For the last month and a half I have been following the Ukraine crisis on my Twitter account. It has offered an unprecedented way to get a real understanding of what people think about the situation and how they think it should be resolved. It has given me great insights on the way individuals frame the conflict, and try to work through evidence that challenges their assumptions and belief systems. The tweets that I followed most closely consisted of messages from western reporters in the field, US policy makers and diplomats and western, mostly North American, academics. I tried to stay clear of op-eds written by policy makers since I was more interested in the messages the same people were sending via Twitter. My observations come after having churned through thousands of these messages.
- As a tool for crisis management Twitter lacks substance and credibility. In the lead up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea we were treated to a continuous stream of weighty messages from John Kerry and Samantha Power among others from the State Department and the White House. Many of these were eloquent, brilliant and carefully crafted. It was if they were writing Kennedyesque prose for the history books. Little of what they tweeted appears to have had any impact on the intended target, assuming that target was their adversary the Russian government. Many of their most earnest tweets occurred before and during the crisis in Crimea. But very little effort was made to reach out to the people of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Most of the tweets were intended to be consumed by their followers and not the beneficiaries of their policies. When the Crimea crisis wound down, diplomatic tweeting declined in both quantity and quality; a recognition I think that good old fashion diplomacy is the best way to negotiate through an impasse. Twitter isn’t really useful when your opposition won’t to talk to you, you don’t really know what their strategy is and they don’t care what you say. You end up tweeting to yourself. I give credit to the Canadian government that realized early on that their head of state and foreign minister had to physically go to Ukraine and talk to the people they wanted to influence.
- America still has a deep seated distrust of Russia and an obsession with the country that borders on the alarming, but that’s too complicated to communicate via Twitter so most tweeting is spent vilifying and discrediting Putin. It’s easier to trash talk your opponent in 140 characters than it is to be balanced and objective apparently. I was surprised and distressed by the unbridled enthusiasm – bordering on the compulsive – that all three groups – American media, American academics and American policy makers embraced the anti-Putin mantra; dissecting his every word and every decision. The analogies were all there – he was Hitler, he was Stalin, he was evil incarnate, when really all he was was just an adversary; someone who was doing something people didn’t like and worse, did it well. Psychologists call it the bad faith model of negotiation. Regardless of your opponent’s real intentions they can never be trusted – even when they make concessions.
- Field reporters hold the edge in providing fact based information and Twitter excels in getting that information to the end user who wants their information stripped free of flowery prose and heavy editorializing. Some of the best tweets weren’t messages at all but photographs sent in real time. While plenty of videos of the Maidan made it to YouTube, Twitter remained the best source for giving us a real sense of what was happening in Crimea. There we could judge for ourselves by looking at the pictures, how sinister the “invasion” of Crimea really was and how the people caught up in the crisis were reacting to it. By the time journalists had filed their stories the moment had long passed.
- There was a troubling, but clear, disconnect between what officials and journalists tweet and what ends up in official documents and in the printed press. There seems to be an implicit assumption that what is stated on Twitters stays on Twitter. Journalists and policy makers tweet with unrestrained eagerness, unsubstantiated assertions that would not hold up in print. And it isn’t just lowly tweeters like you or I, but former ambassadors to Moscow and heads of think tanks in Washington who feel comfortable making claims that lack supporting evidence. Twitter is redeemed however because rarely do unsubstantiated claims go unchallenged. The conversation that follows can be quite dramatic and entertaining to say the least. There is a leveling effect, shall we say, when high ranking officials are brought back to earth.
- The Ukraine crisis has not exactly been academe’s shining moment when it comes to tweeting useful information to policy makers. At the early stages of the crisis when it was clear that Putin was going to do something unexpected, there was a mad scramble to find anyone who had written anything of value that might shed light on the situation there. Twitter became one massive overloaded circuit of information and misinformation, relayed back and forth without any real effect on policy. The gap between academia and policy had never proven to be bigger than it was during the Crimea crisis when tweets overestimated the risks of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and disregarded information that did not conform to implicit biases. I have written extensively on this issue with most of my ideas and tweets focused on challenging the prevailing wisdom.
My earlier claims on Twitter’s limited diplomatic utility made it clear it has value by providing information to consumers. However, it’s not clear how we can expect Twitter to be an effective tool for diplomacy when unsubstantiated assertions are left to stand as facts. Twitter has no arbiter, no editor, no third party mediator who can reconcile points of view. Unfortunately it seems Twitter only helps reinforce preconceived belief systems instead of opening up and breaking down barriers. Twitter should allow us to look at the world through our adversaries’ eyes – but it doesn’t. With a system based on followers, people coalesce around those who they are more likely to agree with. That is unfortunate. Perhaps Twitter should discard the follower system and have raw information sent to each of us directly so we can judge for ourselves.
Originally published in Embassy Magazine February 4 2014
David Carment is a Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI). In addition, Professor Carment serves as the principal investigator for the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy project (CIFP). He is editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal (CFPJ) and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research.
Featured Image from Flikr