About twenty-five minutes into Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last September, the Israeli prime minister took out a crudely sketched diagram of a cartoonish bomb, drawing a red line near the top of the figure to illustrate his claim that Iran is in the final stage of being able to make a nuclear weapon. Immediately after the speech, a message was sent out on the prime minister’s official Twitter account with a picture of his presentation: “There is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons—by placing a clear red line.”
By the end of Netanyahu’s speech, online audiences seemed to have forgotten about the performance that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, gave on the same floor the previous day. Despite his fiery rhetoric, Ahmadinejad did not manage to spark nearly as much Internet interest as Netanyahu. Unlike the Iranian president’s speech, Netanyahu’s presentation, with its accompanying visual prop, was perfectly suited for the “Twitterverse.”
It is true that the prime minister’s presentation was intended to serve other purposes for other audiences. Presumably, Netanyahu had an eye on the then-upcoming Knesset elections in Israel, as well as the U.S. presidential contest, aiming to convince both American candidates to commit to a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. The speech was also an attempt to convince Iran of Israel’s seriousness in the matter. But the focus here is on how effective the presentation was in shaping the broader public debate in the age of Twitter. In that vein, the speech demonstrated the extent to which public awareness of the foreign policy debate, at least in the United States, has changed thanks to social media.
The use of visual aids for dramatic effect is certainly not new. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis on October 25, 1962—at the start of the television era but decades before cable news—the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, after a scorching speech condemning Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin’s “perfidy,” presented the Security Council with aerial photographs taken by an American U-2 spy plane of Soviet medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in western Cuba.
On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell also used props to drum up support for the Iraq war during a speech to the United Nations Security Council. Using satellite imagery and a model vial of anthrax, the then U.S. secretary of state made his case for military intervention in Iraq, which the Bush administration claimed harbored weapons of mass destruction. The claim later proved to be incorrect, but the use of the images—especially the display of the white powder just months after an anthrax scare had spread panic across the United States—had the anticipated impact of guaranteeing that the footage of the general would be replayed on television screens around the world for weeks afterward.
The difference between the reaction to Netanyahu’s presentation and the reaction to his predecessors’ is that the Israeli prime minister’s performance took place in the age of instant analysis. Because of the immediate nature of the medium, Netanyahu’s speech was elevated to the top of the media conversation before he had even finished it. The Israeli prime minister reportedly came up with the idea of the “Bibi bomb” during discussions about how to deliver a speech that would stand out. As an Israeli senior official told Reuters, the Bibi bomb was the fruit of days of labor inside Netanyahu’s closest circle of advisers to find a way to get the attention of “the people.”
And it worked. No sooner had Netanyahu presented his “bomb” at the UN than the Twitterverse’s vast array of influential journalists started spreading, dissecting, and in some cases mocking his message. After the prime minister’s presentation, the New Yorker set up a “Netanyahu Caption Contest,” encouraging Twitter followers to participate, while the Atlantic’s Twitter feed called him “the Wile E. Coyote of the Middle East.” The cartoon analogy caught on, and tweeting reporters started referring to the Israeli leader as the Looney Tunes character. “With all the Jewish comic book talent out there, he had to draw a Wile E. Coyote bomb?” tweeted the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, adding in a separate tweet, “Netanyahu didn’t even draw his Wile E. Coyote red line in the right place.”
“I can see it now, at NYC Halloween Parade, the snarky kids dressed as Wiley Coyote bombs sporting ACMEdinejad logos,” TIME writer Tony Karon tweeted. Al-Monitor reporter Laura Rozen quipped, “I think MIT business school teaches better chart skills now.”
Netanyahu’s speech attracted not just the attention of journalists but also that of the wider public. As evidenced by multiple social media analytics, his bomb went “viral.” Discussion of the presentation started to trend very rapidly on Twitter, meaning it was one of the most popular subjects on the site at the time. Internet “memes”—words, images, videos, and other vehicles for spreading a concept from person to person online in a humorous way—mocking the Israeli leader’s bomb diagram surfaced, and Twitter users began labeling tweets with #BibiBomb and #netanyahu hashtags—symbols used for categorizing messages on the site.
One way to measure the visibility and prevalence of Netanyahu’s speech on Twitter is to look at the volume of conversation of certain terms on Topsy, a website that measures the popularity of Twitter topics by calculating how many users mentioned a word or combination of words in a given time period. According to Topsy, there was an enormous spike in mentions of “Bibi OR Netanyahu OR Iran OR nuclear OR bomb OR UN” (the Boolean operator OR returns search results that contain either the first term or the second term) after Netanyahu’s speech on September 27. The same search replacing “Netanyahu” with “Ahmadinejad” and “Bibi” with “Mahmoud” shows a smaller spike after the Iranian president’s speech on September 26. Between September 20 and October 20, 2012, Netanyahu’s speech received a total of 4.5 million mentions—2.1 million more mentions than Ahmadinejad’s speech. For comparison’s sake, one of the most consistently popular trending topics on Twitter, Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, topped out at just 156,506 mentions on October 12 for his single-day high over the same period.
