Can #DigitalDiplomacy Be Subtle?

Winston Churchill famously stated that “Diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell in a way that he actually looks forward to the journey”. Yet diplomacy is also a subtle art. A diplomat must always decide on a message and the intensity of his message. High intensity messages are meant to be heard loud and clear. In addition, the delivery of high intensity messages is in itself a performance meant to raise attention or make one’s stance abundantly clear. Famous examples include Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe at the UN in New York or the Israeli Ambassador to the UN tearing up a resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Medium intensity messages are usually targeted at more specific audiences. Moreover, their method of delivery is far more subtle than that of high intensity messages. A good example may be a press release that comments on an issue with the expectation of garnering attention from other actors, diplomats and journalists yet without making headlines.

Finally, low intensity messages are targeted at an even smaller audiences or used to purposefully decrease tensions. Such is the case with a short quote from an unnamed source given to a specific journalist.

An interesting question is can digital diplomacy also be used subtlety? After all, aren’t all tweets equal? Even more importantly, can the intensity of digital diplomacy messaging be used as a signal between actors as is the case with offline diplomacy?

A recent disagreement between Israel and Turkey offers a valuable case study.

Introduction

Nearly two week ago, the Israeli government decided to place metal detectors outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The decision, which followed a terror attack the claimed the lives of two Israeli policemen, soon led to increased tensions throughout the region. Arab and Muslim leaders claimed that Israel had altered the status quo on the Temple Mount and was attempting to re-assert its control over the holy site. Some leaders went as far as suggesting that Israel was attempting to “hijack” the Temple Mount. Tensions soon led to violent protests in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a terror attack that saw the murder of three Israeli settlers.

Throughout the Temple Mount crisis, Turkish President Erdogan took a firm stance against Israel. One of his first comments regarding the crisis came in the form of the Tweet seen below. The tweet, published on July 22, included a statement in which Erdogan alleges that Israel was using excessive force against Muslims.

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However, in the statement Erdogan is mentioned as the Term President of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and not as the President of Turkey. Moreover, the statement was not re-tweeted in full by the Turkish MFA but appeared as a link to the President’s remarks.

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The fact that the President took to Twitter, as opposed to giving a televised address, and the fact that the statement was not fully re-tweeted by the Turkish MFA could suggest that this was a medium-intensity message; one that made Turkey’s position clear but did not make headlines across the world.  Indeed the Israeli government, and the Israeli MFA, decided not to respond to Erdogan’s statement in a possible attempt to lower tensions between the two countries.

Erdogan Switches to High Intensity Messages

On the 25th of July, the Turkish President decided to increase the intensity of his message. While giving an address in the Turkish Parliament, Erdogan claimed that Israel was trying to steal the Temple Mount. The President further stated that all Muslims should act to protect the holy site from Israel’s attempt to “defile it”.

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As can be expected, this high intensity message soon made headlines throughout the world with newspapers in the UK, India, Australia and France all printing the President’s harsh words. Notably, Erdogan’s comments also made headlines in Israel and were reported on in newscasts and newspapers.

It is unclear whether or not Erdogan wished to escalate tensions with the Israel. Yet the strengths of his message, both in terms of location (Parliament) and phrasing were heard loud and clear in Jerusalem and other capitals leading to an Israeli response.

Israel Responds with Medium Intensity Messages

On the 26th of July, the Israeli foreign ministry officially responded to Erdogan’s attack. The medium of choice, however, was not a televised address by the Prime Minister or an interview with a high ranking Israeli official. Instead, the MFA published a series of tweets which can be seen below.

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The tweets include harsh words against the President ranging from a reference to his large Palace to his Neo-Ottoman aspirations. Moreover, Erdogan is portrayed as absurd and distorted. However, the combination of harsh attacks and a digital medium could indicate that Israel wished to rebuke the President without further increasing tensions between both countries. The message also relates to the President rather than to Turkey as a nation.

It should also be noted that Israeli embassies throughout the world did not re-tweet the spokesperson’s statement in full, if at all. Thus, the Israeli tweets were likely targeted at journalists and the Turkish MFA which was indeed tagged in the image accompnaying the first tweet.

As might be expected from a medium-intensity message, the Israeli response was featured in domestic news cycles yet not in a prominent way.

Turkey Responds with Low Intensity Messages

Soon after the Israeli MFA published its twitter attack on Erdogan, the Turkish MFA also took to Twitter. By deciding to respond via Twitter, rather than another public address, the Turkish MFA may have signaled a shared desire to avoid escalation. Indeed, the Turkish MFA did not publish a series of tweets but a single tweet with a link to a press statement. A single tweet is of course far less prominent on an MFA’s feed and is likely to attract attention from other diplomats or journalists.

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The language of the press release itself is also far less inflammatory that Erdogan’s parliamentary address (see below).  While it does refer to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and addresses religious freedom, it also calls for common sense and a return to the status quo.

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Israel Has the Final Word (s)

Interestingly, Israel’s final response sent mixed signals. On the one hand, the Israeli MFA published two tweets claiming that Turkey, who occupies Northern Cyprus and represses minorities and freedom of speech, should not lecture Israel, the “only democracy in the Middle East”. The publication of these tweets, alongside their language, can be regarded as a medium-intensity message which risked escalating relations with Turkey.

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But! Soon thereafter the Israeli MFA deleted all Tweets dealing with Turkey. This was a low-intensity message and a possible digital gesture towards Turkey signaling a desire to end the rift.

As of writing, the Turkish MFA has not commented further on the Temple Mount or Israel.

Conclusion

The Israeli-Turkish case study evaluated in this post offers three conclusions. First, using digital platforms as opposed to traditional media may in itself be a form of messaging. Second, different uses of Twitter translate into different messages. A series of tweets may be seen as a medium-intensity message while a single tweet with a link may be seen as a low-intensity message. Lastly, the deletion of tweets may also be a form of low-intensity messaging.

Thus, digital diplomacy too is a subtle art form.

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