The notorious tweet reaffirming a statement that condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" has been deleted by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but the incident raises a question that lingers: Is blasting out 140-character messages on Twitter a good way to conduct diplomacy, given the political, and even mortal, risks?
As the official who led the State Department's venture into social media toward the end of President George W. Bush's administration, I am certain the answer is yes. In fact, my worry is that the Cairo tweeting affair will make already risk-averse diplomats even more gun-shy. That would be a shame. U.S. officials need more autonomy to use social media, not less.
In the past four years, the number of Facebook accounts worldwide has increased sevenfold, but growth has been much greater in countries critical to U.S. security. In Egypt, there were 800,000 Facebook accounts in mid-2008; today, there are 12 million. In Pakistan, the increase has been from 250,000 to 7 million; in Turkey, from 3 million to 31 million. Twitter, which barely existed in 2008, is growing even faster.
The objective of U.S. public diplomacy is to influence foreign audiences in order to advance U.S. foreign-policy objectives, and to that end, no one has ever invented a better tool. Through social media, it's possible to get access to the public largely without government or media filters (which, in places like China, amount to the same thing).
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, can communicate directly with millions of Russians on social media. Anti-American media can't block him out or distort what he's saying, and the fact that the Russians have been chasing Voice of America off their airwaves doesn't deter him.
Some of McFaul's messages seem trivial. On Saturday, Sept. 15, he tweeted: "Stanford football plays its biggest game of the season today against USC. Debating whether to get up at 330 am to watch." But on that same day, he linked to the poignant three-minute video that Christopher Stevens posted on YouTube when he became ambassador to Libya. It has 100,000 views. Earlier this year, after McFaul gave a critical speech, the Russian Foreign Ministry blasted the ambassador with nine tweets in an hour, called him "unprofessional," and said he was spreading "blatant falsehoods." McFaul gave as good as he got on Twitter.
McFaul, who came to Barack Obama's administration, as his football taste shows, from the heart of Silicon Valley, knows how to use social media and, as a scholar of Russian politics, understands the nuances of communicating with an idiosyncratic audience. So does another prolific tweeter, Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO and a former think-tank scholar and writer. But what about other diplomats? Is letting them use a Twitter account in a volatile world like handing a kid a loaded gun?
Since this administration took office, the State Department has sent more than 100,000 tweets from more than 200 accounts; almost every embassy has at least one. The guidelines for clearing tweets are the same as for clearing a written communication. The ambassador is ultimately the responsible party, and he or she defines the local clearance process, usually with another embassy official making the conventional decisions. Tweets can't question or contradict U.S. policy, and, if an issue is especially sensitive, the embassy is supposed to get clearance from Washington.
The problem is that tweets aren't the same as news releases. The medium really is the message, and, to be effective, a tweet needs to have a spontaneous, personal, and witty cast to it. In fact, it's hard to think of two forms of expression more different than a diplomatic communiqué edited to within an inch of its life and a breezy tweet.
On the other hand, tweeting is precisely what diplomats should be doing. Tweets put American ideas smack into the center of a neutral, unmediated conversation -- the best environment for persuasion in an age in which audiences are skeptical of official pronouncements and hard to fool. Less substantive tweets and other social media messaging -- like McFaul's football comments -- can humanize diplomats and lay the groundwork for more substantive efforts at influence.