On Thursday, ahead of his trip to Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has made no secret of his admiration for his counterpart, Shinzo Abe, took to Twitter to express his excitement about his upcoming visit — in Japanese. Abe, who follows only three people on Twitter, including Modi, responded that he was “eagerly waiting” for Modi to land. A gimmicky demonstration of bonhomie before a keenly observed foreign trip, perhaps, but also an example of just how much diplomatic business is being transacted on Twitter and other social networks these days.
It might seem counterintuitive that a profession in which so much — war and peace, literally — can hinge on a badly phrased sentence or two would wholeheartedly embrace a medium often derided as the place where nuance goes to die. Yet, a 2014 study on how heads of state, foreign ministers and their offices use the microblogging service found that more than two-thirds of heads of state are on Twitter. Evidently, its clarity and direct reach outweighs the risk of a diplomatic fracas following a careless hashtag.
Kerfuffles abound, too. While Modi and Abe have been showing off their friendship in 140 characters, Twitter has also become the somewhat surreal staging area for squabbling between Russia and the West, shadowing the long-running Ukraine crisis. On Tuesday, after Ukrainian forces found 10 Russian paratroopers in eastern Donetsk, Moscow claimed an accidental incursion. But Kiev was not appeased, and spent Wednesday pleading, “#UkraineUnderAttack #RussiaInvadedUkraine RT PLZ”. On Thursday, Canada’s Nato mission in Brussels entered the contest for Twitter supremacy and helpfully tweeted a map for “Russian soldiers who keep getting lost & ‘accidentally’ entering #Ukraine”, causing much internet mirth. The Russian delegation fired back with a map depicting the “contemporary geography of #Europe”. Twitter serves the diplomatic imperative of snarky feuding far better than boring old communiques.
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