Following #UNGA 2018, looking for engagement with followers

Guess what we are doing here? was the rhetorical question the European External Action Service put to its followers on Instagram ahead of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

To find out what leaders were doing at #UNGA, the Twiplomacy team spent the past week following the official #UNGA hashtag on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

There were countless bilateral meetings with lots of handshakes, hundreds of speeches live from the rostrum and thousands of political statements in 280 characters or less on social media, but not much direct engagement with fans and followers.

Diplomats love the handshake pictures, especially with the UN Secretary General António Guterres in front of the UN emblem in his office. The handshake is a symbol of courtesy and mutual understanding, literally providing a human touch. However, it is debatable whether these staid pictures will touch the fans and followers on social media or drive any meaningful engagement.

Many world leaders and their teams shared behind the scenes pictures from in and outside the meeting rooms and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy it:

  • Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov shared a fraternal embrace with South Korean President Moon Jae-in as the two leaders were seated next to each other in the assembly hall.
  • Outside of the UN building, EU Council President Donald Tusk re-enacted the iconic Abbey Road picture, escorted by his security details while walking to another meeting.
  • Swiss President Alain Berset shared snapshots from Times Square and a picture of his drive home escorted by the New York police.

Instagram Stories have become the unofficial back channel for behind the scenes pictures and digital diplomacy. Not surprisingly, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas opened his personal Instagram account just hours before heading to New York, sharing observations and political messages from UNGA including a snapshot of his morning cycle run through the streets of New York.

There were a couple diplomatic messages on Instagram: the Belgian Foreign Ministry shared a picture of the brief conversation of Foreign Minister Didier Reynders with Donald Trump after the US President had criticised globalism during his UN speech, adding in the caption that «As a founding member of the United Nations, Belgium has always been a staunch defender of multilateralism».

The UN Social Media team did a stellar job in interviewing leaders in the VIP Social Media room in front of a backdrop decked out with the flags of the 193 UN member states. The team conducted more than 120 Facebook live interviews, however, only the annual Live Q&A with UN Secretary General António Guterres included questions from the general public. Most leaders used the platform to make statements and explain their objectives for the meeting without ever engaging with the Facebook audience.

French President Emmanuel Macon decided to do a solo live statement in the social media studio, precisely at the same time while US President Donald Trump was speaking in the plenary hall. In general world leaders do not seem to listen to each other and after the initial speeches the assembly hall remained half empty throughout the week.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took matters literally into her own hands, recording and posting three Facebook live videos, to update her fans on her activities in New York, including a sneak peek into the plenary hall, just minutes before her turn to speak at the rostrum. While Macron’s video statement was watched 38,000 times, Ardern’s video garnered 49,000 views on her Facebook page; the contrast between the two videos couldn’t be more striking.

UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt was the only leader to engage his community directly, asking his 133,000 Twitter followers to send him questions about the issues discussed in New York. He found time to reply to ten questions including one video reply in which he described the UN General Assembly as a “mad house”.

“But in amongst the madness is a bit of human genius because by bringing people together, by building up trust by fostering good relations between countries you reduce tension and the likelihood of war”, he added.

Likewise following the #UNGA hashtag was mad, and among the madness of the social media chatter at #UNGA there were only few interesting and engaging nuggets.

Matthias Lüfkens