Social media has made it easier for world leaders to connect with citizens, and with one another. Some leaders use these sites during election cycles, and then go radio silent on their accounts indefinitely. Others continue interacting with their followers online, and work to broad their social media presences. Those who understand the power of communication understand that the future of diplomacy is digital. World leaders are using social media channels to their benefit by connecting with their followers directly, by building diplomatic
relationships online, and by engaging in conversations with the people they serve.
Pope Benedict XVI made headlines around the world when he sent his first tweet on Dec. 21, 2012. Since then, he has used Twitter to bridge the present with the past, while simultaneously attempting to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century. Less than a year after creating the account, @Pontifex had over 3 million followers.
In July 2013, Pope Benedict made headlines for offering indulgences to his Twitter followers who were virtual participants in World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. Many jokes followed, but it was an important step toward integrating the church with modern thinking, and seems to be perceived as a progressive move by the Catholic Church.
Political World Leaders and Social Media
Political world leaders are also showing their social media savvy, but not all of them share the same values when it comes to netiquette. More than a quarter of all world leaders follow Barack Obama on Twitter, but he only follows two in return. According to The Atlantic, some people question the diplomatic wisdom of his not reciprocating that diplomatic gesture, but as of 2013, the only other world leaders Obama follows are the Prime Ministers of Russia and Norway.
Some leaders have used social media for damage control, such as when the Estonian president personally responded to a negative news story about his country that appeared in the New York Times. The Iranian government uses Twitter to send messages to its followers, but does not allow its own citizens to use the site. Despite the Iranian government’s internet censoring and filtering, the tweets coming from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif indicate a desire to establish more tranquil relationships in general. On Sept. 4, 2013, both leaders sent tweets wishing all Jews a “happy” and “blessed” Rosh Hashanah. Techdirt reported a Twitter exchange between Zarif and Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Christine, in which Zarif acknowledges the holocaust happened--something Iran was thought to be in denial of for years.
Social media may have given more power to the people, but it also empowered leaders to speak directly to citizens, and listen to their ideas. It has made it possible for world leaders to communicate directly with absolute transparency. It has even made it possible for people to obtain virtual indulgences, shaving some time off Purgatory for tech-savvy, devout Catholics.
Tom writes on behalf of DLProg who addresses an important gap in international thinking and policy about the critical role played by leaders, elites and coalitions in the politics of development. Read more about The Leadership Program and the Pacific Leadership Program at DLProg.org.