Susan Delacourt: Donald Trump and the dark art of 'twiplomacy'
The world’s most influential and innovative person on Twitter is a senior citizen who just turned 72 last month — President Donald Trump, known by his Twitter handle, @realDonaldTrump. So much for the idea that young people will change the future of democracy with social media.
Trump’s overwhelming dominance of Twitter was documented in a big, international study released this week on how the world’s leaders and governments are using the medium for what’s called “twiplomacy.”
Almost all the member states in the United Nations — 97 per cent of them — now have an official presence on Twitter, the study found, but no one is making use of it quite like the U.S. president.
“Undeniably, Donald Trump has made the biggest impact on Twitter since taking office,” the report said. The numbers tell only part of the story: 53.4 million followers by this week (more than the Pope or any other world leader) and an average of 20,000 retweets for every utterance on Twitter.
But it’s not just the quantity of his tweets or legions of followers — it’s how Trump uses the medium too.
“The U.S. president has also changed the tone of discourse on Twitter, frequently insulting his opponents and lampooning foreign leaders,” the study states. “Donald Trump’s undiplomatic tweets have left many governments around the world speechless and wondering how to reply to these Twitter outbursts. Very few leaders have replied directly to President Trump on Twitter, mindful not to start a Twitter spat with the most powerful world leader on the platform.”
In short, Trump triumphs on Twitter because he’s oblivious to rules and diplomacy — or “twiplomacy,” if you prefer. It’s the same approach he brought in person to the NATO summit in Brussels this week or even the G7 meetings here in Canada last June — break the rules, shake up the world order.
Justin Trudeau got only one mention in the study conducted by the BCW communications firm — for recently picking up the phone in reply to a Trump tweet amid the escalating trade war. It makes Canada’s 47-year old Prime Minister seem kind of quaint and old-fashioned, comparatively speaking. There’s Trudeau, conducting diplomacy over the telephone, while the 72-year-old president is whirling around in cyberspace, making foreign policy in random Twitter outbursts.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in a fascinating column last weekend, suggested that Trump’s Twitter addiction is actually making the United States a meaner place. “He figured out how to dominate Twitter, not with the cool-kid arch style of making fun of someone, but by being school-yard-bully mean,” Dowd wrote. “His tweets propel the story on cable news and shape the narrative for reporters — who are addicted to the First Addict.”
Trump’s domination of Twitter — and the resulting chaos in political culture and world diplomacy — must surely have to be soon seen as the unintended consequences of social media in the 21st century. Rather than democratize the world, or open up politics to alternative, new voices, Twitter and Facebook have proven to be vulnerable to those who want to mess with democracy and rules-based systems built over decades, even centuries.
Facebook, as we learned through the Cambridge Analytica controversy earlier this year, can be used to manipulate voters with their own private information. Twitter, as Trump proves nearly every day, continues to lower the bar on political discourse and diplomacy of all types. And we haven’t even talked about the whole matter of Russian meddling — or other types of mischief that bad actors can do in our elections with the help of social media.
Back in 2017, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey said that his medium spanned the best and worst of democracy. The fact that Trump is the world’s best at Twitter probably says the worst things about it — and the fragile state of democracy under the current president.
Susan Delacourt is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Ottawa. Reach her via email: