Why Russia, China and Iran Love Twitter — Without Really Being on It

Why Russia, China and Iran Love Twitter — Without Really Being on It

By Pallabi Munsi


President Trump’s extensive use of Twitter to issue diplomatic threats leaves one country the most vulnerable: the U.S.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • The percentage of Iranians, Russians and Chinese on Twitter is small compared with the percentage of Americans.
  • Tehran, Moscow and Beijing use the platform for aggressive messaging to U.S. audiences without being concerned about American tweets influencing as many of their own citizens.
  • The U.S. is more vulnerable to domestic pressures when President Trump uses Twitter to escalate tensions.

Who can forget President Donald Trump’s January 2018 tweet calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man” — or his threat of a nuclear response.

Since 2017, the U.S. under Trump has used Twitter in an unprecedented manner to issue threats against key rivals such as China and Iran, and to a lesser extent, North Korea. These countries are giving it back with their own provocative — even incendiary — comments.

Now, the first comprehensive research on the subject by King’s College London researchers shows that Twitter diplomacy during crises could substantially exacerbate tensions. In the physical world, the U.S. enjoys military, technological and economic advantages none of its rivals can match. But on Twitter, the research finds, the U.S. is most vulnerable:

20 percent of the country’s population is on the platform, compared with 3 percent for Iran and 6 percent for Russia. Twitter is banned in China.

That allows these other countries to use Twitter for international posturing and signaling without needing to be concerned about how domestic audiences are consuming the messages. The Chinese Foreign Ministry and the country’s embassies, for example, use Twitter even though the platform is banned domestically for ordinary citizens. In the U.S., on the other hand, every tweet by the president raises political stakes for him, his administration and the country.

“Increasingly, what we’re beginning to see is that social media has made diplomacy become more of a public thing … we’re seeing diplomacy take place between officials in a public setting where everyone has an audience to it,” says Alexi Drew, a co-author of the King’s College London study.

Twitter, which has a limit of 280 characters per post, doesn’t allow for nuance. “Such tweets are having an impact on what diplomacy is starting to look like,” Drew says. 

It isn’t the software, though, that leaves the U.S. more vulnerable to Twitter diplomacy. It’s the imbalance in the audience that Twitter offers its users.

“If you look at the Iran-U.S. case, when Iranian politicians are using Twitter to inject themselves into the U.S. domestic foreign policy debate, they are going to have a larger audience because there’s a huge U.S. market,” Drew says. “But American officials and politicians can’t have the same leverage via Twitter because there is no Iranian Twitter market. And the same is true of Russia, of China.”

To effectively reach audiences in these countries, American diplomats and leaders must use other platforms, says Ilan Manor, a digital diplomacy scholar at the University of Oxford. He cites the example of former President Barack Obama, who used YouTube, rather than Twitter, to wish the Iranian people a happy New Year, because YouTube is more popular in Iran.

To communicate with people in China, Weibo is more effective than Twitter or Facebook. The Israeli Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, operates an Arabic-language Facebook profile to reach people in Iraq, where Facebook is popular. 

Governments principally use social media platforms to reach out to their domestic audience. Lithuania, for example, wants to reverse its brain drain, so the government is using LinkedIn to connect with young workers. The Obama administration used Twitter to proactively sell the Iran nuclear deal to the American public.

Indeed, says Drew, much of Trump’s “very blunt, very escalatory and direct” Twitter diplomacy might actually be aimed not at a foreign policy audience but “to connect with his domestic base.”

“He’s writing from the position of what appears to be a strong man, like a powerful, aggressive man, because that’s what he believes he is and that’s what his voting base wants him to be,” Drew says.

The problem for the U.S., Drew says, is that Trump’s base — and others in the country — also get to see how Iran, Russia, China and North Korea respond to the president’s tweets. “[Iran’s] Ayatollah [Ali] Khomeini reads it. Kim Jong Un reads it. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping reads it — all these people also read the tweets where he is promising fire and fury,” Drew says. “They are reacting to it.” That in turn forces Trump to offer an even more shrill response so as not to appear weak to his voters — fueling a cycle that experts say might well push America toward its first Twitter war.