Lost in Cyberspace

Why the State Department’s proposed new Twitter restrictions are a terrible idea.


According to a draft U.S. State Department document obtained by the blog Diplopundit, State employees tweeting in their official capacity may soon have to submit their tweets to a two-day review before posting them. Like other measures being considered in Foggy Bottom, the restrictions on tweeting are meant to ensure employees do not write things that could "damage the department" or disclose "protected information," which goes beyond current prohibitions on disclosing personally identifiable information and classified material.

Although the review began before the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted controversial denunciations of the anti-Mohamed YouTube clip that sparked riots in September, friends at State tell me that Embassy Cairo’s tweets — which were not approved by Washington — gave added urgency to the effort to draft new guidelines for online behavior. State’s contemplated restrictions on its employees’ use of Twitter do not arise from a misunderstanding of a medium; some of Twitter’s most prominent members, including Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, work or have worked at State. Rather, State worries that the freewheeling, uncontrollable environment of Twitter could lead the public interpret the tweets of its employees as representing the official U.S. position on sensitive issues.

Although State’s fears are understandable given the misunderstandings that frequently occur on Twitter, it might consider the upsides of unrestricted tweeting before implementing its new policy. The job of many Foreign Service officers overseas is to understand people in their host countries and build positive relationships with them. One can gain some insight from passively reading tweets by locals, just as one can gain insight by sitting in an embassy and reading local newspapers. But true insight comes from frequent interaction, which more readily challenges assumptions and sharpens cultural awareness. Over time, these interactions can lead to enduring relationships that are useful in a crisis, as Cohen found during Iran’s Green Revolution. Enduring Twitter relationships are also a safeguard against tweets being taken out of context, as I found as a private citizen when Twitter users defended me against unfair accusations following my tweets about Anders Breivik’s attack in Norway. The more State allows its employees to tweet during periods of calm, the more likely it will be that the institution can weed out problem tweeters and elevate those who have done a good job cultivating a community of interest.

There is also something to be said for creating a little distance between the official U.S. position declared by a State spokesperson and tweets from embassy spokespeople and employees. State can take a long time formulating messages in response to crises because it has to vet them in many offices and, often, with the national security staff in the White House. By allowing embassy tweeters to message on their own, State will get early indications of what works and what doesn’t for the various audiences it is trying to reach. The department is also relying on people who know the country better than folks back in Washington. If an employee says something that does not work, State has the luxury of correcting it publicly.

Take away unrestricted tweeting, however, and State has only itself to blame for a message gone wrong; it loses its strategic depth because it has nowhere to retreat. Take away the ability of State employees to have meaningful, real-time interactions with people online and State loses a powerful tool for accomplishing two of its core missions: creating positive ties with foreign citizens and knowing what makes them tick. The United States’ ability to achieve its objectives overseas will suffer as a consequence.

UPDATE: Alec J. Ross, senior advisor for innovation at the Office of the Secretary of State, responds:

Updating our social-media guidelines will help make the State Dept MORE open and social media-centric, not less open. It will also make us faster.

EXISTING guidelines allow a 30-day review period for all forms of public communication, including those intended for online publications and social media, though in practice review and response is much quicker. That means that the policy we have in place NOW allows us a 30-day review period. If the DRAFT guidelines go into effect as they are (and they’re still draft), that would shrink from 30 days to two days for a small subset of content. It doesn’t mean that we would take the two days or that it would increase the number of social media posts that are reviewed. We just want to provide an outside window by which employees are promised a response.

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