Keep on Tweetin’

The embassy debacle shouldn't end 21st-century #diplomacy.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The notorious tweet reaffirming a statement that condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" has been deleted by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but the incident raises a question that lingers: Is blasting out 140-character messages on Twitter a good way to conduct diplomacy, given the political, and even mortal, risks?

As the official who led the State Department’s venture into social media toward the end of President George W. Bush’s administration, I am certain the answer is yes. In fact, my worry is that the Cairo tweeting affair will make already risk-averse diplomats even more gun-shy. That would be a shame. U.S. officials need more autonomy to use social media, not less.

In the past four years, the number of Facebook accounts worldwide has increased sevenfold, but growth has been much greater in countries critical to U.S. security. In Egypt, there were 800,000 Facebook accounts in mid-2008; today, there are 12 million. In Pakistan, the increase has been from 250,000 to 7 million; in Turkey, from 3 million to 31 million. Twitter, which barely existed in 2008, is growing even faster.

The objective of U.S. public diplomacy is to influence foreign audiences in order to advance U.S. foreign-policy objectives, and to that end, no one has ever invented a better tool. Through social media, it’s possible to get access to the public largely without government or media filters (which, in places like China, amount to the same thing).

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, can communicate directly with millions of Russians on social media. Anti-American media can’t block him out or distort what he’s saying, and the fact that the Russians have been chasing Voice of America off their airwaves doesn’t deter him.

Some of McFaul’s messages seem trivial. On Saturday, Sept. 15, he tweeted: "Stanford football plays its biggest game of the season today against USC. Debating whether to get up at 330 am to watch." But on that same day, he linked to the poignant three-minute video that Christopher Stevens posted on YouTube when he became ambassador to Libya. It has 100,000 views. Earlier this year, after McFaul gave a critical speech, the Russian Foreign Ministry blasted the ambassador with nine tweets in an hour, called him "unprofessional," and said he was spreading "blatant falsehoods." McFaul gave as good as he got on Twitter.

McFaul, who came to Barack Obama’s administration, as his football taste shows, from the heart of Silicon Valley, knows how to use social media and, as a scholar of Russian politics, understands the nuances of communicating with an idiosyncratic audience. So does another prolific tweeter, Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO and a former think-tank scholar and writer. But what about other diplomats? Is letting them use a Twitter account in a volatile world like handing a kid a loaded gun?

Since this administration took office, the State Department has sent more than 100,000 tweets from more than 200 accounts; almost every embassy has at least one. The guidelines for clearing tweets are the same as for clearing a written communication. The ambassador is ultimately the responsible party, and he or she defines the local clearance process, usually with another embassy official making the conventional decisions. Tweets can’t question or contradict U.S. policy, and, if an issue is especially sensitive, the embassy is supposed to get clearance from Washington.

The problem is that tweets aren’t the same as news releases. The medium really is the message, and, to be effective, a tweet needs to have a spontaneous, personal, and witty cast to it. In fact, it’s hard to think of two forms of expression more different than a diplomatic communiqué edited to within an inch of its life and a breezy tweet.

On the other hand, tweeting is precisely what diplomats should be doing. Tweets put American ideas smack into the center of a neutral, unmediated conversation — the best environment for persuasion in an age in which audiences are skeptical of official pronouncements and hard to fool. Less substantive tweets and other social media messaging — like McFaul’s football comments — can humanize diplomats and lay the groundwork for more substantive efforts at influence.

To be effective, social media require more personal authority and less bureaucratic oversight. Yes, the State Department should restrict who can tweet and absolutely stick to a rule of no freelancing on policy. Your job as a tweeter is the same as your day job: promoting America’s interests as the president sees them. But, except in the case of truly sensitive matters, clearance should not be necessary. If someone screws up, fix it afterward — and quickly — and hold the messenger responsible.

The problem at the State Department has been not too much talk, but too little. My predecessor, Karen Hughes, tried to encourage ambassadors to communicate by sending a talking-points email daily, with quotes from the president and the secretary. The message was, "If they can say it, you can — and you should." That has continued, but there’s still reticence. What I saw at the State Department was a deep fear that a single misstep — just one — will stop your career in its tracks.

In 2010, two of the State Department’s best young officials, Alec Ross, the technology guru, and Jared Cohen, a Bush appointee with whom I worked to set up a network of online anti-violence groups now called, traveled to Syria with a group of Silicon Valley executives. Ross and Cohen tweeted on the trip about buying American-style ice coffee at a university near Damascus and challenging a Syrian minister to a cake-eating contest. The New York Times said that these casual tweets "raised hackles on Capitol Hill." But instead of criticizing Ross, who is still at the State Department, and Cohen, now a Google executive, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised them for symbolizing the drive to "21st-century statecraft."

She was right. It would be unfortunate if the reaction to the Cairo tweet further inhibited most diplomats’ inclination to risk aversion.

That tweet, according to reporting by Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin, appears to have been an outlier. It began life as a news release from the embassy, issued at 12:18 p.m. Cairo time on Tuesday, Sept. 11 — about four hours before demonstrations began and six hours before attackers breached the embassy’s walls. The problem was that, even after the breach, the embassy continued to stand by the original theme. A tweet at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, since deleted, stated, "This morning’s condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy." The storming of the embassy was treated almost as an afterthought.

A State Department official told Rogin that the original statement was sent to Washington for clearance before posting and the Cairo embassy was told not to send it without changes, but Cairo put it out anyway. Rogin quoted the unnamed official as saying, "People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content.… Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone-deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance."

The top communications official in Cairo is Larry Schwartz, whom I knew at the State Department as one of the best in the business. He was the top public affairs officer in both India and Pakistan and had just left Washington, where he was running the Public Diplomacy Office of Policy Planning and Resources. Schwartz is outspoken, smart, and a bit rough around the edges — which makes him both a rarity at the State Department and just the kind of person who should be using social media. His shop has been extremely active in Twitter and recently got into a nasty little colloquial spat with the Muslim Brotherhood that deployed the tool just right.

Clearly, if the unnamed State Department official is telling a straight story, Schwartz, who also vetted the original statement with his deputy chief of mission (the ambassador was in Washington at the time), should have made changes. Even if he sent out the first message too hastily, there was plenty of time to fix it. That’s the thing with tweeting — you can make corrections in real time.

A bigger problem, however, is that I suspect the Obama administration did not have a clear policy on how to handle scurrilous videos, cartoons, and the like. The rioting that followed the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005 caused Bush officials, me included, to work hard preparing for another such event. We were sure it would happen again.

The right response today, I believe, has three parts, and the order is important: 1) violence is never acceptable, and America will take strong action if its people and property are attacked, 2) we believe in the principle of free speech, and 3) all religions deserve respect.

Effective public diplomacy begins with clear ends (which, as an aside, I am not so sure the United States has in Egypt or other parts of the Middle East), and leaders have the responsibility to communicate up and down the line both those ends and the right messages to achieve them. Get that right, and then liberated diplomats on the ground can use the amazing tool of social media — a gift, really — to powerful effect.

James K. Glassman served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in U.S. President George W. Bush's administration. He is now executive director of the Bush Institute.