Twitter Feuds: Digital Diplomacy on the Fritz

Thanks to digital diplomacy, it’s possible to reach and engage domestic and foreign constituencies using the Internet. This form of virtual communication presents an opportunity for the U.S. to reveal and defend its foreign policy (as has been the case with the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

However, diplomats have often found themselves in hot water after the real-time nature of social media allows their misstatements or gaffes to be quickly leveraged against the U.S. As diplomats begin to engage more and more with local populations, they face the difficult task of  figuring out the terrain and making sure they use it to improve the image of the U.S. Otherwise, direct engagement with international audiences via Twitter and similar services can set American diplomats up for disaster.

In our third installment on U.S. digital diplomacy efforts, Strategic Social examines the Twitter feud between U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and the Russian government. McFaul is among a number of U.S. diplomats who have taken to Twitter as the State Department attempts to harness social media to deliver the U.S. government’s message. But the plain-spoken envoy’s tweets have sparked controversy that could be detrimental to the already troubled “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

Since assuming his post in Moscow in January, McFaul has made an overt effort to open a Twitter dialogue with the Russian people. However, Russians have taken issue with his chosen diction and syntax on several occasions. In March, McFaul used his Twitter account to voice his concerns that diplomatic protocols had been breached when it appeared his schedule had been leaked to journalists at NTV, one of three major government-controlled television networks. When NTV aired his interaction with their journalists, the state-run broadcaster emphasized McFaul’s use of the word “wild” when describing Russia. McFaul tried to soften his remarks, writing on Twitter “I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV’s actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.”

Also in March, McFaul expressed concern on Twitter regarding the detention of protesters who challenged Putin’s election victory. In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted that the U.S. had been less humane in dispersing Occupy Wall Street protesters. After McFaul suggested the Russians tried to bribe the Kyrgyz government to evict U.S. forces from an airbase in May, the foreign ministry slammed McFaul for being unprofessional and for criticizing Russian media.

McFaul reacted in several tweets, trying to point out to the foreign ministry Twitter account that he in fact was giving a talk based on improved U.S.-Russian relations in recent years. To dial back some of his remarks he also tweeted: “Still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically” after one tweeter noted that his HSE talk was a “manifestation of incompetence.”

Ambassador McFaul has had a tumultuous first six months in office and his online presence, though positively enhanced by Russian-language tweets espousing U.S.-Russian unity, has reflected the real-life defense he’s had to play in response to his unorthodoxly frank diplomacy. Though McFaul may not be able to engage as directly with Russians as he may like, Twitter provides one more outlet for the ambassador to get his message across, even if that message is sometimes an apology.


Digital Diplomacy and the Asia Pivot

After more than a decade of war, the U.S. is shifting the strategic balance of its military forces from the Middle East and Central Asia and toward the Asia-Pacific region. The goal of the new defense strategy is to promote U.S. interests by helping to shape the norms and rules of the Asia-Pacific, particularly as China emerges as an ever-more influential regional power. In addition to a “pivot” of its defense resources, Washington is strengthening U.S. alliances and building deeper relationships with emerging partners through digital diplomacy.

Perhaps the strongest military aspect of the Asia-Pacific “strategic pivot” involves Australia and  U.S. digital diplomacy efforts have followed. Twitter use by the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and other U.S. consulates in Australia demonstrates an effort to reinforce diplomatic and military ties with Australia and, moreover its key Asian partners. The embassy regularly tweets about U.S.-Australia maritime cooperation and often retweets posts related to maritime security from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and others.


Australia is not the only partner to which the U.S. has been reaching out; India has been tapped as a potential counter to China’s economic and military rise in the region. Prior to hosting the third U.S.-India strategic dialogue, the embassy reposted this statement from the U.S. Pacific Command:

Tweets also focused on relations with adversaries. In light of North Korea’s missile launch plans in early April, the embassy retweeted the following message from the State Department:

The U.S. Embassy in Manila employs Twitter to create a better sense of legitimacy for U.S. military objectives but to a lesser extent than the U.S. embassy in Canberra. Most content on its Twitter page focuses on cultural and business activities in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as environmental initiatives in the host country. The embassy also spends time interacting with its impressive 24,789 followers and responding to visa inquiries. But at the same time, it makes sure to use Twitter as a platform to strengthen its security and strategic partnership with the Philippines. It frequently tweets and retweets messages related to deepening military ties between the two nations, especially after the U.S. announced its “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific.









