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How Social Media Changed Diplomacy

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With the first “real” social media website launched in 1997, and early forms of social media dating back to the 1980s, there’s probably nobody who would have imagined how far things have gone, with social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter connecting billions of people across the globe and changing the world

As the importance and role of social media grew, so did the challenges. We moved from the age of innocence, where social media was seen only as a democratising and empowering force connecting people, with social media entrepreneurs and founders seen as modern-day heroes or charismatic Sherwood outlaws of a sort, to a time where they are scrutinised and challenged.

One could argue rightfully so, given the data breaches and scandals like Facebook–Cambridge Analytica affecting hundreds of millions of people, and often shady social media campaigns influencing elections and governments.

On the other hand, missing out on social media means missing out on a lot of opportunities to connect with, and engage one’s audience, and the leaders, diplomats and most influential people, both internationally and in Serbia alike, are to be found on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or even Snapchat.

TWITTER: A PLACE FOR DIPLOMACY?

This year sees Facebook turn 15. From its beginnings in a Harvard dorm room, it has grown to become one of today’s most influential companies. It has over 2.27 billion monthly active users and around 1.5 billion daily active users – without even mentioning its flagship acquisitions, like Instagram or WhatsApp, which also have billions of users.

Launched in 2006, Twitter has over 320 million active monthly users, which is a small number compared to the giant that is Facebook, but it’s very important because of the type of the community it gathers. Twitter is profiled as the number one place for debates – known for its short format for updates – so-called ‘tweets’ of up to 240 characters.

Burson Cohn & Wolfe’s 2018 Twiplomacy study identified 951 Twitter accounts of heads of state and government and foreign ministers of 187 countries: 372 personal and 579 institutional.

By far the most popular world leader on Twitter today is U.S. President Donald Trump (54 million followers), followed by His Holiness Pope Francis (around 47 million followers across multiple accounts) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (45 million followers).

When it comes to Serbia, the most profiled accounts on Twitter are the official accounts of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (64,000 followers) and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić (41,000 followers), as well as their private accounts, with Vučić having 281,000 followers and Brnabić 16.3 thousand.

@realDonaldTrump vs @POTUS and @avucic vs @predsednikrs The most followed world leader on Twitter is unprecedented in terms of the way he interacts on the platform, through both his official and personal accounts, changing the ways diplomacy is done on Twitter.

The official account of the President of the United States is @POTUS, and it is followed by around 250 world leaders’ accounts and around 25 million users in total. Trump’s personal Twitter account is @realDonaldTrump and is followed by 57.3 million users in total and around 185 world leaders’ accounts.

Many times, @realDonaldTrump tweets have been direct, provocative or even problematic. For instance, he called Meryl Streep “the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and “Hillary [Clinton] a flunky who lost big”, or he berated Theresa May by tweeting “don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom”. The diplomatic community seems to keep silent and not reply directly to Donald Trump’s tweets, usually using @POTUS account instead.

Twitter is also a venue for lively and at times edgy discussion in Serbia.

For example, Prime Minister Brnabić came under fire for calling political opponents from Savez za Srbiju “Talibans” in a tweet on her private account, or a large section of the public is polarised and refers to any and every supporter of the Government as an “SNS bot”…

On the other hand, there are public services available, like ‘Report a problem’ – through which citizens can use Twitter to report communal problems in Belgrade. Many embassies are also present and there are lots of interactions overall, so Twitter is here to stay when it comes to public life and diplomacy in Serbia.

Ultimately, the internet, like most things in this world, is what we make of it. Ironically, the most liked Instagram photo in the world recently became a picture of an egg, with over 44.8 million likes. Maybe that’s an “eggcellent” sign that we shouldn’t take everything so seriously.

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