What Is The Role of Humor in Digital Diplomacy?

The past two years have seen the growing use of humor and satire in digital diplomacy. Memes, GIFs, pop references and BLOCK CAPITALS have become another instrument in the diplomatic toolkit. One of the earliest successful uses of humor in digital diplomacy occurred during the Crimea Crisis of 2014 when the Canadian Mission to NATO published the Tweet below. Within hours the Tweet came to dominate the Twitter-verse and was quoted by media organization throughout the world.

The Canadian Tweet achieved three goals. First, it ridiculed and discredited Russian spokespersons who argued that Russian troops had crossed the border into Ukraine “by accident”. Second, it focused media attention on Russia’s claims thus also applying pressure on Russian policy makers who were managing the Crimean Crisis. Third, the Tweet articulated Canada’s own policy of refusing to accept Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Finally, the Tweet helped the Canadian Mission to NATO attract more followers.

However, it all happened by sheer luck. An intern at the Canadian Mission decided on his own accord to apply humor to a volatile scenario that could have escalated into a major war in Europe. A different humorous Tweet, carrying a similar message could have exploded in the Mission’s face. Indeed, some could have accused Canada of making jokes while a country was being carved up by world powers. Yet Canada’s Tweet demonstrated to diplomats that humor could be used online to obtain diplomatic goals. In other words, MFAs and Embassies soon found that they could use humor strategically.

Humor can in-fact help diplomats obtain both online and offline goals. For instance, Embassies can use humor to develop a unique brand. Sociologists have argued that social media sites are modern markets on which individuals trade themselves. On Twitter and Facebook, all users attempt to attract the largest number of followers and the most attention from peers. This is achieved by developing a unique online presence with its own appearance, tone and areas of interest. The age of iPhones and iPads is thus also the age of iBrands.

Some Embassies now employ humor and satire to develop an iBrand. Such is the case with the Russian Embassy to London. In 2016 the Embassy Tweeted the message below mocking US President Barack Obama and calling him a Lame Duck. Many saw this Tweet as abrasive and undignified. Others felt it reduced diplomacy to mere bickering. And yet the Tweet went viral carrying the Embassy’s message to India, Australia, Japan, Israel and many more. News agencies the world over reported on the Tweet and it featured prominently in televised newscasts.

A few months later the Embassy turned to humor again in order to berate the British government’s investigation of the Salisbury gas attack. In one Tweet, the Embassy suggested that the UK authorities were incompetent and required the help of the fictitious Agatha Christie detective Poirot. Another Tweet employed Munch’s famous picture to express shock at how badly the investigation was run.

In all three cases, the Embassy did not use humor merely to poke fingers at the UK government. Rather, the Embassy adopted a unique tone and online persona. The Embassy’s iBrand is one of direct or “in your face” diplomacy. Russia’s diplomats in London do not mince words or hide behind diplomatic messages filled with double entendre. The Embassy speaks truth to power and it speaks plainly so that plain people can understand it. This may prove an appealing iBrand as it corresponds with the global backlash against political correctness, the rebuke of globalization and the emergence of abrasive politics.

In addition, diplomatic institutions may strategically use humor so as to breach algorithmic confines. For Embassies, Twitter is both blessing and a curse. While the platform enables diplomats to interact with followers, such interactions are limited by algorithms. An Embassy’s Tweet will be seen only by its followers or individuals that have expressed some interest in diplomacy or international relations. The vast majority of Twitter users will never see the majority of Tweets published by Embassies and ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) .

 

Yet Tweets that go viral breach such algorithmic confines. They are shared by large numbers of users and thus help carry diplomatic messages far and wide. Moreover, they increase the diversity of the audiences an Embassy can interact with. Equally important, viral messages can bring global media attention to an important issue. The Israeli Embassy to Washington was recently able to achieve all these goals. In response to a Tweet published by Iran’s leader, and calling for the destruction of Israel, the Embassy Tweeted a GIF from a millennial cult film asking “Why are you so obsessed with me”? The Tweet soon made headlines in Europe, America, South America, South East Asia and even China. Notably, all news reports stated that Israel used humor to “slam” the Iranian leader. Yet these news reports also included the Iranian threat while discussing similar threats made in the past against Israel. Israeli diplomats were thus able to attract media attention to Iran’s policy through the use of humor.

Finally, Embassies and MFAs may use humor so as to achieve offline goals. For instance, one may obtain offline legitimacy through online humor. Such was the case in 2014 when Israel seized an Iranian ship bound for the Gaza Strip. According to Israel, the ship contained dozens of weapons that were hidden under Iranian cement bags. In response to Israel’s allegations, Iranian diplomats took to Twitter while ridiculing Israeli leaders. One Tweet joked that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu went as far as seizing a ship to get his hands on excellent Iranian cement. Another Tweet used the famous tagline “Got Milk?” to ask Netanyahu “Got Cement?”.

In Iran’s case it was not just the humor that mattered, but the platform. In 2014 social media were still imbued with the hopeful spirit of the Arab Spring. They were viewed as positive tools that help spread democracy. By turning to Twitter, Iranian diplomats were forging a new image for their country that negated the stereotypical view of Iran as a religious autocracy. By using humor on Twitter Iran could thus be associated with tolerance and acceptance rather than religious hardliners.  For this reason, the use of humor itself was also important. It suggested that Iran used the same platforms as the West, and the same language. The new image of Iran would that was forged, among other, on Twitter would play an important role in legitimizing Iran and ending its status as a global pariah through the Iran nuclear agreement.

 

It is important to note that humor can also backfire. Embassies and diplomats that use humor may soon be accused of being obtuse and making jokes while peoples’ lives are being destroyed. Indeed, not all resident of Crimea laughed when Canada took jabs at Russia online. Excessive use of humor might also harm one’s reputation. Embassies that use too many jokes may soon be seen as a joke. The same is true of individual diplomats. Satire risks harming the gravitas that diplomats are endowed with and which they rely on to achieve their goals. Thus, as is the case with other instruments in the diplomatic pouch, humor should also be used strategically and with a firm goal in mind.