When something is popular on social media, interest on search engines like Google normally follows. Google measures the likelihood that users will search for a particular term by collecting data on the number of searches run for that term, then normalizing that data and presenting it on a scale from zero to 100 (with 100 representing the term’s peak search volume). In the case of the Iranian nuclear issue, statistics on Google searches for terms such as “Iran nuclear” can help gauge interest in the subject at any given moment. A look at Google searches for this term between August and October 2012 shows that the Iranian nuclear crisis was already a prominent topic of online conversation before the UN speeches. On September 16, when Netanyahu was interviewed on American morning talk shows and warned that Iran was six months away from a nuclear bomb, the term reached a search volume of 85. On September 26, when Ahmadinejad took to the floor at the UN’s headquarters in New York, searches for “Iran nuclear” surged to 92. Netanyahu was able to tap into this existing prominence to draw attention to his agenda, but his splashy performance made for an exceptionally large surge in interest. Searches for “Iran nuclear” reached a new peak of 100 during his presentation, indicating significant growth in the term’s popularity and in the absolute volume of searches for it. This spike, which occurred after news of Netanyahu’s speech started to be disseminated on Twitter, thus also testifies to the term’s popularity on social media.
The Israeli leader’s theatrics were wildly successful in attracting broader public interest and media attention to his cause. Ben Smith, editor of the website BuzzFeed—which picks up on the latest news trends and churns out aggregated lists of viral topics—soon offered his own proof that Netanyahu’s plan had been successful despite the criticism. “Bibi’s bomb stunt totally worked,” he tweeted, linking to a list of daily newspapers that all ran front-page stories with the Bibi bomb photo, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.
Just like on Twitter, the red line debate took center stage in the majority of traditional media outlets that covered Netanyahu’s speech. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both featured the term “red line” in their headlines. The two newspapers, as well as the New York Times, focused on this core element of the Israeli prime minister’s speech. Traditional media outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor, CBS News, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, the Associated Press, and AFP all mentioned the red line in their headlines as well, and all but Bloomberg and the Associated Press referred to it in the very first paragraph.
Some online pieces were written for the sole purpose of relaying the reactions the speech and the bomb drawing evoked on Twitter. For example, one article by the Guardian focused only on the fact that the Israeli prime minister had drawn a bomb and even included two tweets to show the contrasting takes on Netanyahu’s presentation: one from former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer suggesting it was an “effective use of a chart,” the other from the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg accusing Netanyahu of turning “a serious issue into a joke.” The Wall Street Journal dedicated an entire article to the bomb cartoon and the reactions it had received on Twitter from journalists like CNN’s Hala Gorani and Politico’s Roger Simon. The story even linked to the memes that were created after Netanyahu’s speech.
This suggests that more and more, Twitter is not just setting the agenda for what qualifies as news but is also becoming the news. As social media grows more ubiquitous, politicians like Netanyahu are learning how to take advantage of the medium to try to shape the debate by becoming a Twitter “trending topic.” And politicians are quickly noticing that a key to influencing the Twitter discussion—as the Bibi bomb illustrates—is to offer a powerful or unusual visual presentation or some new and clever framing of a topic.
Netanyahu's approach, while effective in drumming up interest on social and traditional media, had its drawbacks. His prop was designed perfectly to garner attention, but because it seemed to lack seriousness, some of that attention was negative. Netanyahu’s red line was crudely drawn and created confusion between enrichment level and enrichment effort. The cartoon also failed to distinguish between fissile material production and weapons development activity, let alone convey issues of transparency and safeguards. To some journalists on Twitter, and presumably broader international audiences, Netanyahu’s red line was not serious. And by failing to portray a serious red line, he may have exacerbated the problems inherent in drawing any red line.
However, his speech was undeniably effective in shaping the broader public debate. Discussion of the Iran red line has had greater prominence in American media ever since Netanyahu’s speech. Numerous news articles have attempted to define the Israeli prime minister’s red line, mentioning Iran’s current uranium hexafluoride stockpile as a measure of whether the line has been crossed or not.
In the six months leading up to the speech, the words “red line” or “red lines” were mentioned about 25 times per month in news articles about Iran from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Bloomberg, Reuters, the Associated Press, and AFP; in the three months following the presentation alone, they were mentioned about 45 times per month in news articles about Iran.
There is one piece of public evidence to suggest that all of this media attention may have ended up impacting the discussion among policymakers as well. The issue of the red line came up during U.S. President Barack Obama’s March visit to Israel. When told by an Israeli official at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport “to follow the red lines” made by the rope line, Obama joked, “Bibi is always talking about red lines. This is all a psychological ploy.” To which Netanyahu quipped, “This was minutely planned.”
The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
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