On Feb. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed and refined the U.S. Department of State’s “Internet freedom” policy. Nestled within her speech was an interesting wrinkle in the State Department’s communications strategy: new Twitter accounts that move beyond English. In 2011, digital diplomacy is multilingual.
On Feb. 17, a Spanish account (@USAenEspanol) and a Hindi account (@USAHindiMein) went online. On Feb. 18, the State Department’s French account (@USAenFrancais) appeared. On Feb. 22, a Russian account (@USApoRusski) launched.
“The audiences off those tweets are important audiences,” said Alec Ross, shortly before Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom at George Washington University. “We need direct-to-people communications with native Farsi and Arabic speakers. There are events unfolding in Iran that we want to be able to communicate directly with the Iranian people about. This is a moment in time when we want to be able to speak directly to people in Arabic as well. This may be a new tactic, but the principles date back to the earliest parts of the Obama administration.”
The accounts in Farsi and Arabic are run by people in the Middle East, said Ross. The accounts operate within the policy confines of the State Department, but they have some autonomy. There may be some rough edges yet, however, around customizing the language used in the tweets to connect to the massive “youth bulge” in the Middle East, where about 60% of the region’s population is under 30.
Table for the moment relevant questions about whether the United States should support Internet freedom through technology. These new Twitter accounts represent both something old and something new. As new means for communication have become available throughout history, governments have harnessed them to broadcast to their citizens — and to the governments elsewhere in the world. In certain respects, Twitter, Facebook or other social media channels serve as a 21st-century complement to the more traditional broadcasts from Voice of America.
In an online chat that followed Secretary Clinton’s speech, Ross elaborated on the use of these connection technologies. “Our use of social media is not for regime change, it’s a communication mechanism,” he said.
That mechanism has become increasingly relevant in areas where state-controlled media has limited information about what’s happening. Twitter feeds in languages like Arabic and Farsi, “allow us to communicate in places where the nation state controls broadcast media; where they might control what you see on TV or hear on the radio,” Ross said.
The combination of mobile phones, Al Jazeera, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in Egypt and Tunisia created a new data nexus for governments and citizens alike. “We’ve become accustomed to a society where the vast number of people are connected, especially with cellphones,” said Ben Scott, policy adviser for innovation at the State Department. “In a lot of countries, they’re just starting to get to a critical mass. Many of the challenges we’ve been facing for years are now occurring in developing countries.”
Whether the operators of these accounts are empowered to catalyze reciprocal feedback loops is another matter. Tapping social networking platforms to provide better intelligence for diplomats in Foggy Bottom or the White House will require more than broadcast behavior transplanted from the last century. Applying software to digital diplomacy is about much more than social media. It’s about integrating communications across channels.
“We’re not checking off what people tweet,” said Ross. “We’re empowering the edge of the network.”
Fundamentally, moving to a distributed strategy for engaged communications would, in fact, be a better example of 21st century statecraft than the creation of any number of new Twitter accounts.
“A lot of the time, the intelligence in networks lives in the edge of the network,” said Ross. “People who are in a foreign post may very well have better real-time optics into facts on the ground than people in an office in DC.”