The Decline and Fall of Twitter? Social Media and the Future of Digital Diplomacy

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These are the five stages of grief according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and the five emotions expressed by Twitter users since the social network was acquired by Elon Musk. It began with denial, specifically promises by Twitter executives and Musk himself that the social network would remain a vibrant town square. Next, came anger as users learnt about Musk’s decision to charge for the blue verification badge, or the exit of senior employees including those charged with data privacy. The bargaining stage was best manifested when author Stephen King tweeted he would not pay more than 10$ to be a verified user to which Musk replied “what about 8$”. Soon, a form of collective depression spread through Twitter magnified by gloomy tweets from former executives and scholars decrying “the end of an era”. Over the past week or so, acceptance has displaced depression as user after user announced his decision to leave Twitter and search for a new digital home.

The decline and possible fall of Twitter has impacted millions of individuals across the world. Some have come to rely on Twitter to learn about world events, others have spent years cultivating a mass following while still others’ mental health relies on their close connections with peers. Among the many professions to be impacted by Twitter’s demise is diplomacy. Over the past decades diplomats’ have eagerly embraced Twitter, and although foreign ministries (MFAs) now use a host of digital technologies many rely on Twitter to narrate state policies, comment on crises in real time, frame foreign policies, communicate with journalists, parliamentarians and opinion makers and cultivate an attractive national persona.  

The current War in Ukraine best demonstrates the extent to which states and diplomats rely on Twitter. The Ukrainian government has used Twitter to exert public pressure on tech companies and force them out of the Russian market. Moreover, Ukraine has used Twitter to crowdfund its war effort, launch the “Brave” nation branding campaign, recruit hackers for a hacker army, document alleged Russian war crimes and publicize its military achievements. Crucially, through social media Ukraine has prevented other stories from dominating news cycles. NATO, on its part, has used Twitter to debunk Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation; the US has used Twitter to rally allies to Ukraine’s side while the UK has used the social network to offer real time analysis of the fighting in Ukraine thus shaping media reports. Twitter has become an indispensable tool in the diplomatic toolkit, especially at a time when people turn to Twitter to make sense of crises and international affairs.

Even if they migrated to new social networks, it would take MFAs and governments years to attain similar levels of influence. Not to mention the fact that Twitter has also impacted diplomacy in profound ways ranging from states’ use of the social network to publish international accords or diplomats’ willingness to engage and interact with social media users in Q&A sessions. Additionally, over the past decade states and officials have slowly lifted part of the veil that normally shrouds diplomatic activity meeting the Wilsonian vision of more open covenants of diplomacy.  

The main question on diplomats’ minds is- what is Musk trying to achieve? After investing 44 Billion Dollars in acquiring Twitter, Musk seems determined to facilitate the fall of Twitter. His idea of selling blue verification badges failed miserably as companies lost billions of dollars due to fake verified accounts. Such was the case when a verified company, Lockheed Martini, announced it would no longer sell arms to Israel or Saudi Arabia. The verified account George W. Bushs tweeted that he misses killing Iraqis while the verified EliLillyco tweeted it would stop charging patients for insulin. Next, Musk himself has embarked on tweeting tirades including populist attacks on the ‘elite’ media who wish to stop the CEO from “elevating citizen journalism”. Musk has even blocked the accounts of comedians who mocked him.

Yet most distressing has been Musk’s management style that includes mass layoffs, major policy shifts announced via emails and his decision to close those departments tasked with ensuring the reliability of information on Twitter or how users’ data could be monetized. Despite the maxim that all press is good press, and that greed is good, Musk is already facing substantial challenges including the mass exodus of advertisers and a denouncement by President Biden.

A review of tweets, Op Eds and media articles suggest that Musk may be trying to achieve three, possible goals. First, he may be trying to drive Twitter bankrupt at which point he may be able to self the company for parts. Twitter’s real value lies in its intellectual property or the algorithms it has developed over the years, algorithms that allow it to analyze swarms of data, predict human behavior and anticipate users’ needs and desires. Similarly, Musk may sell the data gathered by Twitter on its users, though this may be challenged in courts. This would lead to the ultimate demise of Twitter and would serve as a major blow to digital diplomacy.  

Second, Musk may be trying to run Twitter in accordance with his “free speech absolutism”. In his eyes, the blue verification badge stifled freedom of expression as users gravitate towards verified accounts, discounting the ideas, opinions and beliefs of average users. While Musk may have a point, the blue notification has proven important in combating lies, misinformation and disinformation; something that no Twitter algorithm has been able to do effectively. The blue verification has been instrumental in shaping the town square Musk seems so interested in securing. The erosion of the town square, and increase in disinformation, would place greater pressure on diplomats as they try to combat disinformation and misinformation. In a world where everyone and no one is verified, the possibility for opinion manipulation will be magnified exponentially.

Finally, there are those who claim that Musk is trying to redesign the business model of social media networks. Musk may believe that the current business model, where users are the products sold to advertisers, has gone bust. Twitter is losing 4 million dollars daily while Facebook’s stock has plummeted by nearly 2/3. Musk, according to some, plans to invent a new model where Twitter’s real users are those who tweet, not advertisers. For this reason, he sought to sell the blue verification badge. Each user who purchased a blue verification badge would become an actual consumer of Twitter. If he sold millions of blue badges, Musk could reduce Twitter’s financial reliance on advertisers. Such a shift in the social media business model could bring many benefits. Twitter would be beholden to its users, not advertisers, and would thus invest more money in content moderation and fighting falsities as it catered to the needs and desires of average users. This would lead to a new era in social media, one in which diplomacy could actually flourish.  

Only time will tell what Musk is truly trying to achieve. Yet his erosion of the town square threatens to undo a decade of digital diplomacy. The main question is whether Twitter will survive long enough for Musk’s plan to come to fruition.  

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