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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.

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