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State Department Asks Twitter to Stay Up (and Other Notes on Digital Diplomacy)

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 16 2009

UPDATE: Here's one from the vault. Clinton, in late May, explaining her vision for 21st century statecraft that "bring[s] together technology and the talents of our citizens to influence events in ways that previous generations never could have imagined."

UPDATE AGAIN: Just a perhaps belated note of caution about the report below. The way Reuters reported the interaction between the State Department and Twitter could refer to anything from a one-to-one phone call between someone in the department and someone in the company to something more formal. Reading this as "Secretary Clinton calls on Twitter..." or, heaven forfend, "President Obama orders Twitter..." is simply nowhere near justified by the reporting in hand.


There's an fascinating anecdote reported by Reuters and picked by the New York Times' The Lede blog. Officials inside the State Department, it seems got in touch with the San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. to encourage them to hold off on the service outage planned for last night, mid-morning Tehran-time:

The U.S. State Department contacted the social networking service Twitter over the weekend to urge it to delay a planned upgrade that could have cut daytime service to Iranians, a U.S. official said on Tuesday. “We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication,” said the official of the conversation the department had with Twitter at the time of the disputed Iranian election. He declined further details.

A rather striking sign-of-the-times incident in and of itself. But the aspect that particularly jumps out is how State's outreach to Twitter sits squarely in the context of what the State Department has been attempting to do in the last few months in the field of what's been referred with terms like "digital diplomacy," "21st century statecraft," and "citizen diplomats." The idea is rather simple: the modern peer-to-peer tools of communication brought to us by the Internet and other digital means can alter the flow of world events.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed the concept in recent speeches. She told graduating seniors at Barnard in mid-May, for example, that, "You can organize through Twitter." She also said, "[W]ith these social networking tools that you use every day to tell people you've gone to get a can unite your friends through Facebook to fight human trafficking," and "These new tools are available for everyone. They are democratizing diplomacy." The stated mission of the Virtual Student Foreign Service started by Clinton is all about increasing the capacity of America's young people to "conduct digital diplomacy that reflects the realities of our networked world." And this concept of digital diplomacy was part of the thinking behind the State Department's new-media delegation sent to Baghdad this spring that included representatives from many of the companies at the core of what's been happening around Iran online, including YouTube and Twitter.

Still, even for those sympathetic to the State Department's idea that these tools are powerful, before this week it was somewhat difficult to see how, exactly, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook were going to change the course of history. That's still not entirely obvious, but Clinton and the State Department are looking a bit prescient these days, and that picture is a little clearer.