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How Biden & Harris used Twitter to signal the world

Not just for selfies: A transitional Twitter account let the world see the Biden-Harris priorities, and prepare accordingly, even before the new administration took office

Historically, the transition of power in one global empire necessitated extensive diplomatic efforts on the part of all other powers. A new Austrian emperor, for instance, would have to be studied carefully so as to ascertain his political mindset, his commitment to peace, his zeal for war and his willingness to maintain ties with old allies. Such diplomatic efforts would first be tackled by ambassadors to foreign courts who would take the measure of a new leader and report on his/her strengths and weaknesses, general demeanor and apparent intellect. Next, letters of introduction would be exchanged. “My dear cousin” was a common phrase used by European rulers when addressing a new leader followed by “how I long for our next meeting.” Once pleasantries and gifts were exchanged, official visits could commence.

Nowadays, leaders hoping to gain insight into the mindset of a newly appointed presidents need only follow them on Twitter or Facebook. Indeed, leaders and diplomats following President Obama online during the 2012 campaign trail, knew what to expect of the new administration. He spoke of engagement, alliances, partnerships, and new beginnings. Stability was his ethos. Those following Trump on Twitter also knew what to expect — isolationism, extremism and a disdain of the post-World War II world order. Chaos was his ethos.

As social media now operates in near-real time, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that the Biden-Harris transition team operated an extensive social media presence. Though these tweets are now labeled as published by the White House, they were in fact operated by a “transition account” in which Biden and Harris outlined their own vision for America and the world. This Twitter account allowed foreign diplomats and leaders to study the new president’s language, priorities and positions on international affairs.

Domestic Signals

Many of the tweets published on the “transition” account focused on domestic issues. One of these was restoring faith in America’s national institutions, especially those linked to the US justice system. Such tweets promised to revert from President Trump’s assault on the judiciary, and justice itself. The days of embracing hate groups, and inciting violence against elected officials are over. That justice featured prominently on the “transition” account is to be expected as President Trump’s last days saw a physical assault on the Capitol Hill in which justice is defined and administered through laws.

Similarly, the “transition” account emphasized the need for “humane” policing and leading with “compassion.” The tweets contrast President Trump with President Biden. The call of “Black Lives Matter” as been heard and will be carried into the new oval office. Trump’s urging of police officers to treat suspects with violence will be undone.

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When commenting on the coronavirus and its spread across America, the “transition” account spoke of equality and compassion, of the need to vaccinate all Americans and not just those fortunate enough to have insurance. These tweets were significant as they demonstrated how vague notions such as “compassion” will manifest themselves in official policies. Every state will be vaccinated, not just Blue states. Here one also finds example of the Presidential promise to care for all Americans, and not just those who voted for him.

An additional issue frequently addressed on the “transition” account was that of rescuing the economy and putting Americans “back to work.” True, every president since FDR has promised to put Americans back to work. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign proudly declared that more Americans had returned to work than any other time in US history, a message echoed in Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Yet the means for obtaining this goal are inherently un-Trumpian. Specifically, Biden and Harris will rely on science and scientific work to battle Covid and reopen American businesses. Pseudo-science and instructions to inject oneself with bleach will not be repeated in upcoming White House briefings. Biden and Harris made it clear- in science we trust.

A final salient issue was that of diversity. Trump’s all male and white cabinet would be replaced by representatives who exhibit the diversity of America in terms of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic origin.

The “transition” account’s domestic messages were a serenade to Biden’s political base, as well as the progressive members of the Democratic party. These messages promised not only to undo the Trump presidency, but to erase it from the history books entirely. In contrast to Trump, equality, compassion, justice and diversity would mark the Biden-Harris administration. Foreign diplomats following this account could assume that some of these declarations would also translate into foreign policy priorities. America would once again champion causes such as freedom of speech, liberty, tolerance and human rights. Its economic recovery would usher an age of science and logic that would contribute to global stability and would help American allies, for the US economy cannot be healed independently of the world, it is reliant on the French and German economies which are reliant on the Chinese economy and so forth.

