It’s difficult to ignore the impact of social media on the U.S. State Department. Hillary Clinton was the first Secretary of State to fully embrace the potential of social media on diplomacy efforts, and since then, its use within U.S. diplomacy has exploded. The State Department is now a member of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Google+, and several blogs, attracting more than 27 million followers collectively. Keeping track of these social media accounts is the responsibility of the Office of eDiplomacy. Its stated goal is to “[Advance] diplomacy by providing effective knowledge-sharing initiatives.” Obviously, social media has been a major influence in how the United Stated conducts diplomacy, but has it changed diplomacy for the better?
This is not such an easy question to answer. The use of social media has clearly given the State Department some serious headaches. For example, in 2012 an American resident created an anti-Islam movie, entitled “The Real Life of Muhammad.” In response to the movie, senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, wrote a tweet condemning actions that abuse free speech to hurt other’s religious beliefs. Unfortunately, Schwartz’s statement was not seen as support for religious tolerance, rather a criticism of free speech. For instance, Mitt Romney condemned the comment as “an inappropriate apology and a failure to stand up for American principles such as freedom of speech.” The State Department was also unhappy with the comment, stating its reference to 9/11 was inappropriate and claiming they did not authorize the tweet. Although the tweet was soon removed, retweets and screenshots allowed it to go viral.
Another example of failed eDiplomacy occurred when, in 2010, the State Department sent technology executives on a mission to meet with Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. Their purpose was to use technology to bridge a gap between the United States and Syria. However, after arriving in Syria the executives continuously tweeted irrelevant information on behalf of the State Department. Known as “stray voltage,” the executives tweeted about drinking frappuccinos and participating in a cake-eating contest (which they referred to as “creative diplomacy”). This once again shows a complete lack of oversight regarding who is posting on the behalf of the Department and which statements are authorized. While these comments were relatively innocent, the State Department looked foolish because they detracted from the importance of the trip.
The State Department’s embrace of social media still has a few problems to be solved. It is a challenge to clearly communicate a lot of information while keeping it brief and interesting enough to appeal to the masses. Additionally, when thousands of tweets are being posted it is impossible to review their content. Each individual embassy and consulate has employees whom engage in social media. It is impossible for Washington, or even an in-country superior to monitor every posting on every site. Besides, monitoring every post defeats the biggest benefit of social media, which is real time news from a multitude of perspectives. Finally, what is posted on the Internet can never be fully erased. Regardless if the statement is taken down, it can spread via retweets and screenshots. This environment is uncontrollable and unpredictable, which is especially dangerous since diplomacy demands high levels of discretion and sensitivity.
Though the advent of eDiplomacy has been rocky, it has huge potential. Social media allows the State Department to have direct, uncensored contact with its followers. Therefore, messages can be released into countries with overwhelming anti-American sentiments, without being distorted by biased local news sources. Additionally, social media allows the State Department to communicate with people in real time. This can increase the State Department’s awareness and responsiveness to live situations. Finally, social media allows the State Department to contact major online influencers and target them with important messages. All of these benefits have the potential to lead to a better-informed and a more transparent U.S. government.
One example of eDiplomacy’s success is its facilitation of diplomacy in Iran. In 2009, after Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected, many citizens suspected electoral fraud. As a result, there were increasingly violent protests. Though normal media and communication channels were hindered at this time, people were able to use Twitter to organize and communicate. Meanwhile, a State Department official Jared Cohen noted that Twitter would shut down temporarily for a routine scheduled maintenance in the midst of the protest activity. Seeing the important role Twitter was playing in these protests, he called up the social-networking site and requested they delay the maintenance. This is just one example of the State Department’s ability to play an important role in global politics through social media.
So, has eDiplomacy bettered the United Stated diplomacy? Alec Ross, the former Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, says yes. He believes the Internet and other connection technologies are important because they are the largest current geopolitical structures. Additionally, he believes if the government ignores social media’s potential role in diplomacy, it will experience reduced influence and reduced power. I am inclined to agree with him. The ability of social media to reach out directly to millions of people, to provide information in oppressive nations, to raise awareness of global events in real time and to mobilize people is unprecedented and too valuable to ignore. While the State Department needs to hone their implementation of eDiplomacy, its potential is too overwhelmingly positive not to pursue.