The U.S. State Department’s Social Media Balancing Act

by Rebecca White

In a recent Fletcher Forum article, “21st Century Statecraft and the Perils of Twitter Diplomacy,” Dr. Mark Drapeau rightly highlights the growing importance of social media in the U.S. diplomacy sphere, along with its pitfalls.  The explosion of social media has indeed revolutionized U.S. diplomacy, enabling embassies to easily broadcast their efforts to anyone with Internet access. However, I wish to take Dr. Drapeau’s analysis a step further and argue that the recent U.S. Embassy Cairo incident not only illustrated social media’s impact, but also the challenge the U.S. State Department faces in presenting a unified foreign policy stance, while giving its embassies the freedom to interact with local groups and react to events.

The U.S. State Department began its digital diplomacy push with overwhelming force under former Secretary Hillary Clinton, launching what it calls 21st Century Statecraft. Today, according to their website, the U.S. State Department has 301 Twitter feeds connecting to 2.6 million followers in eleven languages, and its 408 Facebook accounts have over 15.5 million likes and friends department wide. In addition to Twitter and Facebook, U.S. embassy public affairs offices use Youtube, Flickr, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram to connect with their local audiences. They have also extended their social media presence to platforms used more widely in other parts of the world, such as Orkut in Brazil, me2day in South Korea, and QQ and Weibo in China.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has continued former Secretary Clinton’s commitment to digital diplomacy. In a meeting with diplomatic staff and families at U.S. Embassy Rome, Kerry highlighted the impact of social media on foreign policy, saying that diplomats are,“in an age where it isn’t a letter that comes from the cardinal to the king in someplace; [communication is] instantaneous.”

However, the recent event at U.S. Embassy Cairo, which Dr. Drapeau described in his article, highlights the U.S. State Department’s struggle to maintain a balance between speaking with one voice and giving embassies the freedom to communicate directly with local audiences. The incident in Cairo two weeks ago was not the first of its kind. In September 2012, U.S. Embassy Cairo responded to public outcry in the Muslim world over an anti-Islam film made by an American citizen with a reportedly unauthorized statement and supporting tweets: “U.S. Embassy condemns religious incitement[…]we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Later that same day, protestors breached embassy walls in Cairo and took down the American flag. This incident was followed by a tweet from the embassy, later deleted, reaffirming their earlier statements.

U.S. embassies are encouraged to publish social media terms of service and create social media guidelines to manage their online presence with guidance from State. According to the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson Victoria Nuland, “Department policy is that main State manages Twitter feeds that come from main State, that the embassies and consulates and their senior leadership manage the content that is on their feeds, and they are expected to use good policy judgment in doing that.”

Although this show of faith in our Foreign Service officers is reassuring, more should be done to prevent future missteps. The events in Cairo highlight the fact that “good policy judgment” does not always lead to good outcomes without Embassy-specific guidelines for executing a message. While events cannot often be predicted, U.S. embassies abroad can be prepared to handle them in the online environment by creating rules for best practice and procedures for communicating and coordinating responses with Washington. Providing embassies with specific examples of what not to do may curtail U.S. embassies’ dissemination of controversial opinions and language that can be misconstrued by various audiences. The U.S. State Department’s Office of Public Affairs is in a unique position to act as a hub of information where embassies can share both positive and negative experiences in social media to learn from past mistakes and successes.

As the U.S. State Department takes advantage of new opportunities and innovations to connect with dissidents and dignitaries alike, it must ensure that it also provides the guidance and support its embassies need to effectively engage online audiences. By collaborating with embassies to create a comprehensive online strategy for public engagement, the U.S. State Department can foster a cohesive foreign policy message and better prepare embassy staff to handle controversial issues.

About the Author

Rebecca White is an online communications professional focusing on U.S. Foreign Policy at a think tank in Washington, DC.

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