pointedly that ‘EU positions’ had been ‘clear and transparent since day one’.

If all this sounds like a thoroughly undiplomatic way to go about diplomacy, it’s not native to the digital era. Americans loved hearing Ronald Reagan tell jokes about the disarray and desperation of the Soviet Union but his intended audience was the Kremlin, whom the punchlines would sting, and the Russian people, who would be reminded of their sorry lot under socialism. (My personal favourite: ‘A man is walking through Moscow at night and a soldier orders him to halt but the man starts running and the soldier shoots him. “Why did you do that?” another soldier asks. “Curfew,” the shooter replies. “But curfew hasn’t started yet.” “He’s a friend of mine. I know where he lives. He wouldn’t have made it.”’)

For their part, the Russians are expert trolls. They have an entire ‘news’ channel, RT, which exists solely to wind up the West, not to mention armies of professional provocateurs who swamp popular US websites with posts designed to inflame tensions and turn Americans against one another and towards demagogues who will weaken the republic on the world stage. (Bonuses all round at the Kremlin.)

The arrival of social media made all communications snappier and diplomatic language has finally succumbed to the inevitable. Optimists still cling to hope that Twitter can bring hostile nations closer together. Dr Constance Duncombe of Queensland University contends that the site could be ‘another platform for dialogue between states in cases where face-to-face diplomatic interactions are limited’. Less idealistic observers, such as Daniel W Drezner, are sceptical. The Tufts University professor notes: ‘The very nature of social media makes it difficult to walk away from a fight. Anyone familiar with Twitter knows that it is a medium that valorizes pithy retorts. The character limit makes substantive engagement difficult and snark very easy.’

Both are probably wrong about the audience diplomats are playing to when they troll one another online. Yes, they hope to get under their opposite number’s skin but more than that, they want to embarrass them in front of their voters. Classical diplomacy sought to reach messy fixes between elite players behind closed doors. Troll diplomacy in the populist age is not about fixes but cynicism, which is more valuable than any handshake. Now you can weaken your negotiating partners by fomenting anger and grievance in their electorates — by turning them into a nation of Regina Georges.

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