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Examining eDiplomacy: Like it or Not, It is Essential and Here to Stay

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, October 30 2012

Secretary Clinton, State Dept Flickr stream

During the September 11 riots outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo, a staffer's sarcastic response to a tweet from the Muslim Brotherhood led to an exchange that was widely covered by the mainstream media.

The tweets came on the heels of a controversial statement that the embassy published on its website shortly after an Egyptian salafi television show broadcast The Innocence of the Muslims, a crude U.S.-produced YouTube video that portrayed the prophet Mohamed as a womanizer and charlatan.

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
— September 11, 2012

Following the ensuing riots, the Romney campaign made hay out of the Cairo embassy's statement. The Republican candidate accused President Obama of "apologizing" for core American values like free speech, and of pandering to the Muslim world — all made worse by the statement having been issued on the anniversary of 9/11. Obama and Clinton distanced themselves from the statement and the tweet, both of which have since been deleted from the State Department's social media accounts.

But the staffer was not fired and the State Department does not seem to have altered its social media policies following that incident. President Obama actually told 60 Minutes that he thought the staffer should be "cut a little slack."

"In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn't come from me, it didn't come from Secretary Clinton. It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger," Obama said. "And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office."

Direct, informal communication between diplomats and non-state actors is less than one decade old, but in that time has become both common and essential. It is called eDiplomacy or digital diplomacy by many; the State Department calls it 21st Century Statecraft.

For the first time in history, the vast majority of people around the world have access to instant communication, either via a mobile phone or the Internet or both. This presents the opportunity to influence and interact directly with large audiences — which translates into political influence.

In a newly published paper for the Brookings Institute, nonresident fellow Fergus Hanson delves into the history and workings of the State Department's digital diplomacy activities. The title of the paper is Baked in and Wired, which describes the author's premise — based on the material presented — that direct online interaction is now an essential component of public diplomacy and statecraft. The paper for Brookings expands upon an earlier one for the Lowy Institute, Revolution at State, which outlines the types and methodology of eDiplomacy. This second paper delivers more depth and many colorful, illustrative anecdotes, as well as some new information — like the somewhat startling fact that the number of people following State Department social media accounts worldwide has doubled since January 2012.

eDiplomacy has dramatically changed the way diplomacy is being conducted. The State Department now communicates directly with more than 15 million people via social media—at the push of a button. Citizens no longer need to physically go to embassies to have their questions answered—they can simply read tweets. Viral videos can instantly force their way onto a foreign policy agenda and private corporations are exploring the State Department’s innovations.

According to State Department representatives quoted in Hanson's paper, Clinton and Obama understand that it is impossible to control the Internet. So, wisely, they have decided to embrace its freewheeling nature, using social media platforms and direct communication so that it allows them to learn from their mistakes as they shape it to work for their interests. That is why President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are willing to "cut some slack" to an embassy employee who makes what sounds like an undiplomatic statement on Twitter, or who publishes a statement on the embassy Facebook page that unleashes a storm of criticism. For all the controversy, the incident allowed State Department monitors to gauge public opinion by seeing that many of their Egyptian followers retweeted the embassy staffer's comment approvingly, or that they "liked" the statement published on the embassy's Facebook page.

State Department representative Alec Ross explains to Ferguson in the video below the folly of ignoring eDiplomacy. "If you do care about your country's foreign policy interests it is advisable to be attentive to the Internet … Those that refuse to engage — I think the consequences will be reduced influence and reduced power."

Ben Scott, Policy Advisor to Hillary Clinton, is also quoted on State's attitude toward the Internet: “Our basic assumption is that we’ve all lost control of the information environment—the only option is to embrace the change and work to shape it.”

The State Department, Hanson writes, has become a de facto media empire with "...a larger direct reach than the daily subscriber base of the ten largest newspapers in the United States." State's Facebook pages, Twitter handles, YouTube channels and Flickr accounts have a combined following of over 15 million — a number that has doubled since January 2012.

"The whole world is watching" was never more true than in the age of social media.

Hanson's paper is a detailed, broad-ranging summary and analysis of the State Department's online diplomacy, including goodwill efforts that are designed to disseminate U.S. influence via projects meant to be "fun" and "engaging," — like Innovation Generation and Democracy Challenge (Hanson mentions that the State Department at first hid its involvement in these initiatives, until it came under criticism for its lack of transparency). It includes telling anecdotes, video clips and embedded tweets that speak to events in very recent memory, reminding the reader of the extent to which digital diplomacy has become an essential tool — whether it be for statecraft and diplomacy via direct engagement, or for more prosaic uses like allowing people to make visa appointments or RSVP for an event. Hanson points out, for example, that many senior State Department officials highlight their Twitter handles and Facebook pages when they speak at events.

Baked in and Wired looks at the uses of digital diplomacy in state branding, diplomacy, instant communication and data analysis; it assesses the successes, risks and failures in each category, using relevant details and anecdotes for illustration. But the main, important point is that whether we like it or not, digital media and the reality of a super-connected world that transcends economic and geographic barriers make it impossible to ignore or disengage.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.