Analysis & Opinions - Negotiation Journal

Social Media Influence on Diplomatic Negotiation: Shifting the Shape of the Table

| Jan. 03, 2021


Social media is changing not only the atmosphere in which international negotiations take place; it is also changing the very substance of the deals. Because of the pace and proliferation of social media, negotiators must read “weak signals” early on—and anticipate a quickly organized, highly motivated opposition. However, diplomatic negotiators still lack the tools to engage in this sort of anticipatory strategy design. This article examines two recent cases, one involving the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the other involving a German Constitutional Court’s ruling on the European Central Bank’s Public Debt Purchasing Program, in which social media had a highly disruptive, unanticipated impact on international negotiations—to the point of forcing negotiators’ hands—and suggests institutional remedies to better anticipate the catalytic impact of advancing technology on diplomatic interactions.


Networked platform technology was cast as the great equalizer; a virtuous, new “marketplace of ideas”; and a “virtual town square” (Gates 1999). In 2010, the U.S. government still hoped it would be able to “synchronize our technological progress with our principles” (Clinton 2010).  Ten years on, tech platforms have a profound impact on almost all aspects of life and have challenged a number of key prerogatives of the nation-state (Clüver Ashbrook 2017).  Since then, early hopes of social media platforms as a democratizing force and an extension of U.S. global power projection—as demonstrated, for example, in the U.S. government’s request that Twitter delay a software update to allow protesters to keep communicating during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution—have been dashed (MacAskell 2009). Rather, these same social media platforms have been used to disrupt democratic function and support the persecution of minorities (e.g., the Rohingya in Myanmar) (Stevenson2018), and have themselves engaged in digital colonialism (Lafrance 2016) in a race for technological ownership in countries in the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, while the proliferation of social media enabled broader diplomatic outreach, it also changed the information environment in which diplomatic negotiations take place. More importantly, it can now be wielded to have significant impact on international policy making.

This article highlights a nascent field of negotiation analysis, reflecting on how the proliferation of social media platforms and their international, corporate activities have directly impacted many areas of diplomatic work across the globe, including the vital work of international negotiation. While the power of social media to change the information landscape and influence journalistic coverage has been the subject of a growing body of research (Lewis and Molyneux 2018; Pew Research 2019; McGregor and Molyneux 2020), far less systematic research has examined the impact of social media’s proliferation on three dimensions of diplomatic negotiation—(1) at the table, (2) in the deal design, and (3) away from the table.

This is particularly true for those negotiations that have been traditionally shielded from the public or have relied on select political intermediaries (such as political parties, unions, and interest groups) as stakeholders, narrowing the scope of stakeholder consultation. The literature shows that negotiations conducted away from the table, with stakeholders who can wield considerable influence, can significantly impact the shape of a deal and whether or not it can be realized. Negotiators focused solely on the first dimension—at the table—may be blindsided as they miss out on activities crucial for defining substance, the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA), and the shifting power balance between parties. They might also be blind to shifting relations between parties at the table and the surrounding environment, such as the legislative, political, public policy, or public opinion arenas, or even how to define a surrounding environment: Social media can make the definition of the breadth of an environment extremely challenging. Negotiators’ inability to take note of surrounding circumstances may change the substance of the negotiation in the deal design or the ZOPA or may even make the deal design politically untenable.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Clüver Ashbrook, Cathryn and Álvaro Renedo .“Social Media Influence on Diplomatic Negotiation: Shifting the Shape of the Table.” Negotiation Journal, January 3, 2021.

The Authors