Digital Diplomacy – How to respond to Donald Trump? / Matthias Lüfkens

Matthias Lüfkens / Founder, Twiplomacy

@luefkens

US President Donald Trump has decided to use his personal Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump as well as the official personal handle @POTUS as his preferred channels for executive communications and policy statements. On the day of his inauguration he asked the audience at the Freedom Ball, one of three inaugural balls: “Should I keep the Twitter going or not? Keep it going? I think so.” President Trump continued to explain that he sees Twitter as “a way of bypassing dishonest media.”

 

Donald Trump’s unorthodox use of Twitter during the US election campaign and since taking office has flummoxed many governments around the world. The key question foreign governments are asking is: should they follow @realDonaldTrump on Twitter? Many chancelleries wonder whether following his personal account could mean an endorsement of his tweets.

As of January 27, 2016, 191 heads of state and government followed the official @POTUS Twitter handle, an account set up in May 2015 under Barack Obama and transferred to the new President including its 14 million followers. Only 97 foreign leaders, including many foreign ministries, follow his personal account @realDonaldTrump which boasts 22.4 million followers making him the third most followed leader after Pope Francis (@Pontifex) and Indian Prime Minister @NarendraModi according to the latest Twiplomacy ranking. In comparison, the personal Twitter account of former President @BarackObama is followed by 295 of the 822 world leaders.

The liberal use of Twitter by the new US President presents unprecedented challenges to traditional diplomacy. In one of her first radio interview, new Swiss President Doris Leuthard, who is not on Twitter explained that she was “worried” about the use of Twitter by Donald Trump: “it is a bit unexpected and we will see if he calms down” she added. Outgoing German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier acknowledged that: “Every President needs to develop and coin their own style”, adding: “I can’t imagine that tweets will be the way to go in the long run.”

 

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is the 11th most followed world leader on Twitter with more than six million followers on his @EPN account, is the only foreign leader who has engaged directly with Donald Trump’s tweets. After a meeting with the candidate Donald Trump in September 2016, @EPN bluntly replied to Donald Trump’s tweet that “Mexico will pay for the wall!”, explaining, in Spanish, that “Mexico would never pay for a wall”, a Twitter spat which has attracted more than 48,000 retweets.

After Donald Trump signed the executive order to build the border wall, the Mexican President posted a video reply on his Twitter feed reiterating: “I’ve said time and again; Mexico won’t pay for any wall. I regret and condemn the decision of the United States to continue construction of a wall that, for years, has divided us instead of uniting us.” He added that “Mexico doesn’t believe in walls.”

When President Trump replied in a tweet that: “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting”, Peña Nieto promptly cancelled the meeting in a tweet.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has been more outspoken in his criticism of Donald Trump and his plans for a border wall, frequently using foul language in his tweets in English which might not be helpful.

So far, the diplomatic community has decided not to react publically on Twitter to rebuke Donald Trump’s campaign statements, afraid to pick a Twitter fight with the @realDonaldTrump. On the day of his inauguration, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson congratulated President Trump in a video message on Twitter.

However, the Foreign Office stayed mum when President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that former UKIP leader Nigel Farage “would do a great job” as the UK ambassador to the United States. While a spokesperson for Number 10 was quick to explain that “There is no vacancy. We already have an excellent ambassador to the US” neither the Foreign Office, nor the UK government reacted publically on Twitter. As one senior British diplomat put it: “We wanted to downplay the incident”.

The diplomatic community at large, however, expressed outrage: “Can’t have foreign presidents deciding who our ambo should be”, tweeted Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the United States. Tom Fletcher, the UK’s former ambassador to Lebanon and a leading voice of digital diplomacy put it bluntly: “Note to Trump: this is not a game. For the sake of great country that is USA, please get a diplomatic adviser fast.”

British journalist and television personality Piers Morgan, who is the only foreigner followed by @realDonaldTrump, has outlined 10 ways to win over the new President for UK Prime Minister Theresa May and offered his good services. It remains to be seen how governments will react to President Trump’s Twitter diplomacy. As former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt put it during the election night on November 9, 2016 it’s time to “Fasten seat belts.”

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