Social media sites are predicated on the concept of reciprocity. When a user follows one of his peers, he expects his peer to respond in kind. The same is true with content engagement. The basis of social media is a social contract where users “Like” and “Share” one another’s content. Given that the ultimate goal of social media users is to amass a sizable following, and be “Liked” and “Shared” into stardom, failure to engage with a peer’s content can lead to sanctions such as one user unfollowing or un- friending a peer. It is for this reason that social media use is so time consuming. Not only do users need to create content and share their success, failures and musings, they are also required to constantly surveil their peers and “Like” peers’ content. Sociologist Deborah Lupton refers to such activities as “social labor”.
Reciprocity is also a basic tenant of offline diplomacy. When two states recognize one another, they exchange Ambassadors and erect Embassies in each other’s capital cities. At times, reciprocity is limited by financial constraints. Small or poor states cannot afford to operate a vast network of physical Embassies leading to the appointment of “non-resident Ambassadors”. Yet even in these cases, the tenant of reciprocity exists as each country appoints an individual as its official representative to another country. For instance, while Israel has an Ambassador to the Bahamas, he resides in New York City. Nonetheless, he is responsible for maintaining and strengthening ties between the Bahamas and Israel and acts as an official intermediary between the Bahamas and Israel.
An interesting question is whether reciprocity is binding in the realm of digital diplomacy? On the one hand, following the official Twitter account of another country does not amount to recognizing that country. Indeed, diplomats and MFAs use social media to follow the activities and policies of other states. This could include allies, friends and foes. Moreover, diplomats often use social media to signal their intentions and possible policy shifts. A harshly worded tweet, or a response to a tweet, may signal a willingness to escalate or de-escalate tensions between states. Such was the case only last week when the Israeli MFA “edited” a tweet published by Iran’s Mission to the UN in Vienna. The Israeli MFA even tagged the Iranian mission to make sure that the signal was received (see below).
On the other hand, following the account of another state may be indicative of mutual relations. When the US restored its ties with Cuba in 2015, one of the first acts of the US State Department was to follow the Cuban MFA on Twitter. The Cuban MFA soon reciprocated by following the State Department. And while a “follow” on Twitter is not the digital equivalent of establishing an Embassy, it is possible that enemy states will refrain from following one another on Twitter as this may attract the attention of third parties such as reporters who will rush to publish an article “Israel recognizes Iran on Twitter”.
To explore whether diplomatic reciprocity online differs from reciprocity offline I decided to analyze “Follow-mies”- instances in which enemy states follow one another on social media such as Twitter. If enemy states follow one another on Twitter, then the rules of offline and online diplomacy may be different. Yet if enemy, or conflicted states avoid following one another online, then perhaps a “follow” does signal a minimal level of amicable relations between states.
I began by exploring the Arab World’s relationship with the Israeli MFA. Notably, since 1978, Israel has signed peace agreements or bi-lateral accords with a host of countries including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and, most recently, the UAE. Recent years have seen un-official ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia and according to some publications the leaders of both countries have met several times. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Israel also has unofficial ties with Iraq and the Israeli MFA often converse online with followers from Iraq. Finally, Israel has signed several accords with Palestine yet the two states have not exchanged Ambassadors or erected Embassies in each other’s capitals.
My analysis suggests that the online realm is disjointed and that states choose not to follow one another, whether they have bi-lateral ties, peace accords or unofficial ties. The Israeli MFA, on its part, follows the Twitter account of several Arab MFAs including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the UAE. Yet, as seen in the images below, only Morocco and the UAE follow the Israeli MFA. Moreover, the Israeli MFA is not followed by its peers in Jordan and Egypt, with which Israel has peace accords, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, with which Israel has unofficial ties, or Qatar, whose relationship with Israel is “complicated”. Israel, on its part, does not follow Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Iraq. In other words, the Israeli MFA follows only those countries with which Israel has official, offline ties yet this following is not always reciprocated on Twitter.
It is worth mentioning that the Israeli MFA does not follow official Palestinian channels be it the Palestinian MFA, the PLO’s negotiations bureau or Palestine’s Embassy to the US. The same is true of Palestine whose official accounts do not follow the Israeli MFA, as shown below.
Digital following is also uncommon among feuding Arab states. As the image below shows, the MFAs of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Iran do not follow one another on Twitter. Although these states are not at war, relations between them remain tense. For instance, Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing over regional hegemony while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have just merged from a protracted diplomatic crisis. In none of these cases was I able to identify “follow-mies” or enemy and feuding states that follow one another on Twitter.
As a final example, I analyzed whether the Israeli MFA or the US State Department follow, or are followed, by Iranian diplomats. In recent years Iran has substantially expanded its use of Twitter and in addition to the Iranian MFA, the Iranian foreign minister has a Twitter account as does the MFA spokesperson. Until the recent elections, Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, also operated a Twitter account. As can be seen in the images below, the Iranian example also fails to yield “follow-mies”. Israel and the US do not follow any Iranian channels on Twitter, and Iran responds by not following the Israeli or US MFAs.
The examples reviewed in this post suggest that MFAs may ascribe importance to who they follow and do not follow online. Although diplomats now use social media to signal other states, and gather information on other states’ policies, enemy states and feuding states do not follow one another on Twitter. There are even instances when states do not follow one another due to tense albeit existing relations as is the case with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. “Follow-mies” do not appear to exist on Twitter. Yet this does not mean that states ignore one another’s digital content. For instance, while Iran and Israel have no digital ties, Israel does at times respond to Iranian tweets as seen in the example below.