Two weeks ago, Professor David Rothkopf broadcasted a podcast about digital diplomacy. In the podcast he wonders, like many others, how past crises might have played out differently had digital tools been invented at the time. Such is the case with Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 which often serves as an exemplar of crises management and crises diplomacy. In this post, I attempt to imagine how Twitter would have impacted the Cuban Missile Crisis while focusing on four aspects of digital diplomacy
- That it increases the speed of diplomacy given that nations must comment on events in near real time
- That social media is a competitive framing environment in which media outlets and states compete over audience attention and support
- That diplomacy is more transparent as states use social media to rally support for their policies
- That rumors and misinformation may impact diplomatic processes
The Crisis will be tweeted
October 15th, 1962- U2 spy plane takes pictures of Soviet missile sites near San Cristobal, Cuba
October 16th, 1962- Tweets in Cuba describe military movement in San Cristobal
Information pertaining to the construction of missile sites in Cuba would have possibly began with Tweets published by people traveling near that area. Indeed reports of the Turkish coup attempt of 2016 began when Twitter users posted pictures of Turkish soldiers constructing checkpoints around bridges in Ankara. It is fair to assume that had Twitter existed in 1962, it would have been blocked by the Cuban government. But as is the case today, savvy social media users would have found a way around the government’s blockage.
As reports of military activity near San Cristobal began flooding local Twitter networks in Cuba, they would have come to the attention of a “digital interlocutor”. This is a term I use for Twitter news accounts that are not fully pledged media outlets, but are also not operated by just one blogger or a “would be” journalist. For instance, during the Turkish coup, the Twitter channel Conflict News began reporting on troop movements in Ankara. As Conflict News is followed by traditional media outlets, these soon began verifying reports about troop movements thus becoming verifying that an attempted coup was in progress.
Imagine, then, that on October 16th, 1962, the Conflict News account published the following two Tweets.
With the publication of these tweets, news of military movement near San Cristobal Cuba would begin to circle the globe. At the White House, President Kennedy was already being briefed on Soviet missile sites in that area following the U2 reconnaissance flight that took place the day before. Thus, it is at this moment that the information known only to the leaders of the US, Cuba and the USSR would make its way to a globally connected public sphere.
Next, having monitored online discussions about San Cristobel, the Cuban Army would have sealed off the area with checkpoints. In order to quell public and media interest in San Cristobal, the Cuban News Agency would have Tweeted that the area was closed to due to “military exercises”.
Soon, news organizations and journalists following Conflict News would have begun Tweeting about San Cristobal as well. With these Tweets, the events in Cuba would have been confirmed by a legitimate news outlet thus making their way to an even larger number of people.
At this point, the White House press secratary would have been flooded with telephone calls from journalists requesting more information. Was President Kennedy aware of the Cuban military movements in San Cristobal? Were these really just exercises? Was the US about to invade Cuba again?
President Kennedy would have had to acknowledge that the US was, in fact, aware of the events in San Cristobal. However, the President would not have needed to divulge any additional information. The fact that Soviet troops, and missiles, were also in San Cristobal could remain secret.
The White House would have then contacted a trusted journalist, such as Walter Cronkite, and “fed him” the following facts: That the President was already aware of the San Crsitobal military exercises and that the National Security Council was already assessing the situation.
October 17th, 1962: LBJ goes all the way
The following morning, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson would have also taken to Twitter. Johnson, a shrewd politician, would have realized that he too must appear to be in the thick of things. How could the Vice President ever be a Presidential hopeful without showing courage in the face of Communist aggression? Johnson would have thus tweeted the information below.
But alas Johnson would have committed the biggest mistake of all- publishing more information than needed. By stating that the US was monitoring ALL armies in Cuba, he mistakenly hinted that there was more to the San Cristobal story than met the eye.
The media would have picked up on this faux pas immediately, and so the entire Cuban crisis would be made public.
By this point, Pentagon sources would have also contacted journalists, such as Helen Thomas already a member of the White House press core. Military officials looking to pressure the President into approving a land invasion of Cuba would have ahinted to the full magnitude of events taking place just off the Cost of Florida.
Yet the US government, and the American media, would not be the only ones Tweeting about San Cristobal. The Soviets would have also been online and would have also sought to influence the framing of events. The official line from Moscow might have been- there are Soviet troops in Cuba, but they are merely advisors. This line would then be toed by the Soviet Press Agency, Pravda, and the Soviet Ministry of External relations.
And so, less than two days after he had first learned of Soviet activity in Cuba, President Kennedy would have had to make a decision, and communicate that decision to the American people. Like Kennedy, the majority Americans would have known that the Soviets were in Cuba and that something significant was happening there. Thus, if Twitter had existed in 1962, Kennedy would have had hours not days to decide whether to place a naval blockade on Cuba. Additionally, Kennedy’s televised announcement would have probably been preceded by a flurry of leaks setting the stage for his dramatic performance.
October 18, 1962: Don’t Wait for the Translation!
The following morning, Twitter would have been filled with images of the President’s address and information about Soviet ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) in Cuba.
The Soviets, in turn, would have launched their own social media blitz stating that there were no missiles in Cuba and that all Soviet troops on the Island were advisors to the Cuban military. Soviet propaganda channels would begin trolling JFK on Twitter portraying him as a hypocritical pyromaniac, the kind of leader that invades Asia with “advisors” and risks nuclear war.
