The evolution of India’s Twitter diplomacy
Since @IndianDiplomacy made a hesitant institutional foray into the realm of social media with a tweet in July 2010, India’s diplomatic establishment has built an impressive presence on many social media platforms, including Twitter. Currently, the Twitter handle of the official spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs (MEA), a later entry, has more than two million followers. All Indian missions are on Twitter as are many Indian diplomats. Cumulatively, Twitter handles of Indian diplomats in more than 130 countries have around 10 million followers, giving them considerable global reach.
Even while China, the world’s only other billion person-plus market, has locked Twitter out, India has grown to become the third-largest global market for Twitter after the United States and Japan. India’s diplomats have reaped significant benefits from their decade-long engagements on Twitter. These go beyond trending press releases with eye-catching hashtags or grabbing of eye-balls with internet memes. Creative use of this platform has enabled MEA to become aware more quickly and respond with greater swiftness to evolving circumstances.
Discerning the tea leaves of subterranean trends by immersive social media engagement is a new art form for Indian diplomats, akin to their predecessors making sense of the “big-character-posters” in China during the Maoist era. Humanitarian concerns of Indian nationals caught up in distant crises now attract more high-level attention. A greater degree of sensitivity to public opinion while assessing and responding to such situations has followed. Digital interactions have catalysed impressive improvements in the delivery of consular and passport services.
Harnessing the considerable public appeal of political leaders in ways never envisaged before, foreign policy positions are disseminated to a wider cross-section of Indian society. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vast appeal across so many social media platforms are tools that give unparalleled traction to India’s diplomatic outreach. From popularising the global conduct of the International Day of Yoga as a form of cultural diplomacy to inviting President Barack Obama to India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2015 and receiving his response on Twitter have made PM Modi’s “Twiplomacy” the stuff that public relations professionals dream of.
Former external affairs minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, creatively used Twitter by tagging individual ambassadors and exhorting them to respond swiftly to requests for services required by citizens in distress, thereby ensuring rapid public confirmation of tasks once completed. The present incumbent, S Jaishankar often bonds with his counterparts on Twitter on their national occasions as India steps up its global diplomacy. Arguably, social media is impacting Indian diplomacy in more profound ways than other changes embraced in recent times. In many ways, it has made foreign policy less “foreign” to Indians. Similarly, Indian diplomatic postures are perhaps less of a conundrum to foreign “publics”.
Such changes have brought with them challenges too. In a multipolar world rife with concerns about terrorism, contentious trade disputes among allies and adversaries, catastrophic environmental degradation, health issues, human rights advocacy, the security implications of new technologies have made social media platforms an arena of inter-State contestation. Wolf warriors are said to be on the prowl digitally. Bots are trolling Indian diplomats online in a manner that intelligence operatives of inimical states pursue their every move in some locales.
If the airwaves were used for propaganda purposes between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War, digital platforms cannot but be scenes of firefights as states jostle to seek support for their respective views. Spurred by the support of legions of followers, Indian diplomats, too, have, on occasions, sparred with adversaries.
However, by definition, social media platforms are not the preserve of states. It is individuals and non-State actors of different hues that rule the roost there. Concerns of diplomatic establishments are not the primary issues in the mix. Though State functionaries may have some advantages, public figures and celebrities promoting their causes with little concerns for the nuances of State policy can be more than a match for them. On the social media circuit, the shield of rules and procedures that diplomats are schooled in do not offer protection. Often, style trumps substance. Boundaries that diplomats are taught to adhere to have less meaning in the virtual world than in the real world. There are few equivalents of diplomatic “red lines” that can’t be crossed. Everything is everybody’s business. Nothing is sacrosanct. No one is above being judged, many a time, rather irreverently. For diplomats, engaging robustly in the social media space is tantamount to pursuit of national interests without diplomatic immunity.
On digital platforms, the meanings of long-established practices imbibed by Indian diplomats such as “quiet” diplomacy, “low-key” efforts, “considered” responses and “discreet” enquiries require recalibration. Many of India’s tallest diplomats, who have excelled at traditional diplomacy, have been able to establish only a limited social media presence. Public diplomacy on social media is a premium skill. Like other aspects of diplomacy, it needs to be honed, where necessary with professional assistance and support.
Despite this, for Indian diplomats, there is no going back from increased social media engagement in general or even on Twitter, which at times runs into the cross hairs of our regulations. In an increasingly polarised social environment and amid sharpening global rivalries, Twitter storms are more often and more easily triggered than diplomatic storms. However, experience shows that they are, usually, easier to tide over too.
Syed Akbaruddin is a former diplomat, who served as India’s permanent representative to the UN and headed MEA’s external publicity division
The views expressed are personal