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.