Real Time Diplomacy: How Social Media Accelerates Diplomacy

In September of 1952, the world was shocked to learn that Israel and West Germany has signed an accord promising financial reparations to the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany. Until that month, Israel had vowed to never recognize, negotiate or interact with West Germany. The accord was made possible once German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, made a special address in the German parliament partially acknowledging Germany’s collective guilt in perpetrating the Holocaust and vowing to undo some of the harm caused to Europe’s Jewish communities. The drafting of Adenauer’s statement took several months. The Chancellor first penned a draft that was passed via a German-Jewish courier to Geneva. There it was placed in the hands of a member of the local Jewish community. From Geneva it was sent to New York and then to Jerusalem. In each stage the draft was revised until it was returned to Adenauer with comments by Israeli officials and Jewish leaders. The Chancellor then penned a second draft, and a third and a fourth while each draft was passed from Germany to Geneva, New York and Jerusalem. In each draft, the precise wording of the statement was negotiated. Would Germany accept ‘blame’ for the Holocaust? ‘Collective guilt’? Would the draft reference the many Germans who saved Jews at great peril? Would the Chancellor refer to Israel and to possible German-Israeli ties in the future and would he commit Germany to paying reparations? The negotiated draft, first penned in 1951, was finally delivered in the West German parliament in 1952. Today, the draft may have been passed between the relevant actors within minutes, each using “track changes” to suggest amendments. Yet in the 1950’s, diplomacy still moved at a slow pace.

Digitalization has served as a great accelerator of diplomatic processes. As Phil Seib noted in 2012, digitalization has led to the practice of ‘real-time’ diplomacy. In this practice, diplomats comment on world events as they unfold. Social media sites in particular have accelerated the speed of diplomacy for several reasons. First, individuals now increasingly turn to social media sites to learn about the world around them. To this end, social media users follow traditional news sources (e.g., CNN, BBC News), new media sources (e.g., citizen journalists), civil society organizations and activists. Second, both traditional and new media actors now report on events as they take place. For instance, CNN first reported on a possible 2016 coup attempt in Turkey before it could even verify that a coup was underway. Third, social media users have become accustomed to consuming news in near-real time. Gone are the days when people waited for the evening newscast or the morning’s paper to learn about attempted coups, violent conflicts and diplomatic negotiations.  Notably, in their reporting, both old and new media actors hope to shape public perceptions of offline events. The practice of real-time journalism has led to real-time diplomacy as diplomats view over the attention of digital publics, while hoping to influence their understanding of events and actors.

Though scholars and diplomats agree that diplomacy is now conducted in near-real time, few studies have demonstrated how real-time diplomacy plays out in practice. A recent attack on an Israeli owned vessel off the coast of Oman offers a relevant case study. On Thursday, July 29, 2021, an Israeli owned commercial ship, flying a Liberian flag, was attacked by drones. The attack left a British national and the ship’s Romanian captain dead. Within 24 hours of the attack, the Israeli government stated that the attack was perpetrated by Iran, that Iran had used several drones in the attack and that Iran bore responsibility for the attack. In a tweeted statement, Israeli Prime-Minister, Naftali Bennet stressed that Israel had already gathered relevant intelligence and had shared this intelligence with the UK and the US. At the same time, the Israeli MFA tweeted that foreign minister, Yair Lapid, had spoken to his counterparts in the UK, the US and Romania in order to coordinate a shared response to Iran’s attack.

By Sunday August 1st, a mere two days after the attack, officials in both the UK and the US openly blamed Iran for the attack. The next day, officials from both countries turned to Twitter and accused Iran of threatening the safety of commercial shipping. US and UK officials promised a coordinated response, while the Romanian Embassy in Israel decried the ‘deliberate’ attack on the ship that left one Romanian dead.

On that same day, the Iranian foreign ministry went online in order to deny the ‘baseless’ accusations made against the country by the UK. The Iranian response did not come days or weeks after the British statement, but within hours.

By Tuesday, August 3rd, 5 days after that attack, Israeli Prime Minister Bennet published a series of tweets warning Iran of a possible Israeli response. The following day, Israeli officials were already briefing foreign Ambassadors on the attack while sharing the name of the man suspected of orchestrating the attack, a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Between the 5th and 6th of August, various coalitions and alliances also commented on the attack. One tweet, published by the UK’s foreign secretary, stated that the G7 and the EU formally condemned Iran for its destabilizing acts in the region. Another tweet indicated that the UK’s Ambassador to the UN would discuss Iran’s attack in the Security Council, while NATO also formally blamed Iran for the drone attack.

Iran on its part continued to argue that it was committed to international maritime accords and even summoned the Romanian Ambassador to protest the baseless assertions that the attack on the vessel was perpetrated by the Iranian National Guard.

To summarize, within 5 days of the attack, Israel, the UK, the US and Romania collectively identified Iran as the culprit. At the same time, diplomats in the EU, the G7 and NATO drafted and published an official condemnation of Iran. Within this narrow time frame, Israel had even identified the man behind the attack and shared its intelligence with allies, foreign Ambassadors and global social media users while Iran rebuffed these allegations as they were published.

This example demonstrates how social media accelerates the speed of diplomacy. Shared statements by groups of nations and military alliances are now drafted in hours, not months. Nations share vital intelligence as it is gathered while actors both identify culprits, and claim innocence within days of an event. The online, diplomatic response to Iran’s possible attack demonstrates how real-time diplomacy works in practice. It also demonstrates that diplomats seek to influence the worldviews of social media users. From the onset, Israel linked the attack to the UK and the US hoping to form an international coalition against Iran. The UK turned to its European allies in NATO in order to portray the attack as a threat to all commercial shipping while the US supported Israel’s assertions but remained vague with regard to its response, possibly fearing that the issue might derail nuclear talks between Iran and the US.

By today’s fast standards, the drafting of Konrad Adenauer’s statement on German reparations doesn’t seem old fashioned. It seems ancient.  

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