An awful lot of international diplomacy lately has been downright undiplomatic.
Exhibit A: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., used Twitter to goad Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif late last month. Cotton tweeted at him: “I hear you called me out today. If you’re so confident, let’s debate the Constitution.” Cotton followed up with other tweets describing Zarif as cowardly. The Iranian foreign minister replied that “serious diplomacy, not macho personal smear, is what we need,” a response that Foreign Policy magazine labeled as trolling. This was hardly the only online provocation Zarif faced during his recent New York visit.
Exhibit B: The U.S. ambassador to Turkey and the mayor of Ankara got into an online dust-up a few weeks ago. It started when Mayor Melih Gökçek took to Twitter to blast State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf for her silence about the unrest in Baltimore, calling her a “stupid blonde.” Harf refused to engage with Gökçek’s tweets, but Ambassador John Bass responded by posting an altered picture of himself on Instagram, declaring, “American diplomats: we’re all blonde.”
To troll, by definition, is to write something that provokes a target into an angry or emotional response — and, in the process, to attract attention and reframe a debate in a way that is more favorable to one’s own viewpoint. It’s the last thing you might expect from politicians or diplomats, people trained to say things in a manner that pleases rather than disses their audience. But the past few episodes are only the latest in a phenomenon that has been going on for more than three years, ever since spokesmen for the Taliban and for the NATO-led presence in Afghanistan sparred on Twitter in 2011. And little moments like these might be more and more common in future diplomatic exchanges.
Trolling doesn’t have to take place on social media. Vladimir Putin’s September 2013New York Times op-ed on Syria, warning that “we must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement,” was a supreme act of trolling using a traditional media platform. (And it’s only looked more like diplo-trolling in light of the Russian president’s extraterritorial adventures since then.)
That said, trolling and social media seem to go together like YouTube and cat videos. Beyond Putin’s op-ed, the Kremlin allegedly funded a “troll army” to enter the comments sections of U.S. news websites ranging from the Huffington Post to WorldNetDaily. Russia excels at bringing out the troll in others, too. Last August, Canada’s delegation to NATO tweeted “a guide for Russian soldiers who keep getting lost & ‘accidentally' entering #Ukraine.” It consisted of a map featuring “Russia” and “Not Russia.” Not surprisingly, the tweet inspired a flame war with the Russian mission at NATO.
To successfully troll in foreign affairs is to disrupt someone else’s official narrative and replace it with one’s own. As Eli Lake wrote last year in the Daily Beast in praise of the foreign policy rhetoric of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: “The best trolls are provocateurs. Their language is meant to expose a fallacy or weakness in the opponent’s position as opposed to offering a constructive alternative.”
Of course, there are also limits to the utility of trolling. Cotton is correct to criticize the nature of the Iranian regime, but that point is somewhat extraneous to debating the merits of an Iranian nuclear deal. No negotiation was going to lead to regime change in Tehran, and a lot of international diplomacy involves dealing with unsavory governments. Nevertheless, by baiting Zarif into responding, Cotton can proudly claim to have stood up to the mullahs, 140 characters at a time.
What’s interesting is that Zarif responded at all. He had many excellent reasons not to. In terms of content, what Cotton said was not new. Historically, American senators have popped off about foreign tyrannies since the creation of the Senate. To date, Cotton’s chief claim to fame was ginning up a patronizing letter to Iran’s leaders that managed to annoy the White House, alienate a majority of the American public and embarrass some of the GOP senators who had signed it. He was also the only senator to vote against the bipartisan Corker-Cardin bill enabling legislative review of any Iran deal. Why would Iran’s foreign minister feel compelled to respond to an isolated junior senator from Arkansas?
Apparently because 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 140-character limit makes substantive engagement difficult and snark very easy.
I’ve been a successful participant in Twitter Fight Club, so I know of what I write. For me, most social media interactions have been constructive. There have been some testy exchanges, however, when I later regretted what I had tweeted or blogged. I doubt that makes me unusual among the members of the foreign policy community who are active on social media.
What’s made diplo-trolling more common is that, unlike in previous centuries, it is hard for officials to ignore other politicians baiting them, because online the exchanges happen so quickly. In the past, it would have taken weeks for word of Senate or mayoral speeches to travel overseas, allowing foreign officials the luxury of ignoring them. Today, instant Facebook comments and Twitter replies make it difficult for anyone to pretend to ignore a troll, especially one who’s a member of the Senate.
This was not supposed to be the principal way that social media affected world politics. In 2011, at the peak of the Arab Spring, Clay Shirky wrote in Foreign Affairs about the transformative power of new technologies. Commenting on the ways social media had been used to foment mass political movements, he argued that one “promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere.” Shirky concluded that “access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation.”
Social media platforms ostensibly offered a way for social movements to engage in meaningful political dialogue. There was talk about how the State Department could exploit social media to advance human rights and promote democracy. The “Texts from Hillary” meme, showing the then-secretary of state working her BlackBerry, epitomized this upbeat worldview.
Four years later, neither the Arab Spring nor Hillary Clinton’s command of email has turned out the way many had hoped. Neither has the effect of social media on international relations. As researchers noted in The Washington Post a few months ago, “the focus on mass protest and repression obscures the fact that political elites, advocacy groups, and world leaders have increasingly embraced social media.” More and more, social media is a battleground between leaders and trolls. These days, the trolls include terrorists, too: The Islamic State’s ability to exploit social media to attract supporters and enrage Western governments has been a growing concern.
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. This is particularly true because the mainstream media will amplify any act of foreign policy trolling. The media loves to report on Twitter fights and put-downs. These sorts of exchanges create easy copy and clear narratives, diverting scarce time and attention from the substance of statecraft. Successful trolling requires foreign policy leaders to cope with political firestorms at home, because domestic opponents can point to foreign online trolls as evidence of a lack of international respect.
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.” Booker came of age before the Internet. But if millennial politicians think of the real world as simply an extended metaphor for social media interactions, then satire like CollegeHumor.com’s “Here’s What WWII Would Look like as a Facebook News Feed” starts to sound more and more like a harbinger of reality.
There is a life cycle to thinking about how improvements in communications technology could affect international relations. The first phase is optimism. The ability to talk to other people more quickly is embraced as a means toward peace and prosperity. The second phase is disillusionment. It turns out that maybe the medium is not the message; changes in communications technology do not, in fact, change the world. The final phase is realism. Sometimes these new platforms can be a source for good, and sometimes they can be used for making mischief.
Sure, the rise of trolls in foreign policy could pose problems going forward. But if so, maybe the fault lies not with Twitter but with ourselves.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Special To The Washington Post