Center for Strategic Communication

Facebook’s reach around the world – Image by Karen Bleier of AFP/Getty

Since coming into office as Secretary of State in 2009, Hillary Clinton has pushed an agenda of “21st Century Statecraft” to adapt foreign policy to the 21st century world. A major part of this agenda involves increasing and encouraging the use of connection technologies in foreign policy. The State Department is not alone in this effort as other countries increase their e-diplomacy presence. But in the wake of the protests outside U.S. embassies in the Middle East this month, one issue raised was the role of social media in addressing and responding to the situation as it unfolded. While the role of social media has been widely discussed within the Arab Spring, the users and consumers of that media were largely activists, journalists and ordinary people. In other words, governments did not play a significant role in what was produced on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Since then, things have changed. But as the US Embassy in Cairo attempted to preempt the potential unrest associated with “The Innocence of Muslims” and then got into a Twitter spat with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood following the protests, many questioned whether e-diplomacy should be so freely adopted. Or as James K. Glassman put it, “Is blasting out 140-character messages on Twitter a good way to conduct diplomacy, given the political, and even mortal, risks?”

On Saturday at the Social Good Summit in New York, four diplomats took on that question. Although using social media as a diplomatic tool is risky and can create tricky diplomatic issues, all four of these diplomats concluded that digital diplomacy is worth the risk as it offers far more opportunities to open dialogue, decrease the limitations of borders and reach new audiences.

More than anything else, the experience of these four diplomats in their use of social media helps understand the wide variety of ways digital diplomacy can be used. Dino Patti Djalal, the Ambassador of Indonesia to the US, has developed a reputation for an active and engaged Twitter stream, linking Indonesians with Americans and others in both English and Bahasa Indonesia. While only 20% of Indonesians have regular access to the Internet via computer or mobile devise, 83% of those with Internet use social media, making Indonesia the second largest social media market in Asia. Djalal, who didn’t start using social media until he took up his ambassadorship, noted that Twitter has become indispensable for him in connecting with Indonesians and Americans, both at home and abroad.

As the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy for the U.S. State Department, Victoria Esser knows the impact digital diplomacy can have. Over the last few years the State Department has steadily grown its presence on social media so that it now boasts official Twitter and Facebook pages as well as Google+ account, a YouTube channel, an official State Department blog and Tumblr, and a Flickr photostream. In addition to the official State Department accounts managed by Washington, individual diplomats and embassies often have their own social media accounts to connect with the people they are serving abroad.

All of these efforts can help create dialogue among populations on opposite sides of the world. But it can also bridge diplomatic deficiencies. A key example Esser spoke of is that of Iran, where the U.S. has no diplomatic presence in the country. By conducting a Google+ hangout in Persian, the State Department was able to connect to ordinary Iranians and discuss the issues ordinary Iranians found most pressing, topics that ranged from cultural inquires to visa procedures to U.S. policies on sanctions. That interaction would be extremely difficult to manage even just a decade ago, but is possible today. In that sense, social media has helped build the bridge across borders promised by the spread of the Internet.

Of course, not having a diplomatic presence in country is quite rare for the U.S. That does not mean that social media cannot still play a vital role. Charles Ray, the former U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, detailed his own experiences with social media which he took up after the government started shutting down meetings the embassy tried to hold with local Zimbabweans. In his case, live Facebook chats and the official embassy page was a way to get around government harassment. Zimbabweans responded enthusiastically, and in just a couple of months the U.S. Embassy – Harare page went from 250 followers to over 7000.

The ability of social media to circumvent tradition dialogue channels is part of its appeal even in non-hostile situations. This was the main point raised by Arturo Sarukhan, the Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S., and reiterated throughout the discussion by all the diplomats involved. By being able to go around the traditional media, diplomats can become more accessible to the public and change not only the conversation, but the nature of the conversation.  In this regard, as Sarukhan pointed out, social media becomes “a powerful tool not only for diplomacy, but cultural diplomacy.” Social media becomes an alternative way to get a country’s diplomatic message out and as a result, expand the conversation with a much larger audience.

Thus, there are plenty of positive things about social media within diplomacy. But it is also not without risks. Effective social media can’t be centralized and giving so many individual diplomats autonomy on their message increases the chances that mistakes will be made. After all, the disconnect on public messaging between Washington the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was the main reason for the public relations debacle a few weeks ago. But as Sarukhan pointed out, social media platforms are tools that can be both good and bad, a reality that diplomatic outfits now have to prepare for. But that reality does not change the fact that social media represents the “most important tool for empowerment… and the dynamic change of diplomacy as it reaches out to audience that had never had such a direct attraction with the doings and goings of diplomacy.”

And that is something to get excited about.