The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been on Twitter for almost seven years now. Most readers of the blog who are also on Twitter follow the Court’s handle. They’ll have noticed that the Court has become increasingly active on social media in recent months. It regularly posts developments and news from the institution as well as photos and videos featuring the Court’s principals (the Chief Prosecutor, Registrar, and President) meeting with various international figures and diplomats. This increased activity is no doubt a significant — and welcome — development. The ICC’s social media account was previously afflicted by the same mundanity as the Court’s website — which has also received a much-needed and fantastic upgrade.
The ICC’s increased activity on Twitter signals a growing recognition of the importance and value of communicating the Court’s work via social media. As I have previously argued, the ICC has a potentially vast and loyal following. The Court is constantly in the news. Groups like Save Darfur or Invisible Children make documentaries that manage to pull in millions of viewers — and a big part of their message dovetails with the ICC’s mission, although often in obscenely simplified terms. Whether one agrees with their message or not, these organizations understand the importance and value of social media. If nothing else, documentaries like Kony2012 demonstrate that the broader story of international criminal justice is salient with the internet generation.
So who does the International Criminal Court follow on Twitter? For years, the Court’s Twitter handle didn’t follow anyone. In recent months, however, the number of other accounts it follows has exploded to a whopping 1,203. That is about two-hundred more than the United Nations and over twice as many as the World Bank. Unsurprisingly, most of the accounts that the institution follows belong to other international organizations (including an astounding number of local and regional United Nations divisions) as well as natural allies like Human Rights Watch and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC). Curiously, however, the ICC also follows a motley crew of celebrities, including the likes of Katy Perry, Shakira, Reese Witherspoon, Gisele Bündchen, and Ricky Martin — all of whom are famous but none of whom are known for their support of the Court. This may be an indication of the ICC’s penchant for seeking out celebrity star power (see Angelina Jolie, Angelina Jolie, and Angelina Jolie). But the Court’s Twitter account has never reached out to any of these celebrities on Twitter, so it’s unclear what value the institution gets from following them. Other international organizations also subscribe to celebrity accounts on Twitter (the UN follows Kate Davis of Sex in the City fame, while the World Bank follows Charlize Theron), although they do so much less so than the ICC.
Of relevancy here too is who the ICC doesn’t follow. The institution does not subscribe to any accounts belonging to people or organizations that are devoted to understanding the Court but might be seen as even moderately critical of the institution. That means no Opinio Juris, no EJIL:Talk!, no International Crisis Group, no Just Security, etc. It is generally unclear what strategy guides which accounts the ICC follows and which it doesn’t — if there is a strategy at all.
It is likewise unclear what strategies are in place to inform how the Court’s account should interact on Twitter. While its increased use of photographs and videos is a welcome effort in allowing people to see developments at the ICC, instead of grasping that social media is primarily about engagement, the Court’s Twitter account is a repository of “this is what happened at the ICC today”. As a result, the ICC continues to have a mostly sterile presence on Twitter. As Ottilia Maunganidze observes, the Court’s account “is mostly like an RSS feed of press release bylines”.
Remarkably, the Court will not retweet or engage with its key supporters, such as ambassadors, the United Nations Secretary General, or the accounts of its staff, nor will it reply to questions about whether there are reports or press releases related to events highlighted in its own tweets. In other words, it does not respond to any comments or responses to its tweets, apparently as a matter of policy or strategy. On some level, this might seem logical and understandable. A lot of the comments directed at the ICC are essentially drivel and unfounded criticism. But refusing to reply to comments — even absurd and hyper-critical ones — is a missed opportunity for the Court. Why not respond to all comments with relevant links to ICC reports, press releases, statements and rulings? If someone tweets at the Court to inform the institution that it is useless because it can’t detain Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, why not reply with the Chief Prosecutor’s statements lambasting the United Nations Security Council for doing diddly squat to enforce the arrest warrant against Bashir? Even if only five percent of those critics actually read news and information about the ICC, it would be worth it. But it seems deleterious and, frankly, absurd that the Court would ignore people interested in learning more about the ICC. Right now if a student or media outlet asked via Twitter for a link to a live feed of court hearings or to a particular ruling, they would be ignored. These are nothing but lost opportunities.
Beyond being responsive to queries and comments, there are other ways that ICC’s Twitter account could engage its followers. Thijs Bouwknegt, for example, has suggested that the ICC could “live tweet on and from the trials (the core business) instead of its present out-of court info.” The Court could also have live Q&A’s featuring key staff with followers on Twitter. There is no shortage of ideas — and certainly no shortage of people who would be able to help the ICC think through how to communicate its work more effectively on social media.
With a flashy, user-friendly new website and its increased activity on Twitter, the ICC has come a long way to solidifying its presence on social media. But it could do so much more. Having a more creative, bold and engaged strategy on social media would do nothing to undermine, and everything to propel, the ICC’s standing in the world.