In 2012, Philip Seib published the book “Real-Time Diplomacy”. Seib argued that digital technologies in general, and social media in particular, had expedited the practice of diplomacy. The reason for this was the acceleration in news coverage made possible thanks to the emergence of citizen journalism. Seib viewed social media as a competitive arena in which multiple actors, including the media, hope to shape audiences’ understanding of world events. During the Arab Spring, citizen journalists became prominent actors in shaping social media users’ understanding of events as they offered on the ground, real-time coverage of democratic revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. Their role became even more important as traditional media outlets integrated reports from citizen journalists into their coverage of events. What followed was the new practice of “real-time journalism”. Given that diplomats also seek to shape audience’s worldviews, and given that diplomats compete over the attention of social media users opposite the media, real-time journalism resulted in “real-time diplomacy” or diplomats’ new practice of commenting on world events, and narrating world events in near-real time.
Of course, much has changed since 2012 with some social networks becoming de-facto news outlets where journalists, diplomats and experts comment and narrate events. Twitter is the premier social network for real time journalism and real time diplomacy. Indeed, diplomats use Twitter to interact with journalists, experts and other diplomats, while Facebook and Instagram are predominantly used for public and diaspora outreach. Moreover, many times diplomas and world leaders first react to world events by publishing a tweet as this constitutes a short burst of diplomacy. Tweets are thus a tool to offer a preliminary reaction to an ongoing event while more elaborated messages are posted on Facebook at a later time.
Notably, the Russia-Ukraine War has also impacted real time diplomacy in two ways. First, the war has brought to the fore new actors- these are OSINT or open source intelligence experts who offer followers real-time analysis of military operations. Second, the Russia-Ukraine war has seen the growing use of humor to comment on unfolding events and crises. As soon as an event begins to trend on Twitter, related GIFs and Memes begin to circulate online, at times further accelerating the speed of diplomacy. Memes and GIFS can go viral drawing mass attention to a certain event. This then increases the pressure on diplomats and leaders to comment on an event.
The new dynamics of Real Time Diplomacy was made evident last week when two rockets fell in Polish territory, spurring fears that Russia had deliberately or mistakenly fired on a NATO member states. Within an hour of the initial report, Twitter was abuzz with many users commenting on the event, some even prophesying the beginning of WWIII. Within two hours of the initial reports, the hashtag WWIII was trending globally.
In this post I analyze the timeline of Real Time Diplomacy as it unfolded following the death of two Poles by the aforementioned rockets. Specifically, I segment Real Time Diplomacy into 9 stages. The first stage was akin to that observed by Seib in 2012. At around 8 in the evening, Tel-Aviv time, independent media outlets and citizen journalists began reporting on possible explosions in Poland caused by Russian rockets. Within a few minutes, more detailed tweets surfaced. These included the location of the explosion, its likely source and the outcome- the death of two Polish citizens. 45 minutes later, traditional media sources such as Sky News and the Associated Press published initial tweets confirming that Russian missiles had killed two Poles “according to intelligence sources”. These tweets were quite brief, which is not surprising as traditional media outlets require some time to gather and analyze facts and information. These two initial stages may be seen below.
One hour after independent news sources first mentioned the attack, GIFs and Memes were already spreading online. A Meme published by the account ‘Ukrainian Memes Forces’ had already accumulated hundreds of likes. True to the new dynamics of Twitter, as soon as GIFs and Memes were gaining traction, leaders began to tweet messages of condolence and outrage. These short tweets all included similar messages- a condemnation of the possible attack, solidarity with Poland and the promise that leaders would consult with their peers in NATO. Stages 3 and 4 are shown below.
It took nearly another hour before initial diplomatic responses were published on Twitter. While this might seem slow, one should keep in mind that diplomats reacted within two hours to an ongoing event which could have triggered a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO given that Poland is a NATO member state. The first MFAs to comment on the event were Russia, whose MFA published an urgent tweet denying any rocket fire at Poland. The Polish MFA re-tweeted a message that Polish leaders were speaking on the phone with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. The next stage, the most dangerous in terms of crisis escalation, came at about 11 Tel Aviv Time as news reports indicated that the Polish government was meeting for “emergency consultations”, while journalists quoted Zelenskyy’s call to immediately retaliate against the Russian attack. It was at this moment that the hashtag WWIII began to trend globally. Stages 5 and 6 can be seen below.
The next stage was dominated by OSINT experts. Within three hours of the initial attack, OSINT Twitter accounts had already published an image of the rocket that hit Poland; analyzed its likely source and trajectory; surmised exactly what kind of missile was used and by whom. Some concluded that the rocket which hit Poland was actually fired by Ukraine and was meant to intercept a Russian missile. Others concluded that the missile was Russian origin, but was aimed at Ukraine not Poland while still others argued that it was a Russian missile “obviously” aimed at Poland. These tweets can be seen below.
At about the same time, high level diplomats and policy makers also took to Twitter with the possible intention of crisis de-escalation. The EU’s foreign Minister and the Secretary General of NATO both commented on the explosion but stressed that they were in contact with peers and trying to collect more information. Ukraine’s President also tweeted that his nation was exchanging available information and “clarifying the facts”. It is this stage that is most important as it is indicative of two things. First, that the speed of diplomacy has indeed accelerated. But second, that diplomats know how to “buy time” and prevent the rapid escalation of an event. By commenting on the explosion, but stressing that they were still gathering facts, diplomats were able to supply followers, journalists and OSINT experts with timely information while not committing themselves to any course of action. In other words, diplomats and policy makers were able to meet the demand for real-time information while ensuring that they did not further exacerbate tensions.
The final important tweet was published two hours later. In this tweet the image speaks volumes as it depicts US Biden and US Secretary of State Blinken monitoring events in casual clothes from a hotel room. An image of Biden in the White House situation room would have triggered rumors of impending doom. Yet Blinken’s socks and Biden’s t-shirt communicate the opposite- that there is no rapid escalation, no impending doom and that they are calmly collecting information and communicating with allies. Stages 8 and 9 of real time diplomacy are shown below.
What this case study demonstrates is that Seib’s notion of real time diplomacy is now common practice. It also demonstrates that real time diplomacy still originates from citizen or independent news sources. And while Memes, GIFs and OSINT may expedite diplomacy, diplomats are now adept at using social media to buy precious time, time used to gather offline facts and initiate offline diplomatic measures to avert crisis escalation. Real time diplomacy is thus not the end of diplomacy but a diplomatic skill in which diplomats and leaders balance the need to narrate world events as they unfold with their need for time, information and accurate intelligence.