At a recent event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, panelists discussed how the rise of social media has fundamentally altered how governments interact with their citizens and the way states manage the relationships associated with traditional statecraft.
While the U.S. State Department employs a variety of social media services as part of a new “21st Century Statecraft” initiative, Twitter has been increasingly embraced by U.S. embassies to advance foreign policy objectives. Some U.S. embassies have official Twitter accounts while others link to the personal Twitter account of their ambassadors.
The U.S. Embassy in London primarily focuses on cultural events in America and the U.K. Occasionally, non-citizens of the U.S. tweet at the embassy about passports and visas, but the embassy typically seems unable to answer specific questions. The U.S. Embassy in Paris mainly shares news articles about foreign affairs and often re-tweets messages from the State Department, White House, and U.S. Ambassador to France, Charles H. Rivkin. In general, both Twitter feeds have more outgoing content than interactions with their followers, an approach that indicates a lack of strategic listening.
However, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo demonstrates how the social media tool can be used for state engagement with local populations. Individuals and organizations frequently tweet at the embassy and the embassy regularly tweets back and attempts to facilitate conversation. For example, an Egyptian tweeted “the US will serve American interests first and foremost, then u can talk abt anything else.” The embassy tweeted back “We believe a democratic Egypt is in interests of Egypt, region, US, and world.” Dialogue conducted via tweets may be limited to 140 characters, but the responsiveness of the U.S. embassy clearly still plays an important role in the diplomatic equation.
A similar approach has been taken in Syria where diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Syria have taken a turn for the worse. The U.S. pulled its diplomatic mission from Syria several months ago and recently expelled the Syrian diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. While intergovernmental relations have broken down, the U.S. has still attempted to maintain a connection with the Syrian people. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford continues to use social media to converse with Syrians and bring international attention to the violence and repression occurring in the country. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus Twitter account consistently links to messages from Ambassador Ford via his Facebook page and to his responses to questions and criticisms on U.S. policy. The use of Twitter is unique in that it offers a way to circumvent state-owned traditional media channels and to foster a direct dialogue between foreign individuals and the U.S. government on a large scale.
It is clear that Twitter is a new kind of unofficial diplomacy, in which citizens get to participate in the conduct of statecraft even if they are not involved in the traditionally closed-door world of diplomacy. Twitter can help humanize international relations, particularly in countries that have a more contentious relationship with the U.S. The technology itself is value-neutral but takes on the intentions of its users. As traditional political structures in countries like Egypt and Syria are increasingly viewed by citizens as invalid representations of their concerns, digital diplomacy may serve to tie foreign officials with local populations and, perhaps, more effectively help the U.S. achieve its foreign policy objectives.