Four tips David Cameron can learn from world leaders on how to use Twitter

What tips can David Cameron learn from the annual Twiplomacy report, which studies how world leaders use Twitter? He needs a little help – not only because he's regularly insulted online, but because Barack Obama won't follow him back. 

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Offline, India's new prime minister Narendra Modi is a divisive figure – the charismatic son of a tea-seller rose through the ranks of the militant Hindu Nationalist group the RSS and is believed to have played a key role in inciting the 2002 Gujurat riots that saw over a thousand people, mainly Muslims, killed. Online, however, he’s proved a hit. The 2014 Twiplomacy report, which analyses the use of Twitter by heads of state and world leaders, has found that he’s shot up to become the fourth most-followed world leader, with 4.99m followers. He recently overtook the White House, which has 4.98 million followers.

The most-followed world leader remains Barack Obama with 43.7 million followers, followed by the Pope who has 14 million followers across his nine different language accounts. This makes David Cameron’s following look slightly measly – he has 669,000 followers on his @David_Cameron account and 2.68 million under the @Number10gov handle.

But then all world leaders can only aspire to the online following of Justin Bieber, who has 52.5 million Twitter fans, or the 54 million following each of Katy Perry’s profound tweets. She recently tweeted that we should “unplug to connect”. Which is deep. But probably not good advice for politicians in the internet age.

So what lessons can politicians learn from the Twitplomacy report?

1. Barack Obama doesn’t follow back

It’s understandable that world leaders should want to follow Barack Obama when he occupies such an influential position in international diplomacy. The @WhiteHouse and @BarackObama accounts are followed by 222 and 179 world leaders respectively. But no one likes a Twitter user who doesn’t follow back. Barack Obama only follows two world leaders: Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. I can’t figure out the logic behind Obama’s Twitter friendships, but it’s a bit embarrassing for David Cameron and the special relationship, especially as Obama does follow my friend Amir (@Afesh), a freelance journalist. 

2. Having a lot of followers isn’t the same as having a lot of influence

Barack Obama has the most followers, and his “Four more years” tweet was one of the most popular tweets ever, having been retweeted 806,066 times. But the Pope is more influential. On average his tweets are re-tweeted 10,000 times from his Spanish account and 6,462 from his English account. The Venezuelan prime minister is the second most influential, his tweets are shared an average of 2,065 times. Obama averages 1,442 retweets.

The Twiplomacy Report doesn’t cover average Twitter replies or their content – which might be good news for Cameron who regularly gets tweeted insults such as “f*** off moonface” or, more creatively, “deluded spunktrumpet dishface”. I bet the Pope doesn’t have to put up with that.

3. Tweeting selfies is a good idea (except possibly for Cameron)

On average, tweeting pictures is a good idea, as it boosts engagement by 62%. Obama showed this successfully with his “four more years” picture of him hugging Michelle. Cameron has tried to do the same – a third of his tweets include a picture or infographic. Sometimes, however, it backfires.




4. Don’t worry, autocrats, banning the Twitter needn’t affect your popularity!

Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might have tried to ban Twitter in March, but this hasn’t stopped him from amassing an impressive 4.3 million followers, making him the seventh most followed world leader. Autocrats can take heart: apparently banning Twitter in your country doesn’t necessarily affect online popularity. Twitter is banned in Iran, yet the country’s President Hassan Rouhani has had the fastest-growing account over the last year: he has 223,000 followers, 19 times higher than in 2013. But please don’t ban Twitter, Cameron. 

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

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