U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterpart Catherine Ashton simultaneously announced on Twitter the negotiation agreement between Iran, the European Union and United States. This week, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine has been sharing messages from prominent activists in the country and congratulating members of the Ukrainian parliament on their votes. In Washington, dozens of employees of the U.S. Department of State are tasked with visiting extremist forums to counter the opinions of users with extreme views that are anti-human rights and anti-civil liberties.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: In English, Russian or Farsi, dozens of accounts are contributing to the development of the digital diplomacy in the U.S. that is becoming a key part of the country’s strategy for helping, among other aims, to resolve the crisis in Ukraine and share ideas that promote equality abroad. Eight hundred thousand followers on Twitter and almost half a million on Facebook — the total number of all social media followers involved may be as high as 2.5 million — make this policy "a great tool for amplifying our message," as Douglas Frantz, assistant secretary for Public Affairs at the State Department, argued at a conference in Washington this week.
"Well over half the world’s population right now is under the age of 30 ... And those people live online," said Evan Ryan, assistant secretary for Education and Cultural Affairs. "So for us, our success in terms of enhancing mutual understanding through exchange programs, we need to work online and through digital media."
Ryan, who previously worked as part of President Obama’s team in the White House, said that information exchanges with users of social media allow the U.S. to connect with people in other countries, helping them to "understand the work that we’re doing here in the United States. And for us, exchanges are long-term diplomacy."
The State Department confirms that like the president’s electoral campaign in 2008, this strategy stemmed from his work as a community organizer in Chicago, long before entering politics. He "understood that a strategy that sought to empower regular people in their own society to effect the change that they wanted to see was the right place to start," explained Macon Phillips, coordinator for International Information Programs in the State Department.
The U.S. is now employing these online tools to create a strategy aimed at helping to achieve the goals of traditional democracy online. "We still have room to improve of looking at how we can have a more human tone in our content since we are going direct to people," said Phillips, although he admitted that maintaining a balanced strategy in an institution with more than 12,000 employees "is a real challenging tension."
The use of social networks for diplomacy purposes involves significant risks for the United States. Frantz, formerly a journalist for The Washington Post, explained that no bureaucratic control has been established specifying what Secretary Kerry — whose personal account was re-established a few weeks ago — or any other ambassador can and cannot post. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt recently made an error and was forced to delete a message whose author, a journalist, asserted that the White House had accused Russia of publicizing a video, in which the ambassador was heard saying "fuck the EU."
"You want them to be willing and able to take responsible risks ... If you’re behaving responsibly, we can expect small mistakes," explained Frantz. "You have to take into consideration the culture of the place where you are. You have to realize that anything you say on social media, you should consider that it [is] being said to the entire public around the world."
"We can’t go into that with the sort of virtual suit and tie approach, and this is a big challenge," added Phillips. The challenge is to send a message that will be coherent across all platforms, from secret communication channels to Twitter accounts. "What we need to do is create a culture that empowers them to move quickly, but also is collaborative enough that they can ask for help."
One of the latest to do this was Kerry himself. The secretary of state contributed personally to the fundraising effort for victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, publishing an image of himself holding a sign showing the web address where donors could contribute. "It took maybe six or seven minutes total ... and it was an enormous hit – not just in terms of attracting followers and people watching it, but in terms of raising money," said Frantz.
The State Department has moved from setting up Twitter accounts in various languages to an even more direct strategy. Kerry met with various bloggers in China last week, and this week Ryan took part in an online chat about a Muslim superhero as part of the Comic-Con international comic conference in San Diego.
Emily Parker, researcher and author of the book "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices of the Internet Underground," explained that these initiatives highlight the differences between the United States, world leader in freedom of expression, and countries like Cuba, China and Russia. "There’s a lot of sensitivity about U.S. interference in the digital sphere," said the researcher. "And then the other part of it is when the U.S. government tries to engage bloggers in these countries, sometimes it compromises these bloggers."
The State Department defended Kerry's meeting with the Chinese bloggers as an opportunity to show that free access to the Internet is advantageous to countries themselves, as well as their citizens. "If you’re Russia or China or Cuba and you’re trying to shut your internet, it’s a losing proposition," added Frantz. "You’re going to lose at some point."
Faced with censorship in other countries, the U.S. hopes to extend the tentacles of its diplomacy through social networks. In Zimbabwe, a local tweet about the Young African Leaders Initiative, backed by President Obama, helped to attract more than 300 attendees to a leadership event. "To see social media drive that kind of attendance at a real-world event, well, I just had to ... realize they wouldn’t have been here without it," said Phillips. During the recent crisis in South Sudan, the State Department reached out to former participants in U.S. exchange programs, asking them through their social media accounts to help end the violence. "We wouldn’t have been able to do this 20 years ago. But now we have a direct connection to these alumni who are on the ground in these countries ... and we can reach out to them when we need to," said Ryan.