Selfie Diplomacy- Analyzing Profile Pictures of World Leaders on Twitter

Last week I published an analysis of the Twitter profile pictures of MFAs (ministries of foreign affairs). I argued that such images may be a form of Selfie Diplomacy as profile pictures enable social media users to construct an online identity and communicate that identity to their networks.

This week I endeavored to analyze the Twitter profile pictures of world leader. Notably, I analyzed leaders’ personal account rather than their institutional ones (i.e., @BarackObama rather than @POTUS). The reason for this choice was an attempt to understand if such accounts are used for international or intra-national purposes.

Robert Putnam has suggested that diplomacy is a two level game involving the intra-national and international arenas. National leaders have to form intra-national coalitions to ratify international treaties or agreements. Likewise, leaders rely on achievements at the international level to strengthen their intra-national political standing.

I had assumed that leaders’ personal Twitter accounts would have to reconcile the tension between these two levels. On the one hand, the national leader is a domestic political figure and thus his Twitter account would target the domestic population.  On the other hand, leaders’ accounts are followed by MFAs, diplomats and foreign affairs journalists and must therefore also target international audiences.

Using a sample of 57 world leaders, I was able to identify five broad categories that offer insight into the use of Twitter profile pictures by world leaders.

Category Number One: Looking to the Future

The first category I identified included leaders whose Twitter profile picture looks to future generations. This category was comprised mostly of profile pictures featuring leaders alongside children or the future generations for whom the national leader labors. Such pictures seem to target the intra-national level as they portray the leader as the guardian of the nation and caretaker of its future. Surprisingly, such profile pictures were used by leaders from a wide range of countries spanning from Australia to Iran and Scandinavia. Examples of such profile pictures may be seen below.



Australia.jpg (Australia)


Category Number Two: Sending a Domestic Message

The second category I identified was comprised of Twitter profile pictures which are utilized by leaders to send a message to the domestic population. Thus, such pictures also focus on the intra-national level. Leaders in this category seem to use their Twitter profile pictures to make a political statement much like an individual who changes his profile picture following a national referendum or a terrorist attack.

For instance, Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin uses his Twitter profile picture to make a statement regarding violence and incitement in Israel, an issue close to his heart. In the picture, shown below, Rivlin is speaking to members of Israeli youths movements about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Thus, Rivlin uses his profile picture  to remind Israelis of the danger of hate speech, political radicalization and violence.

Israel pres

Conversely, the President of Kenya seems to be sending domestic audiences a different message. His profile picture, shown below, includes the headline “transforming Kenya”. As such, the President is laying out his vision for the future of the country while obviously celebrating his accomplishments thus far as is evident by the celebratory banner bearing the colors of the Kenyan flag.


Interestingly, the picture of the President is also reminiscent of a famous image of another black leader, Martin Luther Kings (see below). This may be a purposeful attempt by the President to associate himself with a famous global political icon. If this is indeed the case than this may be an example of how the international and the intra-national collide on the Twitter profiles of world leaders.


Another example of domestic messaging is the Twitter profile picture of the Spanish President. In the image, shown below, the President is tacking a Selfie with a group of enthusiastic youngsters. Given that the rate of unemployment amongst the young in Spain is about 45%, this image may serve as a political statement attesting to the President’s focus on Spanish youngsters. It may also serve to demonstrate that he has their political support.


The final example, shown below, is from the President of Panama who is celebrating two years in office. His profile picture includes a straight forward domestic statement- “Two years of putting Panama first”.


Category Number Three: Leadership

The third category I identified is that of images depicting leadership. Such is the case with profile pictures in which a leader’s image is set against the backdrop of the national flag while he is talking to the nation onstage .

The first example of this category, shown below, is from the Twitter account of former UK prime-minister David Cameron. Here Cameron is shown talking onstage while the Union Jack is visible in the background.


Notably, the new UK prime-minister Theresa May has chosen a similar image for her Twitter profile.  The colors of May’s picture are those of the UK flag (white, blue and red) while Mrs. May is also addressing an audience. However, May’s picture also includes a mission statement- to make the UK a “country that works for everyone”.


A similar, yet perhaps more subtle image, is employed by the Israeli prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As can be seen below, Netanyahu seems to be on his way to address a large crowd. The entire image is made up of two colors, blue and white, which are the colors of Israel’s national flag.

Israel PM.pngThe final example, shown below, is from the Twitter channel of Turkey’s President. In the image, the President is shot against the backdrop of the Turkish flag while in the smaller image he holds his hand to his chest. This image seems to portray a dedicated leader who holds his nation dear to heart.


In summary, this category also seems to target the intra-national level and focuses on leadership traits.

Category Number Four: Institutionalism

The fourth category I identified included Twitter profile pictures of leaders’ official residence, official title, official duties or official buildings. Such images seem to focus on the institutional role of a leader as the head of state. In such images the leader is not represented as a political figure but rather as a national institution that is in charge of the smooth running of the government. Such images may be employed by leaders who wish to show that they represent their entire nation and not one group or faction. Below are some examples of such profile pictures.

egypt.png(Egypt, words in Arabic Say “Abdelfattah Elsisi, President of Egypt”)

lithuania.png(President of Lithuania)

russia pm.png

(Prime Minster of Russia)

The image below, taken from the Twitter channel of Argentina’s President, does not include his official residence but rather his inauguration as President. Thus this image again portrays the leader as a national institution.


The final example includes the profile picture of Narendra Modi, President of India. In the image, the President is speaking in his official capacity on India’s 69th Independence Day celebration. Here again the colors that dominate the image (white, green and orange) are those of the Indian national flag.

 India Modi.png

Category Number Five: Branding the Nation

The final category of profile pictures I analyzed seems to focus on both the intra-national and international level. Such pictures portray the leader against the backdrop of the national scenery, national landscape, national monuments or the nation’s capital. These pictures may be used in order to draw an association between the leader’s traits and the traits of the country.  In other words, the leader’s brand is used to promote the national brand. As such, this category is the only one I found to focus on the two levels of diplomacy.

The first example, shown below, is the profile picture of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.  Rouhani has been hailed as the new face of a new Iran, an Iran that wants to end its isolation and return to the League of Nations even at the cost of its nuclear program. The profile picture of Iran’s President seems to mesh between the old Iran and the new one, the history of Iran and its new outward orientation.

Iran Rouhani.png

The second example, shown below, is the profile picture of Russia’s President. In the picture, a tall and proud Putin can be seen behind the official Presidential seal while set against the backdrop of a beautiful image of Moscow. This picture may be an attempt to create a Halo effect where Brand Putin contributes to Brand Russia. An ulterior reading would state that this image is actually an intra-national message saying – L’État, c’est moi.

Russia Pres.png

The final examples, shown below, portray the leader against the backdrop of the national scenery or the national landscape.






This post aimed to analyze the Twitter profile picture of world leaders. Taking into account the two level model of diplomacy, the post suggests that most leaders target the domestic level rather than the international one. When leaders’ profile pictures do target the international level, it appears to be mostly for branding purposes.

However, the tension between the intra-national and international level was evident as many world leaders chose not to have a Twitter profile picture at all as can be seen in the many examples below.



south africa.png

(South Africa)







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