21st Century Statecraft and the Perils of Twitter Diplomacy

by Mark Drapeau on April 16, 2013

No serious person currently in a public affairs or a senior leadership role can ignore the importance of social media as a communications tool. However, the rise in opportunity stemming from this new medium of interacting with audiences comes with a different set of rules of conduct, challenges, and pitfalls.

Sometimes these new rules of conduct are humorous. When a Tumblr blog named “Texts from Hillary” launched in April 2012, it made a photo of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looking at her phone through sunglasses into a hilarious web phenomenon. But social media at the U.S. State Department can also be much more provocative, as it found out in a recent Twitter diplomacy dust-up with Egypt.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s official Twitter feed has nearly 50,000 followers and is regularly engaging and occasionally controversial. In an incident two weeks ago, the Embassy tweeted a link to a segment of The Daily Show in which host Jon Stewart criticized Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for arresting comedian Bassum Youssef for mocking Morsi. President Morsi’s office tweeted back: “It’s inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda.”

Then things took a strange turn. U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne W. Patterson ordered the Twitter account taken down in its entirety. Conversations back-and-forth with Washington ensued, and then the account was restored, with the controversial tweet stricken from the site. Deleting a tweet you are unhappy with is not unprecedented, but when diplomats and politicians do it, the incident takes on a heightened level of significance. A spokesperson for the State Department couched the issue in rather diplomatic terms: “We’ve had some glitches with the way the Twitter feed has been managed.”

What is to be learned from this social media mini-scandal by your average foreign policy professional, or a budding diplomat preparing to enter the modern world of 21st Century Statecraft?

The Internet never forgets. People sometimes say things they regret, and social media conversations are no exception. But a high-profile official or institution outright deleting a controversial tweet makes you look guiltier than you may actually be. Deleting the tweet is also futile because there are always archives, screenshots, and other mechanisms by which what you said will live on regardless of what you do. The website Politwoops, run by the Sunlight Foundation, features deleted tweets from politicians, with specific information about when a tweet was posted and deleted with time elapsed, screenshots of the tweets, and ability to sort by fields like the state or political party with which a person is associated. Politwoops focuses on Members of Congress, but the underlying technology could be applied to any group of people.

Many watchdogs equate “public” with the desire of publicity. However, many observers do not recognize this distinction. The simple fact is, once something is made public there is very little one can do to control its spread. Politico recently reported on how LegiStorm, a research organization that focuses on Congress, has begun tracking the social media accounts—including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest—of Congressional staffers, people who play an important role in policymaking, yet typically maintain a low profile. As with Politwoops, this tracking strategy could be applied to State Department employees, foreign policy graduate students, think tank experts on international relations, and so forth.

Social media mistakes are worse than those made in other mediums…for now. When prominent people misstate themselves in print or on television, they apologize or issue a brief statement and that often concludes the incident, unless the infraction is egregious. When prominent people misstate something on social media, however, the juxtaposition of age and power with technology commonly associated with youth and humor, combined with the directly attributable nature of social media content (i.e., quotations can theoretically be made up or edited, and can definitely be taken out of context, but tweets from the source itself cannot), can add legs to a story. The good news is that as social media gains wider acceptance as a legitimate medium for conducting serious conversations, the heightened repercussions of such mistakes will gradually decrease to the level of those committed during interviews on television.

Whereas there were once just a handful of digital ninjas disrupting the normal order of institutional diplomacy, a recent study by Brookings identified over 150 people at the U.S. Department of State working on 21st Century Statecraft. With even the venerable former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recently launching a Twitter account, it is clear that this new type of public engagement is here to stay. As NYU professor Clay Shirky told the New York Times Magazine in relation to criticisms of so-called Twitter diplomacy, “The loss of control you fear is already in the past.”

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