Shaping Perceptions: Social Media and Public Diplomacy in Iran

Iranian state actors have adopted digital media as a flexible and influential means of communication. While websites and blogs serve as platforms mostly for domestic consumption, social media are used by leading regime officials to target international audiences: the Supreme Leader, the President and the Foreign Minister use Twitter and Facebook to comment on political affairs in English, most prominently in the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Social media networks give them the opportunity to publish their views with great immediacy and to enter international news cycles. The interactive character of these media helps to create an impression of exchange and dialogue, sometimes even accountability. It can be argued that the attempts to shape international public opinion can be seen as part of a legitimation strategy to advance foreign policy goals. But to what extent are these communication strategies successful? How do international media react to the messages posted on social media? And how do social media accounts of Iranian officials integrate into global communication networks? In order to answer these questions the paper analyses a collection of Twitter messages by leading state officials and dissects the framing given to these communications. It will then investigate the reception of the messages in a selection of international media in order to show which messages get picked up and whether their framing is changed or perpetuated. The paper thus seeks to contribute to the ongoing academic debate on the benefits that state actors in authoritarian systems draw from pro-active usages of digital information and communication technologies.