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Narratives of International Crisis in 280 Characters

A content analysis of Russian and British diplomatic Twitter accounts following the Novichok attack in Salisbury, UK in March 2018

The presented Master’s thesis examines the employment of Social Networking Sites (SNS) by states in times of diplomatic crises. A case study was conducted to analyze the diplomatic Twitter accounts of Russia and the United Kingdom following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal on 4 March 2018 in Salisbury, UK. Precisely, the study aims at identifying the crises narratives constructed by the states and the digital strategies underlying these narratives.

For these purposes, a two-phased research design was developed. First, a preliminary qualitative study was conducted to inductively derive categories of crises narratives. Followingly, a quantitative content analysis was applied to all Tweets.

Overall, the analysis of sample Tweets demonstrated that both countries used Twitter for two main purposes: to disseminate crisis-related information as well as to engage allies and publics. Both states employed a vast variety of digital tools. However, consistent digital strategies were hardly identifiable as the states rather tried new tactics along the way. This further resulted in the fragmentation of narratives constructed by both states. Nevertheless, blame narrative was revealed as the most prevalent on both sides. Surprisingly, the UK hardly ever directly accused Russia of carrying out the attack, instead regularly accusing them for hindering the investigation. The Russian accounts repeatedly returned the accusations and consistently discredited the evidence provided by their counterpart.

The study revealed that the states start to recognize the power and potential of SNS to construct and promote their narratives in times of crises, while delegitimizing those of their opponents. Contrary to previous findings, the study also revealed that diplomatic actors start to implement the SNS as a tool for engaging allies and publics. Finally, the study points to a need for a new taxonomy of digital diplomatic crisis communication based on the features and dynamics of SNS.