The Taiwanese government currently uses Twitter in a wide variety of ways. It publicizes (informal) engagements with “delegations” from other countries across various (sub-state-level) forums. It announces policy shifts to the outside world. It responds to global news events. It directly calls out China for its aggression toward Taiwan, and directly asks for international support. Its Ministry of National Defense provides updates on Chinese military activities inside its surrounding region. And that’s just a run-through of the last few weeks. The activity is so regular that even the absence of tweets from Taiwan’s government can be interpreted as deliberate.
So, when Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter prompts mass threats to leave Twitter, with some (so far incremental) evidence that more people than usual have been leaving the site, there is reason to believe it may impact these diplomatic efforts. But how exactly?
To understand what could be lost, we can first look at what is theoretically gained. This splits into two planes, according to Constance Duncombe, a lecturer in International Relations in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University: top-down gains, in relationships between state policy-makers and foreign publics; and horizontal gains, in relationships between state policy-makers and their counterparts.
Horizontal gains rest on the ability to use Twitter to establish credibility. Allies or adversaries can use representation on Twitter as one method of making maneuvers for peace, or threats to respond with military action, appear more credible to one another. They do this by presenting a coherent identity which diplomatic peers see, believe and ultimately make decisions based on. This credible identity is a particularly important idea where official and in-person interactions are either limited or non-existent, and it ultimately affects decision-making more than one might think because “diplomats and leaders are more likely to make decisions on the basis of ‘vivid’ information that is ‘personalized and emotionally involving’ than they are to rely on the strategic calculations of their state’s intelligence community,” according to Keren Yarhi-Milo, dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
From this angle, Taiwan’s top-level tweets cannot offer anything as dramatic as the Twitter exchange between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu in November 2015, when the former trolled the latter over the downing of a Russian plane, mid-summit. However, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ regular “thank you” messages to U.S. politicians who positively acknowledge or visit Taiwan, often mirrored and retweeted by Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative to the United States, appear to follow the logic set out above. They’re deferential gestures of continued loyalty toward the decision-makers on whose decisions the Taiwan government’s security relies, to whom they do not necessarily have day-to-day access (for their part, the U.S. officials seem not to reply very often). Alternatively, President Tsai Ing-wen’s tweet calling on China to “act with reason and exercise restraint,” after it responded to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan with a series of military drills around Taiwan, can be seen as the other side of the same coin. The tweet addresses China’s government, which cut off diplomatic contact with Taiwan in 2016 following Tsai’s election victory, and reinforces the existing commitment to resist its pressure.
This is a case of incremental gains — the steady reinforcement of these ideas — rather than anything that will change the course of history in one go. But evidentlyTaiwan’s government believes they’re both real and worthwhile.
Next to those efforts, the theoretical top-down gains of Twitter diplomacy are more intuitively understable. Foreign policy decisions do not exist in isolation from popular opinion (though the relationship is complex), and thus the opinion of ordinary citizens is also courted directly. The example of Ukraine’s irreverent social media campaign — with both its government and civilians following in the footsteps of comedian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — is by now religiously cited as proof of the power to win large numbers of foreigners over using social media in general and Twitter in particular, with the case made that it smoothed the way for their governments to lend support to Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Whether that is a theoretical template one buys into or not (the account linked to suggests financial and military support was led very much from the top down), Taiwan’s Twitter activity clearly buys into it. On top of the longstanding general efforts to demarcate the country’s identity listed in the introduction to this piece, government accounts have directly linked Taiwan’s situation to Ukraine’s and attempted to generate the same kind of jokes (with less comedic success) and so have non-government efforts (more successfully). Meanwhile, Tsai Ing-wen’s aforementioned tweet calling out China’s military activity in August also addressed “the international community,” calling for support. And more widely, on a site that Chinese citizens cannot legally access from China, accounts based in Taiwan have (anecdotally) used their notional numerical advantage — reports of bot armies aside — in seeking to counter narratives favorable to China.
So, what are the new threats to both kinds of Taiwan’s Twitter diplomacy? There are three issues currently being discussed.
The first is verification. Concern that fake accounts could be created which carry the authority of “blue-tick” verification has filled both Twitter and media reports since Twitter and Musk unveiled plans to turn the process into a paid transaction open to all. This transaction will, as things stand, not include ID-verification, which is why it’s open to manipulation. Users have become familiar with blue ticks as proof that someone is who they claim to be and the change in meaning could create confusion. In terms of horizontal diplomacy, it’s easy to see how that could quickly kill off interactions between officials on the site (why risk talking to a fake?) And in terms of top-down diplomacy, it’s easy to see how the effectiveness could be muddied. Journalist Brian Hioe offered the following example: “The real concern for me is when we have post-Elon verified accounts of suspicious origin alleging things like troop movements of the PLA around the Taiwan Straits. Or in any potential hotspot. They could pretend to be accounts of regional governments, major media outlets etc.”
Those problems could be exacerbated by a second issue: Technical problems. With large numbers of Twitter employees fired, and a good deal of experience gone with them, there are reports that errors could double down on anything already going wrong.
And finally, the third issue: Diversification. If people leave Twitter, and other sites such as Mastodon compete for even some of its users, it loses a large part of its theoretical diplomatic value simply by losing a monopoly on people’s attention. This obviously affects top-down diplomacy efforts, which rely on pure numerical reach for their impact. But it also speculatively lowers the prestige which attracts government users, which means it could have a dampening effect on horizontal diplomacy, too.
Against these concerns, there are several counterarguments. One: The numbers of people who have left aren’t that high — “more than double the usual number” left in the first four days of the Musk takeover, but that only represented around a million out of 237 million “monetizable daily active users,” and may represent those with the strongest opinions about Musk rather than a replicable trend. Two: Despite Musk’s pitch that the new “blue ticks for all” (who can pay) is a more egalitarian system, as things stand the plan is that so-called “official accounts” — media organizations, governments, “high-profile” people etc — will have their own separate “official” category which will be verified separately. So the two tier system will remain, but with more ticks. Three: If accounts spreading fake information do gain more legitimacy by paying for a blue tick, it is not straightforward to say that disinformation only ever benefits the authoritarian side of a fight, as the war in Ukraine has shown. Both sides can and will do it. Four: Twitter has always had verification issues, albeit not on as large a scale as the ones currently haunting the new blue-tick system. And five: Twitter’s head of Safety and Integrity has argued that charging a small fee for verification — which will come with preferential algorithm treatment — will ultimately raise the cost to spreaders of fake news and thus make it less likely.
With these arguments on both sides in mind, it’s not obvious what happens next. Social media sites have come and gone before, but it usually happens in an unpredictable way, over time, and nothing has ever done the exact same job as Twitter before. The early Musk plans look a bit like efforts to “clean up” — and monetize — YouTube, and — if it is successful in the longer term rather than the mess it is right now — you might map onto that the idea that it will suit state actors. But the new verification confusion may sew doubt even if it is eventually clarified and, furthermore, the two sides of Twitter — the official verified camp and everyone else — have always operated as a pair: Normal accounts come in part to watch interactions between “blue ticks,” and “blue ticks” have those interactions partly in order to be watched. If there are fewer normal accounts to watch the new “official” accounts, the value of those interactions is surely depleted.
No-one knows. But you can be sure a lot of people will be guessing. And Taiwan’s government will probably be among them.
Image: Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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