Once in office, President Biden issues a series of executive orders countermanding Trump’s legacy including his “Muslim ban”; halting the construction of the Mexican wall, returning to the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization. Yet all these actions, and all the “transition” tweets, are accompanied by an inherent danger. In his first day in office, Biden has already undone his predecessor’s legacy, perhaps more than any other time in American history. While it is true that Trump dismantled Obama’s legacy vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear dear and the Affordable Healthcare Act, Biden’s actions risk turning America into one, large swing state. Democratic presidents will undo Republican legacies, while Republican presidents will reciprocate in kind. This means that US policies will shift dramatically every election cycle diminishing America’s standing as a steadfast and reliable ally. It will also weaken diplomats resolve to engage America on issues of global concern as each diplomatic achievement will last 4, or 8 years at the most.

All of Biden’s actions and tweets will ease the angst of US allies and Presidents Macron and Merkel will sleep soundly for the first time in four years. Yet Biden is not only playing to his political base, he is ignoring the other base, the 74 million Americans who voted in favor of Trump’s policies. Biden does so at his own peril, as the rift between left and right, blue and red may only grow denser in the days and months to follow.

Foreign Policy Signals

The “transition” Twitter account also dealt with foreign policy issues, chief of them a desire to re-forge alliances and partnerships neglected by President Trump. I once argued that Trump turned America into a fortress of solitude. America led by itself, and looked only to itself. The Biden-Harris administration plans to abandon the fortress and rejoin the world. American values will be promoted with the help of allies, and not in disregard to allies. These tweets would be welcomed by diplomats who have survived American isolationism and the paralysis it brought to the international system. An America that works with its allies could finally address long standing crises- the Syrian civil war, tensions in Crimea, the war in Yemen, human rights violations in China and more.

Going even further, the “transition” account promised to “reimagine” American leadership in face of new challenges. Reimagining is somewhat of a hollow term that is perhaps best reserved for Silicon Valley magnates who showcase new digital devices. But this term does signal diplomats that there will be a fundamental change in how America conducts itself on the world stage. The images of President Trump strong-arming his peers during photo opportunities will perhaps be replaced with warm handshakes and folksy taps on the back.

In another tweet, the “transition” account indicated that the “deep state” had died with the Trump presidency, as even the new director of the CIA, a man tasked with operating in the shadows, would lead with transparency. In this tweet, the “transition” account signaled a renewed commitment to open covenants of diplomacy, the type envisioned by Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.

Finally, the “transition” account echoed Biden’s campaign promise to address the world’s most pressing crisis — climate change. Here again was a clear signal that America would not lead own its own, and for its own profit. Global challenges require global engagement and global solutions. These will be the hallmarks of the Biden-Harris foreign policy.

The short lived “transition” account captures the essence of contemporary, digital diplomacy. Leaders’ intensions and priorities are published in near-real time, with the Biden-Harris administration signaling its intentions to the world before even taking the oath of office. These signals allow other nations and their diplomats to re-calibrate their language. Terms such as compassion and integrity will now be used by diplomats when dealing with US officials; when promoting their own foreign policies amongst the American public and when lobbying Democratic lawmakers for support. Moreover, the “transition” account demonstrates a commitment to transparency, the kind of transparency that digital publics demand of administrations and diplomats. For if Twitter users are asked to lead open and transparent lives, to update their whereabouts and actions on a daily basis, should states not follow suit?

The account also demonstrates that in the digital age the local is the global. Domestic signals sent by Biden and Harris also offered insight into their foreign policy priorities. Lastly, the account demonstrates that official Twitter accounts are not merely a parade of selfies and press statements. They are foreign policy instruments wielded by diplomats and leaders to obtain diplomatic goals.

About the Author
Ilan Manor (PhD) is a diplomacy scholar at the University of Oxford. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at www.digdipblog.com
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