Nuclear Policy Remains a Strategic Decision, Despite Tactical Tail-Twisting on Twitter

By Ben O'Loughlin - 12 September 2017

Despite fears a war of words on Twitter could trigger nuclear annihilation, a brief look at nuclear policy and social media shows Twitter can be used to reinforce strategic narratives that bring nuclear agreement – as the Iran deal showed. This is the second in Ben O’Loughlin’s current series on strategic narratives.

The escalating war of words on social media in the summer of 2017 between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un led many to question whether Twitter would nudge us into nuclear Armageddon. The speed of reaction and counter-reaction, the potential role of misinformation to drive public opinion or executive decision-making, and the sheer level of vitriol and personal humiliation exchanged as the two national leaders twisted each other’s tails – all were factors enable by social media, and Twitter in particular. In the US, a conference explored whether we were ‘Three Tweets to Midnight’, evoking the Doomsday Clock, the device used by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to indicate how close humanity is to nuclear annihilation. Attention has moved on, but the question is instructive for understanding how media infrastructures shape both the tactical and strategic aspects of decision-making in international affairs.

At the crux of the debate lies a new media infrastructure that alters how information and emotion move in global politics. If information and emotion are critical to how leaders make decisions, and information and emotion are subject to new dynamics, then those dynamics might alter decision-making.

What are the features of this new media infrastructure?

Amid the hype around Twitter’s potential ushering-in of doomsday, it is vital to understand that social media and mainstream media work together. Trump uses Twitter in ways that gain television and press coverage, and uses TV appearances to stir social media debate. Success in mainstream media means being visual, powerful, and being willing to work with journalists; success on social media means producing content that is controversial, shareable, and re-mix-able. When a politician gets these two ‘logics’ to mesh, we have what Andrew Chadwick calls the ‘hybrid media system’ in action. Simply focusing on Twitter misses how communication really works. It may be that Russian posts reached 126m Facebook users during the 2016 US presidential election but we don’t know how many of those 126m users were themselves bots. Either way, that only constituted 0.004 percent of content in users’ news feeds and most people’s daily news diet remains a mixture of television, radio, press and social media. How information on Twitter reinforces or unsettles ideas we get from other media, and from talking to people, remains little understood – and that applies both for members of the public and political leaders.

Nevertheless there are distinct features that social media and digital environments bring. Some are negative. The business model of social media companies depends on reshaping and sensationalising headlines to fit condensed formats and grab attention. Personalised media content makes us subject to ‘micro-targeted’ ads. Social media companies’ business model also forbids the simple removal of bots, since this would radically reduce the volume of activity on their platforms and risk frightening the advertisers. Social media logics also tend to create the impression of an angry-looking ‘public opinion’ that can be amplified by journalists seeking a two-sided, vox-pop driven story and drive the impression of antagonism. This might create the impression for leaders that public opinion as a whole is ‘angry’ even when only a small segment of citizens feel that way. And if the verification of public opinion can be distorted, so too can the verification of the source and authenticity of much information. This is the case for ordinary citizens as well as for journalists. We live in a digital infrastructure in which it is possible to create a composite Barak Obama and make him say whatever you want. In short, it is not difficult to see why political leaders worry about the quality of information shaping public opinion and whether the public has in many senses been radicalised.

There are also positives. First, there is little evidence that public opinion has been radicalised or enflamed by social media. A meta-review of internet use and political polarization found that, across nine recent studies, polarization has grown most in recent years among the over-75s – the cohort least exposed to or using the internet. However, they and other cohorts are exposed to television and newspapers who relay online content. Our own research has shown that around contentious events in global politics like the #PrayforParis debate, communication remains largely constructive, with antagonism communication an outlier. Second, the quality of information reaching publics can also be enhanced. Digital environments allow some previously hidden sides of foreign policy to come into the open, and this could apply to nuclear policy too. The availability of open-source intelligence has allowed ‘forensic architecture’ researchers to reconstruct the flight path of missiles and hold authorities to account for violent actions. The ability of citizens to translate civil defence warnings in real time allows open source intelligence communities to piece together the likely landing site of missiles not long after they have been launched (though open source can go wrong). Remote sensing technologies can allow non-governmental seismologists to feed information into the public sphere about suspected nuclear tests.

How does this affect tactics and strategy around nuclear policy?

