President Donald Trump has said he wants to build a wall on the southern U.S. border since the day he announced his campaign.
He said it in his announcement speech, he tweeted it out to his followers, and he made it a tenet of his presidential campaign. He later tacked on that Mexico would foot the bill.
But when then-candidate Trump flew to Mexico for a meeting and press conference with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in August 2016, his messaging took a turn. Despite all the talk on the campaign trail, Trump told reporters that the two didn't discuss the wall's payment or the wall at all during their meeting that day.
That's when Peña Nieto shifted his tone online, for the whole world to see.
“At the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” he tweeted in Spanish.
The following day, after Trump tweeted “Mexico will pay for the wall!” Peña Nieto added in Spanish:
“I repeat what I said personally, Mr. Trump: Mexico would never pay for a wall.”
While sparring tweets from world leaders may seem like politics as usual in 2017, up until the August 2016 meeting, on Twitter, Peña Nieto only sang praises for President Obama and American leadership.
What was once left unsaid between world leaders, or at least left to the private conversations and so-called secure phone calls, is now seeping into public view online. And the shift is leading to real-world consequences.
Trump and Peña Nieto's online bickering would return once Trump became president. It reached a boiling point when Peña Nieto canceled a meeting with the new American president over Trump's online statements regarding a border wall.
And it's not just those two feuding on Twitter. More recently, Russia seems to be implementing a similar social media strategy to engage with its audience and Trump.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted out a message for President Trump after he signed an approval of Russian sanctions. (These sanctions, of course, would have been implemented without the president's signature, because Congress passed them with a veto-proof majority.)
And Russia's official Twitter handle responded to the sanctions with ... this:
The post caught the attention of Ukraine's official Twitter account.
Partisan sparring and political pushes by governments on Twitter are nothing new. Latin American heads of state have been waging battles against each other and the press on the site for nearly a decade, and the U.S. government has been engaged in pushing its diplomatic goals with the help of social media since President Obama's first term in office.
But today, world leaders and diplomats are more visible than ever online.
There are 856 Twitter accounts belonging to foreign ministers and heads of state and government. More than 4,100 embassies and 1,100 ambassadors are active on Twitter, as well, according to the 2017 Twiplomacy study. Twiplomacy also found that the governments of Japan and Monaco have purchased Twitter ads to increase their following, suggesting some governments see it as a powerful tool worth promoting.
The White House digital strategy office today follows conventions similar to what the Obama White House employed. While the @realDonaldTrump Twitter handle will send out messages about everything from Mika Brzezinski's appearance to a video of the president wrestling someone with “CNN” superimposed over their face, @POTUS and @WhiteHouse are strait-laced.
That's no accident. There's a digital strategy team and a director of social media at the White House tasked with promoting the president's online presence.
“The White House views social media as a critical tool to engage with audiences in the U.S. and, of course, around the world. The president’s innovative use of social media allows him to communicate directly and has led the way in modernizing how world leaders interact diplomatically,” a White House official told Independent Journal Review.
“When it comes to engaging audiences around the globe,” the official said, “the White House works closely with the State Department and U.S. embassies and missions ensuring we are providing information and content that is relevant, of interest, and matched to the audience’s media habits and platforms of choice.”
James Jay Carafano, vice president at the Heritage Foundation specializing in foreign policy, told IJR that Trump's tweets are strategic communications meant for different audiences at different times. Carafano also suggested that increased outspokenness online is giving these world leaders an advantage with their voter bases.
“I wouldn't overplay it,” he said. “Foreign leaders are using social media in a similar way to the president. They're also communicating to their home audiences.”
Carafano also noted the marginal difference one tweet can make to a foreign leader's perception of the president based on his online behavior.
“We tend to focus on the tweets as if that's all that matters,” he added, suggesting they're meant more for Trump's base than for his perception abroad. “And quite honestly, I've talked to lots of foreign leaders and governments; increasingly, they don't really pay attention to the tweets.”