Follow to be followed: Analyzing The centrality of Ministries of Foreign Affairs in Twitter Networks

Through Twitter, diplomats can comment on world events in near-real time, narrate their state’s actions and justify state policies.

Although they are often described as antiquated and change resistant institutions, Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) have proven to be innovative, utilizing new digital technologies towards the obtainment of traditional diplomatic goals. Since 2008, MFAs have launched digital Embassies in virtual worlds, migrated to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter (now X), created digital diplomacy departments tasked with training diplomats, employed big data and sentiment analysis to inform the policy formulation process and launched dedicated smartphone applications.

In a recent study, published in Policy & Internet, Elad Segev and I sought to analyze Twitter networks of MFAs. Previous studies suggest that although MFAs operate numerous social media profiles, they are most active on Twitter. Through Twitter, diplomats can comment on world events in near-real time, narrate their state’s actions and justify state policies. Moreover, Twitter enables diplomats to interact with elite audiences including journalists, policy makers and other diplomatic institutions. Indeed, studies suggest that diplomatic institutions follow one another on Twitter and that diplomats view their peers’ Twitter profile as an important source of information. For instance, MFAs may follow peers to identify policy shifts, diplomatic priorities and state’s positions on events shaping the world. 

Few studies to date have mapped MFA networks on Twitter or tried to examine which factors contribute to the popularity, or centrality of MFAs in a Twitter network of their peers. It is possible that Twitter networks of MFAs mirror offline networks of diplomacy. In such an instance, one might expect that world powers would attract the most peers on Twitter. Yet it is also possible that Twitter networks differ from offline networks and that MFAs from peripheral states may attract more peers than world powers.

In our study, we strove to both map MFA networks on Twitter and identify factors that contribute to the network centrality of an MFA among a network of its peers. To do so, we analyzed the Twitter network of 78 MFAs on Twitter during 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2022. Our analysis found that over time, MFAs increasingly followed one another on Twitter. For instance, in 2014, the average MFA attracted 14 of its peers. By 2015, the average MFA attracted 28 peers while by 2022, it attracted 41 of its peers. As such, MFAs have created a dense Twitter network in which information is exchanged between diplomats and diplomatic institutions.

Our analysis also found that peripheral states can attract a sizable number of peers. For example, the MFAs of Poland, Slovenia, Latvia, Albania, Georgia, and Iceland attracted the same number of peers as the MFAs of the US, UK, France, and the EU. These results may be explained by the finding that MFAs that tweet more frequently have greater chances of being followed by their peers. Moreover, we found that following other Twitter accounts, in general, and following other MFAs, in particular, can increase the likelihood of being followed in return. In other words, on Twitter, one finds reciprocal following patterns like those of individuals. The social media logic of “follow me, and I will follow you in return” applies to both individuals and MFAs.

To conclude, Twitter networks do not mirror offline networks of diplomacy and that diplomats and MFAs may use Twitter to reach large numbers of peers and overcome a limited network of offline Embassies. Put differently, digital diplomacy can help states overcome offline limitations and while social media can complement and augment offline diplomatic activities.

Note: the above draws on the author’s work published in Policy & Internet.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Policy & Internet, nor the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.

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