Public communication on nuclear policy could also allow de-escalation. Yes, Kim called Trump a ‘dotard’ and Trump repeatedly labelled Kim ‘rocket man’. If a leader spends her or his time glued to social media in a reactive posture then they could be more likely to fall back upon cognitive biases. We know from experimental research that priming with information can lead individuals to see the same phenomenon in radically different ways, and from what we know from cognitive approaches to nuclear decision-making, there certainly seems a risk of leaders struggling to handle both complexity and speed.

Escalation seems a danger, then. However, social media could be used for public bargaining that has de-escalating effects. “If they did this, we’ll do that.” Such a de-escalation tactic would bring credibility because the declaration and offer is made in public. It can be done on social media faster than going to a TV station to do it. It might pressure the opponent to respond publicly too. In short, public bargaining is credible, quick, and compels the adversary to respond.

Of greater importance is how the current media infrastructure shapes nuclear strategy and broader foreign policy. From the moment of decision, here we move instead ‘upstream’ to the context within which decisions are made over a longer period. We see examples of Trump actively weakening US force projection through his use of social media. At a recent event in London (1), the Russia scholar Ellen Mickiewicz noted that her ongoing research in Kazakhstan shows young Kazakhs believe that Russia is more powerful than the United States because they keep hearing Trump on the news talking of US decline. US (and European) media headlines circulated on social media declaring a ‘new Cold War’ present the possibility of a balance of power between Russia and the West. Social media can be used to shape the climate within which the power of states is considered. This has implications for what becomes appropriate strategic behaviour for those states; to be a great power or a declining power comes with assumptions about how one’s state should act in the world. Trump’s narrative of national decline may bring tactical advantages by harnessing the votes of disaffected domestic voters, but in terms of its external function Trump’s is a damaging strategic narrative. Equally, Trump’s use of social media could destabilise alliances with European, Asian or Latin American countries. This in turn would create new challenges for the containment of nuclear proliferation.

Communication through social media can also be able to create space for agreement. My forthcoming book with Alister Miskimmon on the 2015 Iran Deal is an example. Leaders in the US and Iran tacitly coordinated their communications to ensure they could appeal to public opinion in both countries. Leaders on each side recognized what ‘hardline’ messages the other needed to say in order to prevent strong opposition at home. They allowed each other leniency to be aggressive at certain moments. They used Twitter to visually portray progress in diplomatic negotiations and used press briefings to allow journalists to feel ‘inside’ the deal – that they were getting the big story, on the frontline of history. Note this was a hybrid media campaign, promoting content in different mediums that would ripple across digital and traditional media together. In short, the US and Iran shared a methodology to bridge the antagonism between their cultures. They could develop a common narrative across the two countries about where they wished to head in the future, a narrative that emphasized common values and interests and minimized points of contention. This made space for the details of a deal to be worked out.

Social media can be used to project one’s broader nuclear containment strategy, then. The point is: it requires craft, confidence, and commitment to a foreign policy strategy.

Be wary of the shock of the new

Attempts at tactical distraction and disinformation are not unique to a digital world. British propaganda helped lure the United States towards participating in World War II. And as Ilan Manor points out, when it comes to panic about the power of media over foreign policy, we have been here before. The arrival of transnational television in the 1990s led journalists and political leaders to panic about the ‘CNN effect’: the notion that live pictures of distant suffering or atrocities would stir public opinion into emotive surges that would pressure weak political leaders into foreign interventions they would come to regret. This notion was largely debunked. It emerged that foreign policymakers were committing troops to situations and TV reporters would arrive weeks later to proclaim an emergency in ignorance of their government’s ongoing intervention. Leaders also realised they could use the ‘CNN effect’ as an excuse to intervene and deflect responsibility when in fact their minds were already made up. The CNN effect debate simply reiterated that all new communications technologies present risks and opportunities for decision-makers and that strong, forward-thinking leaders already had foreign policy strategies in place. Each new media infrastructure triggers claims about speed and chaos that echo claims made when the last new infrastructure arrived. It remains to be seen whether the enhanced speed and chaos of the infrastructure of 2017 has brought about a genuinely qualitative shift in how information and emotion bear on decision-making. The likelihood is slim.

Nevertheless, the psychology of decision-making at the highest level of government remains fascinating. Trump has triggered debate in the US and wider afield about whether a president should have sole authority over nuclear strikes and, in turn, opened up debate about what nuclear weapons are for and how decision-making should work. I hope to have made clear that it is when social media use is brought into line with a committed nuclear strategy that foreign policymakers can shape the environment within which decision-making occurs. Tactics are mere tools at the service of broader foreign policy strategies, and it is strategy where our attention should focus.


(1) Reframing Russia: From Cold War to Information War? The Frontline Club, 12 October 2017.

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