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Simpsons, Shade, and Subtweets: A Story of Diplomacy in 2017

It’s no longer just the personal account of the President of the United States sparking international controversy on Twitter; Russia and Ukraine made headlines this week after a series of tweets debated the origins of an 11th century French queen, Anne de Kiev. In the social media equivalent of a mic-drop, the sparring concluded with Ukraine sharing a Simpsons gif that implied today’s Russia is no different than the Soviet Union.

I have previously written about how more brands are using controversial Twitter strategies to increase brand awareness with Twitter wars, sassy replies to customer complaints, and digs at world leaders. As official government-associated accounts join this fray, it begs the question; how will this more aggressive use of social media affect international diplomacy?

Many are trying to answer that question. Burson-Marsteller’s second-annual Twiplomacy study examines how governments, world leaders, and foreign ministries use social media and engage with each other. The most recent study found that Twitter is the most widely used social media channel for these types of accounts, and that only fifteen countries do not use the platform. The study also determined that Donald Trump’s personal account is “the second-most effective Twitter account of any world leader, with an average of 13,094 retweets per tweet.” His unconventional tweets have proven successful at engaging with the public, so it’s no mystery why other governmental accounts have become bolder in their social media strategies.

Controversy increases visibility. Ukraine’s now infamous Simpsons tweet received more than 215 times the number of engagements (likes, retweets, replies) than its other tweets, for a total of 86.2K engagements. That is almost three times the number of followers of the account. The Twitter spat between Ukraine and Russia generated headlines in top-tier U.S. outlets like The Hill and CNN, which helps explain how the tweet received a 271 percent engagement rate. If Ukraine’s goal was to ignite a conversation, it succeeded on an international scale.

It remains to be seen whether antagonizing Twitter tactics will prove successful at spreading the desired message, or if they simply succeed at creating buzz. However, governments and heads of state that are active on social media should have plans in place for how to engage, or not engage, with both friendly and hostile top-tier social media accounts. Well-known brands, the media, and foreign heads of state can make headlines when criticizing governments and officials on social media, so it is crucial to understand when to tweet back and when to stay offline. A critical tweet may not constitute an international crisis, but any response (or lack thereof) should be carefully considered. Simpsons gifs will not always be appropriate.

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