But world attention would also turn to multi-lateral diplomatic forums. First, two thirds of the OAS (Organization of American States) would have supported the US blockade only to be blasted online by the Soviets for further escalating tensions and using the term “blockade” instead of “quarantine”, a phrase chosen by the Americans as quarantines were a violation of international law.
The second forum would be the UN where US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson would famously ask Soviet Ambassador Zorin “Do you deny that the USSR has placed missile sites in Cuba? Yes or No! Don’t wait for the translation”.
As this would have been the age of Twitter, the saying “Don’t wait for the translation!” would have gone viral and become a meme. People throughout the world would then use the hashtag #dont_wait_for_the_tarnslation”.
The Soviets, having been turned into a meme, would employ harsh rhetoric mentioning nuclear altercations for the first time. And so the spiral of Tweets would only further escalate the crisis and increase tensions between Moscow and Washington.
October 19th, 1962: Lippmann Goes Rogue
The following day President Kennedy would still be searching for a way out of the Cuban quagmire. To do so, he would have asked reporter Walter Lippmann to float an idea- the US would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in return for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Only that Vice President Johnson, as usual, would have been left out of the loop thus slamming Lippmann for his lack of courage in the face of communism.
The Lippmann Tweet, and Johnson’s angry response, would trigger Tweets from NATO allies fearful that the US was willing to sacrifice Turkey, and the alliance, for Cuba. Kennedy would then move to distance himself from Lippmann, and the idea of a trade. And so, one peaceful solution to the crisis would have been lost.
Of course the NATO chiefs would now also be under Twitter fire from journalists, citizens and member states. The NATO chiefs would have thus called for a NATO summit only to discover that the media had moved on as Kennedy ordered the US army to DEFCON 2. Such is the speed of digital diplomacy.
As Kennedy and his ExCom moved closer toward military action, they would have needed to lay the groundwork for the use of force. In other words, if Twitter were around in 1962, America would have had to convince the world that a military attack against Soviet missile sites in Cuba and the risk of nuclear war were justified.
The CIA would thus publish reconnaissance images of Soviet missile sites, and frame them as offensive first strike weapons, rather than defensive ones.
The Soviets would respond online by trolling the CIA’s images and attempting to contest the facts, on the one hand, and demonstrating Soviet resolve on the other. While the American public was panicking, Pravda would have argued, the Soviet public was calm having full confidence in its leadership.
At this point, the crisis would have been only three days old. While the world awaited more news, and US air force bombers circled the globe with nuclear bombs, deliberations would have continued in the ExCom.
The President, seeking a peaceful solution, would be opposed by US generals looking to end the crisis with a swift blow. Other participants, such as Bobby Kennedy, would alternate between supporting and opposing military action. Kennedy would thus try to create an even smaller forum, an ExCom within the ExCom, which was more supportive of diplomatic measures. The generals, in turn, would step up the pressure and try to force the President’s hand.
And so both sides would have resorted to using the media in order to leverage this position.
Yet dramatic events would take another twist. The Cuban opposition, routinely using Twitter to fight the Castro regime, would have published information on major changes taking place at the Soviet missile sites. The first change was that the commander of all Soviet troops on the Island had assumed the authority to order a nuclear strike given vague orders from Moscow. The second change related to persistent rumors that Soviet soldiers had been ordered to fit nuclear warheads on ICBMS.
But on Twitter, rumors are as viral as facts.
The local commander assuming nuclear authority, along with conflicting statements from Khrushchev, would cause some in the ExCom to think that Khrushchev was no longer in power. Similar speculations would be made in the media and suddenly a new story would emerge, that a coup may be underway in Moscow.
It is hard to speculate what would have happened next, or if my outline of events would have really played out this way. What is certain, is that had Twitter been around in 1962, the crisis may have ended very differently.
It is hard to imagine what past events would have looked like had social media been present. Within the scope of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is interesting to ponder if the Soviets could have ever placed their ICBMS in Cuba if Twitter and Facebook were present? Nowadays, every individual with a smartphone is a citizen journalist. Thus, any person in Cuba could have taken a picture of Soviet soldiers and uploaded it on online not to mention Soviet soldiers taking Selfies or updating their girlfriends back home by writing on their walls “Hugs and Kisses from San Cristobal”.
But it is also hard to imagine because of the immense impact digitalization has had on diplomacy. It is not just faster or more competitive, but also more transparent, more dialogic and more accountable to public opinion. As such, non-state actors and online activists could have also joined Twitter during 1962 in order to call for peace, nuclear proliferation and non-aggression pacts. Huge demonstrations could have filled the streets of Washington and other capitals demanding of a peaceful resolution to the Crisis. Such activists may have swayed public opinion thus preventing Kennedy from going to DEFCON 2 or perusing a military solution. Digitalization has thus made diplomacy more complex as new actors gain more power.
Finally, digitalization has only increased the competition between media channels, be they established ones or new media outlets. This competition increases the media’s pressure on diplomats and officials to share information which, in turn, can also dramatically impact diplomatic negotiations.
Then again, perhaps the whole Cuban Crisis could have been resolved if Khrushchev tweeted at Kennedy “Dear .@POTUS, can’t we all just get along?”