“I am a firm believer in the power of technology and social media to communicate with people across the world,” India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, wrote in his inaugural message on his new website. Within weeks of his election in May 2014, the @NarendraModi account had moved into the top five most followed Twitter accounts of world leaders, with close to 5 million followers. His account has today overtaken the official @WhiteHouse administration account – although @BarackObama remains by far the most followed world leader.

More than half of the world’s foreign ministers and their institutions are active on the social networking site. Twitter has become an indispensable diplomatic networking and communication tool. As Finnish prime minister designate @AlexStubb wrote in a tweet in March 2014: “Most people who criticize Twitter are often not on it. I love this place. Best source of info. Great way to stay tuned and communicate.”

As of 24 June 2014, the vast majority (83%) of the 193 United Nations member countries have a presence on Twitter. More than two-thirds (68%) of all heads of state and heads of government have personal accounts on the social network.

Most followed world leaders
Since his election in late May 2014, Modi has soared into fourth place, surpassing the @WhiteHouse on 25 June 2014 and dropping Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül (@cbabdullahgul), and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (@RT_Erdogan) into sixth and seventh place with more than 4 million followers each.

Modi still has a way to go to best US president @BarackObama, who, as of 24 June 2014, tops the world leader list with a colossal 43 million followers. Pope Francis (@Pontifex) has 14 million followers on his nine different language accounts, and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (@SBYudhoyono) has more than 5 million followers – and surpassed President Obama’s official administration account @WhiteHouse in February.

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In Latin America, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina (@CFKArgentina) is slightly ahead of Colombia’s President @JuanManSantos with2,894,864 and 2,885,752 followers respectively. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto (@EPN), Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff (@dilmabr) and Venezuela’s @NicolasMaduro complete the Latin American top five, with more than 2 million followers each.

Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta (@UKenyatta) is Africa’s most followed president with 457,307  followers, ahead of Rwanda’s @PaulKagame (407,515 followers) and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma (@SAPresident) with 325,876 followers.

Turkey’s @Ahmet_Davutoglu is the most followed foreign minister with 1,511,772 followers, ahead of India’s @SushmaSwaraj (1,274,704 followers) and the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (@ABZayed) with 1,201,364 followers.

Does size really matter?
The meteoric rise of the Indian and Indonesian presidents shows that leaders of the most populous countries have a clear advantage in garnering a large army of dedicated followers. The number of followers of a country’s leader has even become a question of national pride.

Iran’s President @HassanRouhani has seen the most impressive growth of his account over the past year. Since our last study published in July 2013, the number of his followers multiplied by 19. The foreign ministry of Ukraine (@MFA_Ukraine) has seen its follower numbers multiplied by 11, and the English account of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (@PutinRF_Eng) almost quintupled, reflecting the global interest in the region. The average growth rate of the accounts analyzed has been 137% year on year.

In 2016 @BarackObama will take his account into retirement and become the elder statesman with the largest social media following. Interestingly, the @WhiteHouse and other official US government accounts do not follow @BarackObama. By law there is a strict separation between the government accounts and personal campaign accounts. The White House has already reserved the @POTUS account should the next president of the United States decide to use an official personal Twitter account. The @BarackObama account, set up in early 2007, has been on Twitter’s suggested user list and is still growing as it is often suggested to new Twitter users.

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The five most followed world leaders have one thing in common: they have discovered Twitter as a powerful one-way broadcasting tool; they are only following a handful of other world leaders, if any, and are hardly conversational – which would be almost impossible, given the sheer size of their audience.

The @BarackObama account is a campaign account and squarely geared towards an American audience, almost never tweeting about foreign affairs.

The Francis effect
Despite the account’s massive following, the @BarackObama tweets are on average only retweeted 1,442 times. By this standard, Pope Francis @Pontifex is by far the most influential tweeter with more than 10,000 retweets for every tweet he sends on his Spanish account and 6,462 retweets on average for his English account. Venezuela’s President @NicolasMaduro is in second position, receiving on average 2,065 retweets per tweet on his Spanish account.

Eight world leaders have seen some of their tweets retweeted more than 24,000 times, reflecting major announcements and historic events, such as @NarendraModi’s election tweet: “India has won! The conquest of India. Good days are ahead”, Malaysian prime minister’s tweet about the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370: “With deep sadness and regret I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight #MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean”,  the abdication tweet of the King of Spain and the more trivial Sochi Olympics bet between Canada’s Stephen Harper and Barack Obama: “Like I said, #teamusa is good but #wearewinter. @BarackObama, I look forward to my two cases of beer. #CANvsUSA #Sochi2014.”

Creating mutual connections
Foreign ministers and their institutions, on the other hand, have put the accent on mutual connections with their peers. In September 2013 the State Department started to follow 22 other foreign offices as well as Iran’s President @HassanRouhani and Foreign Minister @JZarif, timidly re-establishing diplomatic relations between the US and Iran on Twitter.

Since our last study, in July 2013, foreign ministers and their institutions have intensified their efforts to create mutual connections on Twitter. France’s @LaurentFabius has become the best-connected foreign minister, mutually in touch with 91 other peers and world leaders. The EU External Action Service (@eu_eeas) is second, followed by Swedish Foreign Minister @CarlBildt with 71 and 68 mutual connections respectively.

Being mutually connected on Twitter allows these leaders to direct-message each other and to have private conversations. A number of foreign offices have used this channel to reach out to peers and other influencers to set the record straight or to coordinate their digital outreach.

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The Swedish Foreign Ministry (@Swe_MFA) has made a conscious effort to establish connections on Twitter, unilaterally following 355 other world leaders. French Foreign Minister @LaurentFabius is following 250 and the Croatian government (@VladaRH) has made overtures to 195 other world leaders.

The foreign ministries of Peru, Iceland, Kyrgyzstan and the foreign ministers of Kosovo and Panama have all made similar attempts to put themselves into the diplomatic Twittersphere and create connections, hoping to tweet eye to eye with other world leaders.

@BarackObama and @WhiteHouse are the most popular among their peers, followed by 222 and 179 respectively. But they do not return the favour. @BarackObama mutually follows only two other world leaders, namely Norway’s @Erna_Solberg and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev (@MedvedevRussia). The @WhiteHouse is mutually connected with only two other leaders: @MedvedevRussia and the UK government (@Number10gov).

Full Twiplomacy findings available here.

Author: Matthias Lüfkens is Managing Director, Digital, EMEA at Burson-Marsteller and formerly Associate Director at the World Economic Forum.

Image: The Oval Office and Rose Garden of the White House in Washington are seen decorated with holiday lights, December 6, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas