The US President announces that he authorised a targeted assassination of a senior Iranian military official. The Iranian Foreign Minister announces that the country will not take this attack quietly and promises a stream of retaliatory measures. The US president promises a series of retaliations in turn, including targeting “52 cultural sites” – a gross violation of international humanitarian law. His own legislature through the House Foreign Affairs Committee denounces him: “you should read the War Powers Act. And you are not a dictator”. The Iranian Foreign Minister shares that, in violation of conventions on international organisations, he has been barred from entering the United States to attend UN high-level meetings in New York. All within the space of a week.
Welcome to diplomacy in the age of Twitter.
The first week of 2020 was one for the ages, with political manoeuvring between the US and Iran escalating to the point of unofficial declarations of war. But the Iran US bickering was neither the beginning nor the end of this new diplomatic practice; of the leaders of powerful nations jumping on social media to take sly digs at their opponents both domestic and international.
International relations has always been a form of performance
African countries have not been left behind.
Public practices of congratulations after an election remain common, but since 2019, presidents like Paul Biya and Ali Bongo have been forced to jump onto Facebook to prove that they are not dead, while many more have used Twitter to share updates about meetings they are taking to address COVID-19 on the continent. International relations has always been a form of performance, but in the digital age the speed and intensity of the performance has grown significantly and it is increasingly clear that the people who build these platforms are wholly unprepared for what people are using them for.
It’s hard to believe that that Twitter is only thirteen years old given how central it has become to the way societies around the world are doing politics. In my book, ‘Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics’ I go into some depth to describe how the platform has become a site for public accountability and for social mobilisation in Kenya, but I also point out the challenges that it has created.
Twitter has been central to demands for accountability from a government that loves to ignore its own people, and has created space in public discourse for Kenyans that the traditional public sphere would rather not see. None of this was in the original business plan. Social networking sites were supposed to be places where people – and especially young people – were able to connect and to share banal details of their lives. How did then did they become the epicentre for politics?
So much of what diplomats and officials do on a daily basis has historically been shrouded in secrecy. Quiet conversations at conferences, or secret meetings in lush neighbourhoods removed from the vagaries of local politics are the grist of what keeps international relations going, and the big displays of speeches and documents are often just performance of things that have already been decided. Prior to the advent of social media, traditional media retained a tremendous amount of power to frame the conversation, or mute a person altogether by refusing to cover their speeches. Foreign diplomats and politicians, especially from countries considered marginal to powerful nations, struggled to communicate directly to the public on foreign media outlets moderated by geopolitical interests.
And this is what makes social media particularly powerful. It brings into public view what has often been shrouded in secrecy – the arrogance, the hubris, the posturing and all the unsavoury things that happen between people who have to pretend to be nice to each other for a living. First, it allows any politician with something to say and access to a smartphone and a data plan to simply say it. It is an instant podium. Second, it allows that politician to curate their audience and ensure that the people around the podium are already receptive to their messaging.
Governments around the world have invested obscene amounts … to enhance the illusion of popularity.
Governments around the world have invested obscene amounts of public money on bots and paid sycophants who parrot and cheer talking points online, to enhance the illusion of popularity. Third, it allows for engagement – it makes ordinary people feel included in a space where they have always been systematically excluded. Ultimately the power of social media in this space is that it creates an unmediated symbiosis between the communicator and audiences, which traditional media does not do.
A lot of this is good. It has made international relations more visible to ordinary people and given citizens an inroad to participate in and influence public policy. But as the quality of global leadership deteriorates, so to do the filters that prevent them from abusing their power to intimidate other countries – just because they can. Imagine going to bed one night and waking up the next morning to find that your president has declared war on a country half way around the world, and you now have to live under that spectre of fear and uncertainty for an unspecified amount of time.
Even though the threats and the counter-threats are happening in the digital space, the outcomes for civilians are analogue and deadly.
War is still war, even in the digital age. And even without an actual outbreak of violence, the threat of war can be just as disruptive and frightening as actual war, leading people for example to hoard essentials, to give up daily routines and wellness practices because they are afraid that one day bombs might start raining down from the sky. That burden still persists.
And then there is the question of deliberate, for-profit manipulation of political speech online. In the same week that the US and Iran were threatening war, a whistleblower shared – on Twitter – detailed documents from Cambridge Analytica affirming that the company had actively interfered in more than 60 elections around the world including in Kenya, and that social media manipulation was a major part of their strategy.
In 2019, after surviving a stroke Gabonese president Ali Bongo was caught out allegedly using a deep fake video to reassure the public that his health was improving. Some analysts argue that the unconvincing video inspired the military to attempt the country’s first coup since 1964 given the president’s frailty. The more useful social media becomes to public policy conversations, the more it will attract people who will unquestioningly sell the ability to manipulate the conversations that happen there.
There is no guarantee that social media will look the way it does today even five years down the line – the ecosystem changes rapidly and very few of the original players from 20 years ago still exist today. But the practice of conducting international relations while facing the public may be a new norm that sticks.
The digital is changing the way we do politics and international relations, and this creates a new urgency for understanding the digital ecosystem, and specifically understanding the digital rights of citizen. Who will the African citizen be in this new landscape where war is threatened on a whim and public opinion is bought at a song? These are some of the foundational questions for research on this rapidly changing terrain.
Nanjala Nyabola is a writer, researcher and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is the author of “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya” (Zed Books, 2018) and “Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life of Travel” (Hurst, forthcoming).