Despite these positive interactions, U.S. Twitter diplomacy efforts in the region have not always been well received. Perhaps irked by the U.S.’s Pacific “pivot,” the Chinese government recently told the U.S. to stop tweeting about poor air quality in the country. China has long taken issue with the popular U.S. Embassy Twitter feed that tracks pollution in Beijing, but its past objections were raised quietly until the U.S. announced it intends to maintain and strengthen its military presence in region. In April 2012, a rotation of 200 U.S. Marines arrived in Darwin. The size of the rotation will gradually be expanded into a force of around 2,500 Marine Corps personnel. There also are plans for greater access by U.S. military aircraft to Royal Australian Air Force facilities and for the U.S. Navy to have greater access to Australia’s Indian Ocean navy base HMAS Sterling. Additionally, the Philippines and the U.S. are discussing new military cooperation options, including rotating U.S. troops more frequently into the country and staging more joint exercises.

Chinese censure of the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed does not come as a surprise, but it signals a growing diplomatic row that could be damaging to an already precarious U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. move toward the Asia-Pacific could reinforce China’s fear of encirclement and prompt further militarization of the region. Fears and misperceptions linger on both sides of the Pacific, but Twitter use can provide some transparency in diplomatic relations. If U.S. embassies across the Asia-Pacific can harness Twitter to build mutual trust and to promote active efforts in global problem-solving, it would encourage constructive Chinese behavior and provide confidence to regional leaders who wish to resist potential Chinese regional hegemony: a win-win solution.


Digital Diplomacy: Engaging in a Warzone

The U.S. State Department has focused increasingly on moving beyond traditional government-to-government diplomacy to improve its communication and direct engagement with international publics.  This communication focus is particularly evident with populations living in areas where U.S. military operations are taking place.

The logic is simple:  The more international audiences understand the rationale and challenges of U.S. missions, the easier it may be for those local populations to support American goals and objectives.

In our second in a series of posts on the methods and effects of U.S. digital diplomacy, Strategic Social examines two Twitter accounts in countries where local perceptions of U.S. diplomatic efforts could not matter more: Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, these two countries also suffer from low literacy and internet penetration rates making the reach of digital diplomacy not as great as it may be in other countries where social media has become the norm.

As several recent incidents strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan, the embassy’s tweets, which are generally precautionary, demonstrate a concerted effort to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. After the burning of Korans at a U.S. base, the embassy immediately tweeted dozens of apologies from Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the White House.

Although the U.S. is now preparing for the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, the embassy’s tweets continue to emphasize the U.S. commitment to a long-term partnership with the Afghan people beyond 2014.  For example, one Afghan journalist tweeted “#Ryan Crocker, ‪#US ambassador in ‪#Kabul: US & its allies are tired but not the ‪#Taliban & ‪#Al-Qaeda members.” The embassy replied “@Mohsin_Jam — Misquote of ‪#AmbCrocker. He was saying now is NOT the time to pull out. ‘If we get tired of this, Al-Q&Taliban won’t.’”  The embassy then posted a series of tweets confirming the U.S. commitment to the future of Afghans.

 While the Twitter account is aimed almost exclusively at Afghans, few people tweet at the embassy. It is important to note no U.S. embassy tweets are written in Dari or Pashto, potentially making its efforts appear as half-hearted attempts to reach Afghans  We have found diplomacy, and especially Twitter diplomacy, is often most successful when there are efforts to engage listeners (even if they are not English speaking) in a conversation.

The U.S. embassy in Islamabad also tweets primarily in English. However, English is an official language of Pakistan and the Twitter feed is intended to reach citizens in the host country and Americans abroad. In this case, Twitter is used to broadcast visa tips and news related to counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani governments.  Most importantly, the embassy maximizes Twitter’s potential by treating it as a conversation. The embassy regularly replies to questions regarding USAID initiatives and counterterrorism efforts, encouraging a productive relationship between the citizens of Pakistan and the U.S. even though government ties have been strained by recent events.

For instance, one Pakistani TV host inquired about the State Department’s reward of $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed. The embassy was quick to dispel disinformation regarding the Rewards for Justice program, retweeting embassy spokesman Mark Stroh’s clarification that the bounty is only for evidence that can withstand judicial scrutiny.






As the U.S.’s military commitments to Afghanistan decrease and Pakistan becomes an increasingly strategic partner/neighbor in the fight against violent extremism, the U.S.’s image (whether positive or negative) in the eyes of Afghans and Pakistanis impacts the effectiveness of U.S. operations in the region. Specifically, U.S. diplomatic, economic and humanitarian efforts will only be as successful as the local population allows. Given heightened tensions between the U.S. and these two nations’ governments, local engagement with Afghans and Pakistanis is vital to success.


Digital Diplomacy: Overcoming Contentious Relations and Expelled Ambassadors?

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.