Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors. During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.
Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.
Last month, the Public Diplomacy Council published an insightful interview with Laurence Pope, an experienced diplomat with long service in the Middle East. Pope was asked a long-overdue question with regard to the State Department’s Twitter outreach:
Q: The Department has embraced the social media to re-shape public diplomacy and transform American diplomacy. What contribution can it make?
POPE: There is nothing wrong with the use of Twitter and Facebook and Zillow and Youtube and all the rest of it, but diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state, and social media are individual expressions by definition. This can easily create confusion —think for example of Susan Rice tweeting about the need to bomb Syria while the President was changing his mind about that. I don’t know how many Facebook pages and Twitter accounts there are at the State Department —hundreds if not thousands. When individuals speak through them, one of two things are true: either they are expressing American policy, in which case 140 characters is unlikely to be a useful way of doing so, or they aren’t, in which case their views may be interesting, but there is a risk of confusion… The Youtube videos newly minted ambassadors make are downright embarrassing. They give an impression of proconsular self-regard which is in bad taste. Diplomacy is premised on a world of sovereign states. The State Department’s fascination with social media suggests that it no longer thinks that is the world we live in, a strange notion for a foreign ministry.
Just as diplomatic correspondents and the secretaries of state they cover err by seeming to conflate miles flown with success, so too does the State Department fail by believing tweets matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin must laugh when, against the backdrop of ordering the invasion of Crimea, he faced little more than a cavalcade of angry tweets from Power. The sad thing is that the State Department now spends millions on public diplomacy, Twitter, and translations of its Twitter feed without once asking what good its Twitter feed does. That is not to deny that outreach can be positive, but it’s silly to spend such money without ever establishing metrics by which to judge Twitter diplomacy—and sillier to treat new communications technology as a substitute for substance.