Beyond the wonk bubble

By Lovely Umayam | June 25, 2013

Like many people in today’s tech-centric world I begin each morning with a scowl, caffeine, and a quick glance at my Twitter feed. The first tweet I encountered on April 22 was this:

“Chair Feruta in opening statement to 2nd PrepCom calls implementation of 2010 Action Plan shared responsibility of all #NPT member states.”

It signaled the opening of the second-annual Preparatory Committee Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a week of diplomatic consultations in Geneva on nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear technology. For me, not having finished my coffee or put on my wonk hat for the day, the message was gibberish for a good 30 seconds. For someone with no background in nuclear policy, this tweet would probably stay gibberish forever.

Throughout the week, similar tweets about the NPT conference fluttered through the Twitter-sphere, keeping the world informed on one of the most important diplomatic dialogues on nuclear weapons. Except that these tweets didn’t have the intended global reach, since most of them were not intelligible to the average reader. Twitter has proven to be an effective tool for communicating juicy insider news among nuclear experts, but it’s not clear that they are achieving the ostensible goal of social media diplomacy, namely, to render policy more accessible and relevant to the general public. If those who care about nonproliferation want to reel in new supporters and introduce nuclear issues to the public, they will have to learn how to communicate beyond their bubble.

During the April conference, the feeds of non-governmental organizations dominated the tweeting, but high-level diplomats occasionally contributed to hashtags like #goodbyenukes, #NPTfashion, and #PrepCom. Conference attendees churned out a total of 300 tweets during the event, mostly echoing country statements and murmurs heard in hallways during lunch breaks.

It was a useful way for nuclear wonks to stay informed and share analyses, but it also reinforced the exclusive nature of nuclear-related dialogue with undecipherable jargon and inside jokes. Case in point: “U.S. reiterates sppt for #CTBT: Amb. Kennedy’s Stmt on Nuclear Disarmament and Security Assurances at #NPT #prepcom.” Following NPT conferences from the sidelines could be an easy entry point for people around the world to partake in arms control discussions and add public pressure on leaders to deal with issues that have been delayed or left unresolved for years. But as it stands, the social media conversation is only for the experts. Coded tweets alienate folks who might otherwise pay attention.

Sending out insular tweets is not a sin committed exclusively by those in the nuclear non-proliferation field. It takes most grassroots organizations and interest groups some time to figure out how Twitter and other social media tools can attract followers and gain online momentum for their causes. Finding a voice that resonates with all audiences can be a goldmine: Amateur activists against two antipiracy bills introduced in the US Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), used Twitter to incite anger over the potential “death of the Internet” in just a matter of hours. Josh Begley’s @Dronestream Twitter feed also caught people’s attention and amped up public scrutiny of dronestrikes, simply by tweeting an archive of all known attacks across the globe since 2002.

Of course, just because a person or group has a Twitter account doesn’t oblige them to communicate to all who reside in the Twitter-verse. In fact, part of Twitter’s charm is that it allows for online communities to form bonds that don’t necessarily involve the public writ large. However, for anyone interested in reaching a wide audience, it is important to remember that social media can be both a speaker box and a silo, and that it takes work to connect with potential supporters. Nonproliferation activists like to emphasize the need for increased awareness and public education. But they also continue to talk to their own reflections about these issues.

To be sure, public engagement through social media can come at a price. Creating an open forum can tempt trolls to spread incorrect or hostile information. It is also difficult to contextualize or simplify dense nuclear concepts in 140 characters, the maximum length of a tweet. And even supposedly credible news sources sometimes spread unverified rumors in the wake of a crisis, as happened after the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

Just the same, the nonproliferation community should rethink its tweeting practices and adopt a fresh approach to social media tools. Strategies as simple as eliminating obscure acronyms and technical vocabulary and linking to eye-catching infographics can make tweets about even technical subjects accessible to a wider audience. It may also make sense for embassies, advocacy groups and other institutions to create Twitter accounts specifically devoted to informing the broader public, using layman’s terms. And organizations could collaborate on Twitter to tell readers why something like the #Egyptwalkout at the NPT Conference was an important moment that could have affected plans to get rid of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Improving Twitter engagement can increase exposure for nonproliferation causes, win over new followers, and eventually transform the ways in which the community of citizens and experts looks at nuclear policy. Each year, diplomats at NPT conferences bemoan the logistical and political hurdles impeding progress on nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament. Perhaps countries would stop lollygagging if the public amplified criticism and reminded leaders that their actions are observed beyond closed doors.

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