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When discussing Twitter diplomacy, it’s easy to focus on the positives. While this strategy’s potential to increase public engagement and make US foreign policy more accessible is exciting, it also has its risks. A single poorly thought-out tweet from a lower level staff member has the ability to severely damage diplomatic relationships between governments. Recent missteps on the @USEmbassyCairo Twitter feed have provided an interesting case study on Twitter diplomacy gone wrong and sparked a lively debate about how the State Department can better manage social media policies and guidelines for embassies.

Heine and Turcotte (2013) have identified three levels of Twitter use in diplomacy. Basic tweeting is restricted to conveying official information, such as speeches and press releases. Intermediate tweeting involves a more personalized approach that allows embassies to recommend news articles and interesting events, but they are restricted to serving as more or less neutral media guides. Advanced tweeting allows embassies to participate fully in current debates, whether on the national or international stage. “Not only do they not shy away from polemical subjects, but they actively pursue them, courting controversy and thus increasing their number of followers and their impact.” While it is the most dangerous form of tweeting and the most likely to land officials in hot water, it is also the most rewarding in terms of fostering dialogue and public engagement.

The Sunlight Foundation’s examination of US embassy Twitter accounts revealed a surprising diversity of usage. While one might expect the State Department to enforce uniform policies across the board, this is clearly not the case. Some embassies stick to tweeting press releases, while other focus on cultural events or foreign affairs news articles. Still others choose not to tweet at all, despite the State Department’s emphasis on digital strategies. For the 121 embassies that are on Twitter, the most common trait appears to be a focus on pushing out content, rather than really interacting with other users.

Most of the US embassy accounts would be classified as either basic or intermediate, but the Cairo account has always made an effort to be conversational, entertaining and at times provocative. This embassy clearly falls into Heine and Turcotte’s advanced category. It shares silly links about “tweeting plants,” posts political commentary, references West Wing episodes and regularly asks its followers how their days are going. In the Sunlight Foundation article the Cairo embassy was actually singled out as a role model for citizen engagement because of its unique willingness to be interesting and converse with anyone who tweets at the account. While the embassy’s attempts to be less robotic are admirable, it also has a habit of overstepping its bounds and threatening US foreign policy.

Most recently the embassy tweeted a clip of The Daily Show that showed Jon Stewart mocking Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and criticizing the Egyptian government’s arrest of “Stewart’s Egyptian doppelganger” Bassem Youssef. The Muslim Brotherhood, the president and some Egyptian citizens have lashed out at the embassy for the tweet.

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But the State Department has taken a much more subtle, diplomatic stance than Jon Stewart on Morsi’s behavior, hoping to avoid completely alienating the new Egyptian government. The Cairo embassy’s more aggressive tweets appear to contradict the official stance and send mixed messages about the United States’ position to Egyptians.

On Wednesday, the ambassador of Egypt temporarily shut down the account to revaluate its mission and implement new social media procedures – without the approval of State Department leaders. Later the same day, the account was reactivated (sans all recent controversial tweets) under pressure from Washington, DC. The State Department was concerned that the shutdown would be interpreted as a signal that the United States could be pressured into silence and self-censorship on sensitive issues. It appears leaders wanted to avoid a repeat of the Cairo embassy’s last public relations crisis during the 2012 presidential campaign when the Romney campaign criticized its tweets for bowing to complaints from unfriendly Middle Eastern countries and practicing “apology diplomacy.”

The current controversy in Cairo begs the question, “How can the State Department encourage active, engaging social media use, while still preserving message consistency and protecting itself from diplomatic missteps?”

Twitter’s unrelenting demand for interesting, immediate content can threaten traditional diplomacy, which used to really on carefully constructed written statements and interpersonal interactions that would promote US policy without unintentionally stepping on anyone’s toes. TIME perfectly summed up the challenge as follows: “Diplomacy has always been the art of politesse and subtly, two words that are virtually incompatible with Twitter.” Situations like the one in Cairo make it easy for critics to question whether diplomacy has any place on a platform where “the loudest and most provocative voices garner the most traction and attention” (Heine & Turcotte, 2013). In addition, Twitter’s openness and real-time focus are eroding the traditional State Department hierarchy as staffers at embassies around the world are sending out messages that many assume represent the official US stance.

This is something the department has been grappling with since last December, when it began considering a policy that would encourage employees tweeting under their official capacity to submit tweets for review two days in advance. Currently only a small portion of particularly sensitive online content is required to have prior approval from Washington, but the latest @USEmbassyCairo incident has raised the question of whether that level of control should be required for all tweets.

But on Twitter, two days is an eternity. Making such restrictions an across-the-board requirement would limit embassies and diplomats’ ability to post current news content, respond to followers’ questions in a timely fashion and live-tweet interesting or important events. By removing any element of authentic, real-time interaction, the State Department would be taking the “social” out of social media.

If it hopes to benefit from the public opinion boosts that accompany interaction and public engagement, the State Department must be willing to accept the risks that come with social media use. Learning what messages and strategies works best with target audiences in their specific countries will inevitably involve a little trial and error. Nevertheless, embassies must retain a large amount of autonomy in order to be agile and responsive enough to be effective.

The case of @USEmbassyCairo should not deter the government from embracing Twitter diplomacy but instead should encourage better training and clearer social media policies. Both the findings of the Sunlight Foundation and this current example appear to suggest that these things are badly lacking. Embassies should have the knowledge and training they need to make smart on-the-fly decisions without constantly needing to defer to Washington before sending a tweet. With proper instruction and clearly defined objectives for social media strategies, embassies have the potential to be engaging and interactive online without causing another diplomatic crisis.

References

Fisher, M. (2012, September 13). The U.S. Embassy to Egypt’s Oddly Informal Twitter Feed. The Atlantic.

Fisher, M. (2013, April 3). U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s Controversial Twitter Account Deleted After One Too Many Public Spats. The Washington Post.

Heine, J., & Turcotte, J. (2012, April). Tweeting as Statecraft: How, Against All Odds,Twitter Is Changing the World’s Second Oldest Profession. Crossroads: The Macedonian Foreign Policy Journal3(2).

Mccants, W. (2012, December 10). Lost in Cyberspace. Foreign Policy.

Newton-Small, J. (2013, April 3). Diplomacy in the Age of Twitter. TIME.

Rogin, J. (2013, April 13). Embassy Cairo Shuts Down Twitter Feed After Muslim Brotherhood Spat. Foreign Policy.

Rogin, J. (2012, September 12). Inside the Public Relations Disaster at the Cairo Embassy. Foreign Policy.

Sarukhan, A. (2013, April 3). Diplomacy and the Digital Age. Huffington Post.

Sunlight Foundation. (2012, May 8). Should Ambassadors Tweet? U.S. Embassies and Social Media.

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