Social Diplomacy

Or How Diplomats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tweet

Soon after protests erupted outside the U.S. embassy in the Egyptian capital last September, inspired by the posting on the Internet of an American-made anti-Islamic video, the embassy posted a statement saying, “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” The statement appeared in two forms: a three-paragraph press release, e-mailed to various government officials and journalists, and a 123-character tweet.

The tweet made waves first. The conservative Twitter-watching website Twitchy posted it under the headline “US Embassy in Cairo chooses Sep. 11 to apologize for hurt Muslim feelings.” Republicans quickly called the embassy’s actions an example of the Obama administration’s appeasement of U.S. enemies, and the Romney campaign denounced it as “disgraceful.” The White House soon disavowed the statement, saying it “was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.” @USEmbassyCairo deleted the tweet within hours, and, according to media reports, within weeks the senior public affairs officer on duty in Cairo that night was recalled to Washington.

The Cairo incident wasn’t the first time that a diplomat’s tweets have sparked a firestorm. Sometimes even apparently benign or accidental use of social media can lead to diplomatic discord. In February 2012, for example, the Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, posted a tweet with a photo of his official car on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Chinese citizens expressed shock at the discovery that a prominent Western ambassador would drive a plain old Toyota Camry; the tweet threw the ubiquitous use of luxury cars by even mid-range Chinese officials into sharp relief and led to a storm of posts on Chinese bureaucratic excesses.

WHY IT’S WORTH IT

In a profession where inappropriate, unclear, or careless phrasing can undermine countless hours of painstaking negotiation, it might seem like a huge risk to send public messages limited to a paltry 140 characters that can go viral almost instantly. Yet today hundreds of diplomats around the world have official Twitter accounts, and the numbers are growing weekly. Diplomats are not only permitted but encouraged to tweet, especially by the U.S. government, which has touted social media engagement as a key part of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft initiative.

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