Twitter becomes favored diplomatic venue after UN

World leaders and politicians using Twitter as ‘immediate spin’ on released information

UNITED NATIONS — Countries all over the world, dictatorships and democracies alike, have in the past few years sought to tame — or plug entirely — that real-time fire hose of public opinion known as Twitter.

But on the sidelines of the General Assembly over the past couple of weeks, ministers, ambassadors and heads of state of all sorts, including those who have tussled with Twitter, the company, seized on Twitter, the social network, to spin and spread their message.

At the height of the diplomatic negotiations last week over a U.N. Security Council resolution that would require Syria to turn over its stockpile of chemical weapons, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, used Twitter to pre-empt criticism of the measure as lacking teeth because it had no automatic enforcement provision.

The British ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, took to Twitter to break news about when the Security Council would vote on it.

“White smoke in The Hague,” he wrote last Friday, shorthand for approval from the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Ninety minutes later came an update, “about to vote in #UNSC.”

An aide to the prime minister of India, which had sought to tame incendiary language on Twitter in the past, posted glimpses into his closed-door meeting with his Pakistani counterpart last weekend.

Most improbably, the new president of Iran, where Twitter is banned, has used Twitter prolifically to convey that he was ready to make a nuclear deal with the West and even, briefly, to break the news that he had spoken to President Barack Obama on the phone, the first such exchange between Iran and the United States in 34 years.

As nations jockeyed for influence and standing here in recent days, several diplomats pointed out Twitter’s advantage. One government aide, who would not speak for attribution, said that it could be used to pre-empt journalists from being the first to get their interpretation of events before a wider audience.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister who is among the most deft and most prolific in the diplomatic Twitterverse, said he found it useful for gaining an uncensored and unmediated view of public opinion during important events — and also as a bullhorn.

“In today’s society, Twitter is maybe the most rapid and efficient channel if you want to feed out messages or other information you want to share,” Bildt said by email. “Either broad scale or carefully targeted.”

Ken Roth, who as executive director of Human Rights Watch posts on Twitter virtually every hour even on a slow news day, said its immediacy enables officials to cut through bureaucratic review and media filters.

“That means a leader is much more in control of his or her message,” he said, adding, “Most leaders want the media to cover a statement, but they also want the public to be able to read what they say without the media’s interpretation,” he said.

In other words, leaders gain immediate spin.

Twitter seems to be equally useful for officials from countries that block Twitter altogether — Iran for instance — and countries that have tried to get the social network service, which is based in San Francisco, to stanch the flow of certain kinds of posts.

France has forced Twitter to turn over information about users whom France accuses of posting anti-Semitic content that is illegal in that country. India last year pressed Twitter, with only modest success, to shut down certain accounts because of what it said were incendiary posts that could lead to ethnic violence.

Whether government officials’ own use of Twitter will soften their stance on their citizens’ use of it remains to be seen. If so, it would certainly be a lucrative prospect for Twitter, which filed Thursday for its initial public offering on Wall Street.

Access to Twitter was the subject of an extraordinary public conversation, on Twitter, between a company co-founder, Jack Dorsey (@Jack) and President Hasan Rouhani of Iran (@HassanRouhani).

Dorsey, with 2.4 million followers, first posted a rhetorical question Tuesday: “Good evening President. Are citizens of Iran able to read your tweets?”

In fact, they are, but only if they are savvy enough to work around the country’s official ban on Twitter, by using a proxy that masks their location. This may be how Rouhani — or likely, an English-speaking assistant — can post from inside Iran.

Several hours later came a polite, vague, jargon-laden reply from @HassanRouhani, which has more than 100,000 followers.

“Evening, @Jack. As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right.”

It has been shared with retweets 2,289 times.

The @HassanRouhani post was referring to a television interview that Rouhani had with Christiane Amanpour, the CNN anchor. She had asked whether he would open up social networks like Twitter to the people of Iran. He said he would try.

Navid Hassanpour, a doctoral candidate in political science at Yale who has studied the use of Twitter in Iran, called the latest trend “retweet diplomacy.” The White House used its Twitter account to share Rouhani’s post about the conversation with Obama, while Rouhani returned the favor by sharing the State Department post.

The final decision on whether Iran will open up to Twitter may come from above the president’s office, from the chambers of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His office too maintains a Twitter account (@khamenei_ir), also unverified by Twitter. One of its 22,299 followers is @HassanRouhani.