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.


German 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.

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.

Sometimes monitoring  social media presents opportunities for direct engagement. In June, NATO's Afghan mission became embroiled in a Twitter spat with Taliban supporters. The encounter gave coalition forces the chance to directly rebut the Taliban's arguments in a live, public setting.

Unfortunately, such opportunities for direct benefits from digital diplomacy are rare. More common are the indirect benefits. Presuming for now that agents from one government are capable of using social media to stir up political will among citizens of another state, doing so could produce game-changing effects when it comes to international negotiations. A government that's sensitive to its population's drummed-up opposition to a proposed treaty may abandon the measure. Or, in a twist, a state whose citizenry is being pressured from the outside by another state could use that pressure as cover to accomplish what might otherwise be politically infeasible.

Obviously, it doesn't take social media to produce these effects. Variations of this game played out during U.S.-Japanese trade negotiations in the 1980s, and more recently, The Guardian tried an experiment where the British newspaper sent letters to residents of Clark County, Ohio, in a bid to swing the state in John Kerry's favor. (It failed.)

Other experimental applications of digital diplomacy have nothing at all to do with swaying public opinion. And it's these that are the most exciting. In the hours following the Haitian earthquake of 2010, U.S. digital diplomats organized a way for Americans to donate relief-effort dollars via SMS. People who texted "HAITI" to a shortcode could have $10 added to their mobile phone bill at the end of the month. Within weeks, the State Department reported having collected tens of millions of dollars in aid.What makes the last example remarkable is how it came about -- spontaneously and organically, without any precedent or prior protocols to follow.

Which raises a key question: Can the kind of digital diplomacy that has a direct impact on people's day-to-day lives be systematized or routinized in a way that makes the whole enterprise less messy?

I'm skeptical that the answer can be yes. Part of the point of social media is that its best moments -- the ones that have the greatest effects on society -- take place in spite of rules rather than because of them. Even if the guidelines exist, the system could break down just when it is needed the most. In the opening hours of the Egyptian protests against the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, the U.S. embassy in Cairo broadcast a statement that was explicitly not authorized by Washington, along with a handful of tweets defending the release. The action became the focal point of scrutiny for days. No matter how strong the State Department's existing protocol, it still collapsed in the midst of a crisis. As the State Department's Alec Ross is fond of saying, the 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak.

Digital diplomacy can thrive only if foreign ministries accept some uncertainty over what to do and how to behave. Luckily, they won't have to forever. Diplomacy may be a profession filled with veterans, but as their ranks come to include more people who grew up inhabiting social media rather than having to learn it from scratch, the more comfortable foreign ministries will be with devolving authority to the individual -- whether that means presidents and foreign ministers tweeting with their own two thumbs or the distant embassy official in a faraway land. When we'll cross that threshold is hard to say. But chances are that when we do, digital diplomacy will have become so normal that nobody will think to mention it.