EU member states all use Twitter for public diplomacy purposes, but they have disparate abilities to influence and rally support. When tweeting about security and defence, the most influential are mostly Western European countries and overwhelmingly in favour of more integration, whereas CEE countries are under–represented and the dissenters virtually inaudible. The 2017 NATO Summit serves as an illustration.
Social networks are powerful vectors of public diplomacy, and digital diplomacy has become paramount for political actors to effectively spread messages amongst the general public. In this regard, Twitter diplomacy refers to the specific use of Twitter by heads of state and government, governmental organisations and individual diplomats to influence the attitude of a population towards a specific political agenda (Dubois and Gaffney, 2014).
It is now common practice for EU member states to employ social networks, primarily Twitter, and intergovernmental summits have become platforms for digital diplomats to submit their agendas to the netizens’ scrutiny and to compete for the support of these potential ‘followers’ and ‘friends’. The EU Twitter diplomacy leaders are member states whose position within the network is more visible than that of the others, granting them a greater ability to influence the citizens forming the network.
As the Union stands amidst a ring of instability and contends with a heightened terrorist threat at home, European security and defence has risen at the top of the EU agenda, and the consensus view amongst European decision–makers seems to be that the future of European security and defence will hinge in large measure on renewed relations with NATO (European Commission, 2016). The 2017 NATO Summit provided a prominent opportunity for member states to evaluate and provide strategic direction for the activities of the Alliance, as well as for its relations with the EU.
This article focuses on the 2017 NATO Summit in an attempt to identify the EU Twitter diplomacy leaders on security and defence. All tweets containing the hashtag #NATO, #OTAN or #WeAreNATO were collected over a 2–day period covering the Summit in May 2017. Only tweets posted by heads of state and government of EU member states attending the Summit, their respective ministries of foreign affairs and permanent representations to NATO were considered. The data gathered included the number of times each tweet was ‘liked’, ‘shared’ and ‘commented’. Through the aggregation of these metrics, a ranking of the most influential EU member states was created. The present study thus ignores seven of the 28 EU member states: Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden for not being members of the Alliance; the United Kingdom for being in the process of leaving the Union.
The basic premise behind the comparison of a country’s military strength and its influence on Twitter during the 2017 NATO Summit is that a high military strength is a condition to be perceived as legitimate when communicating on security and defence matters within such a prominent setting. This alleged legitimacy, in turn, is believed to engender a greater ability to influence the public.
Figure 1. Power–influence chart of EU member states.
Figure 1 indicates that there is no clear correlation between a country’s military strength and its influence on Twitter during the 2017 NATO Summit. Large military capabilities thus hardly guarantee to be perceived as legitimate and to rally support accordingly when communicating on security and defence matters. The comparison between Denmark (10th most powerful; 8th most influential) and Romania (9th; 11th) validates the view that military strength is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for being a Twitter diplomacy leader in this domain.
In order to fathom the counterintuitive statistical dispersion of EU member states within the power–influence chart, two elements are to be considered. First, there are countries, such as Luxembourg, who may be militarily powerless but are particularly active on social networks regardless of the policy area (5032 ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘comment’ generated). Second, other countries, such as Greece, are military powerful but virtually absent on Twitter (0 tweet posted).
Notwithstanding the inconclusive nature of these tentative results, thus far it is possible to identify a group of seven ‘leaders’ that are both militarily powerful and digitally influential: France (1st; 1st), Germany (2nd; 5th), Spain (5rd; 3th), Italy (3rd; 6th), the Netherlands (8th; 7th), Poland (4th; 10th) and Denmark (10th; 8th).
The geographical distribution of the results described above allows for the identification of a more salient characteristic of EU Twitter diplomacy leaders during the 2017 NATO Summit: they belong to Western Europe.
Figure 2. Map of EU member states’ influence on Twitter.
Figure 2 indeed indicates that the seven leaders nearly form a cohesive sub–regional bloc stretching along a Copenhagen–Madrid axis, whilst Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries are left in the periphery. There is one noteworthy exception to this unequal geographical distribution: Poland, the only CEE country to be part of the group of leaders (with each tweet posted generating an average of 23 ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘comment’). Along similar lines, scholars have found that CEE embassies were in fact much less active on social networks than Western European ones (Dodd and Collins, 2017), making them mechanically less influential.
Recent developments provide confirmatory evidence that the most influential EU member states on security and defence are indeed to be found at the Western edge of the Union. Since the beginning of the year 2017, the EU agenda on security and defence has been conflating with that of France and Germany to a remarkable extent (Kellner, 2017). The two leaders have jointly propounded and obtained the decision to establish a Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) within the EU Military Staff in Brussels, the launch of a European Defence Fund, as well as the ambitious and binding road map to finally give the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) a start. They were systematically and openly supported by the European Commission, Italy, Spain, and the Benelux countries.
In addition to showing an East–West divide in leadership, the recent developments mentioned above indicate that the dominant political view amongst the leaders is to work towards more integration in the domain of security and defence, and to endorse the initiatives of the European Commission accordingly. The literature on national visions of European security and defence policy also suggests that the identified group of leaders is predominantly inclined to political integration in this policy area, despite not sharing the same drive to use force (Santopinto and Price, 2013).
This does not mean that EU Twitter diplomacy followers, for the most part CEE countries, are not in favour of more integration. The issue of their political affiliations is clouded by their erratic use of Twitter as well as their much less visible position within the network. There seems to be therefore no compelling reason to suppose that the geographical divide doubles up as a political divide.
At the very least, however, these elements combine and lend support to the view that the EU Twitter diplomacy leadership during the 2017 NATO Summit was as politically united as it was geographically cohesive.
The Twitter diplomacy conducted by EU member states on the occasion of the 2017 NATO Summit shows that military strength is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition to be a digital leader on security and defence. Digital influence rather depends on geographical and political affiliations.
To be influential, it is virtually a requirement to be a Western European country. A closer look at their political agendas also indicates that the most influential member states are all in favour of more European integration in the area of security and defence, and that pro–integration member states are typically more influential.
The foregoing discussion implies that the political unity of the EU Twitter diplomacy leadership adds to its geographical cohesiveness, thereby preventing most CEE countries and potential dissenters from reaching the general public and rallying the support of the netizens.
Photo: Soldiers carrying the EU flag for the first plenary session of the European Parliament's 2014-2019 term. June 30, 2014 [European Parliament / Flickr].
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