Diplomatic Pouch / February 5, 2015
By Larry Luxner
How do diplomats connect with ordinary citizens in the promising, yet potentially perilous, age of hashtags, hackers and online terrorists?
Some 160 people converged on the Italian Embassy in Washington last week to find out. The Jan. 29 event featured Moira Whelan, deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy at the State Department; Aaron Sherinian, head of communications at the UN Foundation; Garth Moore, digital director at ONE; Jake Brewer, director of external affairs at Change.org, and Andreas Sandré, public affairs officer at the Italian Embassy. Moderating the panel was Brian Fung of the Washington Post.
Sherinian, former press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, said times have certainly changed since he began his career in the Foreign Service.
“The first computer I used as a diplomat was a Wang with a green screen,” said Sherinian, who also held top positions at U.S. missions in Armenia, Costa Rica and Colombia before moving to the nonprofit world. “Diplomats take an oath, and today the ones in their 20s are taking their oaths with a phone in their hands. For 62 percent of people 18 to 44 years old, the first thing they touch in the morning is their phone.”
Accordingly, the way American diplomats reach out is changing as well.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” said Brewer. “At one point, the government was forbidden from using cookies, and the debate was over whether members of Congress should tweet or not.”
Now, it seems, everyone has a Twitter account, and the State Department is using the Internet to fight back aggressively against websites that incite, among other things, terrorism in the name of extremist Islam.
“Our goal is to have a conversation with people who push an agenda that promotes violent acts of terrorism, and to push back at them. Hopefully it’s not aimed at anyone in this room,” said Whelan, provoking some nervous laughter.
“Violent extremists are actually harming Muslims,” she continued, noting that the State Department’s outreach efforts are global in nature. “We have to engage. You can’t win the war of ideas if you’re not participating, and this recognizes the transnational nature of social media. We aren’t saying we’re only going to tweet back at people in the U.S., we’re looking at anyone pushing this agenda.”
To that end, virtually every U.S. diplomatic mission abroad now has its own Facebook and Twitter account.
“We have empowered all our embassies to have their own appropriate social media platforms for the countries they’re in,” Whelan said. “It is decentralized because we want them to address issues locally. They know where to find information, and our embassies will continue to do that in the way that best suits their policy objectives.”
Even so, Sherinian suggested that big institutions are no longer crucial to connecting people. As an example, he cited the recent summit on climate change, where activists were talking to each other across continents, and not through Foggy Bottom or the United Nations.
“What we’re seeing is the evolution of a new constituency, the emergence of what some call the social good community, people who identify themselves as engaged, entrepreneurial, enlightened citizens, or just those who love to tweet,” he explained. “Getting people to talk to one another shows that the participatory age doesn’t need an institution.”
Brewer noted the case of an Iranian man with Italian citizenship who faces execution in Tehran for insulting Islam.
“A mother living in Italy learned of this and got 200,000 people talking about this sentence. She’s now organizing to bring a petition to the Iranian Embassy in Rome to push the issue,” he said. “This is a platform of last resort for many people who have tried normal procedures like calling the prime minister’s office, and when they’re not heard, they turn to the big public megaphone.”
Moore, whose nonprofit recently used social media to help raise funds for African countries to fight the Ebola epidemic, said the livestreaming of summits and international conferences has helped raise awareness of causes dramatically.
“Things have to be more open now,” he said. “As activists, we’re trying to engage the populace to be part of that. It’s a whole new level of global participation that we’ve never seen before.”
During the Q&A which followed the presentation, someone asked Whelan about the State Department’s role in countering Kremlin propaganda regarding Russia’s military offensive against neighboring Ukraine. She cited Michael McFall, the former U.S. ambassador in Moscow, who frequently criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin via Twitter. Prior to his February 2014 resignation, The Daily Beast noted that “in the tight-knit world of Moscow’s opposition, McFaul has become something of an Internet celebrity, making him a true 21st-century diplomat.”
Whelan said McFall was already a credible expert on Russia even before his appointment as ambassador in Moscow; he’s since returned to Stanford University as a professor of political science.
“One of the things we’re going for is authenticity and genuine knowledge, instead of just using [social media] as a microphone. Ambassador McFall is the leading expert on Russia, so we continue to back him, much as we back Ambassador [Geoffrey] Pyatt in Ukraine. We’re trying to get out real information and fight through the cacophony to present real facts,” she said. “In Russia’s case, they’re fighting against a propaganda machine.”
Whelan added that the United States “has the upper hand” because it engages in a “democracy of ideas” where people are free to express themselves.
“We’re not going to defeat anyone with a hashtag. It’s backed up by policy. The secretary is very outspoken about our position in Ukraine with regard to Russia. Our social media presence reflects that and will continue to do so.”