Digital Diplomacy: Why It's So Tough for Embassies to Get Social Media Right

The 21st century is a tough time to be a control freak.

RTR2T5X5-615.jpgGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel uses her phone ahead of a ceremony in Berlin. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

In trading punches last night over the recent unrest in Libya and Egypt, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney exposed one of diplomacy's more difficult challenges: how much information do political leaders need before responding to a crisis? Each man's tactical response to the actions of U.S. diplomats in Cairo last month is telling. Obama chose to wait for more news -- too long, some said; Romney pounced with a political attack -- but knew too little, others charged. At the center of the storm was a press release and a handful of tweets from the American embassy -- statements, it turned out, that hadn't been approved by Washington.

The issue of whether U.S. agents on the ground were speaking on their own authority or representing the Obama administration policy isn't an academic fine point. It raises big questions about how a new form of diplomacy, a kind conducted by way of digital media, subverts and overturns traditional ways of carrying out a critical governmental function.

If there's one word to describe the state of digital diplomacy now, it's "messy." The most committed foreign ministries of governments around the world maintain dozens of social media accounts -- some to represent embassies, others to speak for specific programs, still others to broadcast on behalf of individuals. Even then, a diplomat's public Twitter profile is more likely to be run by a public affairs officer than by the appointee herself.

It doesn't help that as a branch of public outreach, digital diplomacy -- the use of social media to talk to foreign peoples -- faces such high expectations as a supposedly revolutionary technology. There's no easy way to evaluate digital-diplomatic success -- or for that matter even to set targets for success in the first place, as compared with traditional forms of diplomacy that involve results-focused bargaining and negotiation.

Digital diplomacy can thrive only if foreign ministries accept some uncertainty over what to do and how to behave.

But the time is coming when governments will grow confident with their social media efforts; and when it arrives, the achievement is likely to go unremarked.

Part of what's driven the recent boom in digital diplomacy is as much an atmosphere of anxiety as of opportunity. Beneath the rhetoric about making new connections with people is a constant uneasiness that if we don't get this right, we'll get left behind. Never mind by whom; the fear alone -- of missing out on conversations, missing out on telling people what and how to think, missing out on the prospect of leveraging a nation's collective voice for strategic purposes -- is powerful enough to get governments scrambling to figure social media out. "If we don't join that vibrant arena, we will become irrelevant," fretted U.S. State Department spokesperson Tara Sonenshine at the United States Institute for Peace earlier this week.

That anxiety has its advantages: It raises the pressure and incentives for governments not to abandon the technology just because the path forward with it is uncertain. But it does nothing to resolve the ambiguity over what social media can actually accomplish for diplomats. Few ministries appear to have figured out exactly what to do with it. As a result, much of what ends up being touted as "innovation" in digital diplomacy is actually just a digital twist on one or another page from the old-style diplomacy playbook.

One of the ways that digital diplomacy has benefited foreign missions to date is by enabling open-source intelligence. Where countries might previously have invested capital in monitoring radio, TV, and newspaper products from another state, governments now have access to billions of digitally connected citizens writing -- and in some cases creating multimedia -- about events in real time. Beyond expanding the number of potential sources available to intelligence analysts, the explosion of social media analytics like Klout helps diplomats identify "influentials" in a given network and engage them.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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