Sunday, July 4, 2010

Twitter Diplomacy

I am trying to figure out whether or not there was irony behind Kim Ghattas, of the Washington Bureau for BBC News, deciding to file a story about Twitter on the Fourth of July. After all, in our new diet-conscious culture, Twitter may now be more American than hot dogs and apple pie; and it has definitely invaded the playing fields of our national pastime. (In spite of the advertising jingle that once linked these three themes, it is probably now irrelevant whether or not the Chevrolet is now "Twitter-friendly.") Indeed, the extent to which Twitter defines American culture was actually the theme of Ghattas' piece, because she pursued a consequence than many would not have expected:

If you want to know where Hillary Clinton is today, no need to watch the evening news or read the papers.

The US State Department's official Twitter account, @statedept, will keep you informed with timely tweets.

It will tell you what country she's in (Poland), what she's up to (signing a missile defence agreement), and who she's been speaking to (former Australian PM Kevin Rudd, by telephone).

Still want to know more?

You can check out the State Department's blog, sign up to its Facebook page, and watch behind-the-scenes videos.

Maybe you'd like to check out the interactive travel map, or follow the tweets of the various US embassies...

You get the picture. The department has embraced social media as a tool for diplomacy for the 21st century, with the strong backing of the Secretary of State herself.

Yes, Kim, I get the picture. As a matter of fact, I got it last March when your radio program, The Interview, invited Evan Williams, co-founder to Twitter, as a guest; and he used your bully pulpit to declare:

I think Twitter will be a fundamental part of how people interact with their government.

When Williams delivered that punch line, he scared the bejesus (yes, Kim, your own country's Shorter Oxford English Dictionary recognizes that word, albeit as an interjection rather than as the noun that many of us on this side of the pond engage) out of me, enough for me to vent my fears in an extended blog post. Today's story, however, had me thinking twice about my fears, because it included its own account of some unanticipated consequences:

Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton's senior advisor for technology, and Jared Cohen, from the office of policy planning, last month led a delegation of Silicon valley companies to Syria - one of only four countries still listed by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The visit was billed as an opportunity to engage with Damascus on a different level and attempt to introduce into an authoritarian country new technologies that could help its people connect further with the outside word.

But when Cohen sent a tweet to share his amazement about having a great "frappuccino" in Syria, it raised a few eyebrows and questions back in Washington.

The frivolity of the tweet made some wonder whether this was the right tone to strike in a diplomatic conversation with a country that has not had an American ambassador since 2005.

There was also a tweet about a challenge to a cake-eating contest with a Syrian minister.

The ensuing controversy over that frivolity subsequently led to a structural change in State Department policy:

The State Department issued rules and guidelines about the use of social media only two weeks ago. For now anyone in the building can tweet about their work; the tweets are not monitored systematically but members of staff are urged to use social media "intelligently", according to PJ Crowley.

"We're still learning how to apply these rules individually and collectively, and our policy will evolve," Mr Crowley said.

As a comparison, the British Foreign Office and embassies have official Twitter accounts as institutions. Individual British diplomats do not tweet about work.

(I hope Anthony Giddens has been following this, since this whole episode is providing data to support his theory of structuration.) Still, there is a problem with that adverb "intelligently," because any motivated action can not be deemed intelligent strictly on the basis of the act itself. The "complex" of the act and the motive behind the act need to be evaluated as a single entity; and this is where the question of frivolity comes into the picture.

Ghattas used the adjective "delicate" to describe the mission to Syria during which the allegedly frivolous tweets were transmitted. This adjective tends to be diplomacy-speak for a tentative visit to a country usually taken to be in opposition to American interests, if not downright hostile. Now in the history of diplomacy it has long been the case that one deals with such opposition through the rhetoric of demonization: It plays well at home; and, if played properly, it can intimidate the other country. (On this particular day it is important to recognize that this rhetoric of demonization plays a major role in the text of the Declaration of Independence. See how appropriate your timing was, Kim?) From this point of view, tweets about frappuccinos and cake-eating contests tend to undermine this rhetorical strategy, humanizing the opposition, rather than demonizing it; and my guess is that Cohen had no motive other than to declare that, while being a stranger in a strange land, he was encountering "folks just like the rest of us." Remember that, as I cited yesterday, without that common foundation of humanity, any documents arising from a diplomatic encounter would be, for all intents and purposes, unintelligible.

This is where we come back to that question of acting "intelligently." Diplomacy has always been a (if not the) "great game." Like it or not, social software is changing the rules of that game, exactly as the theory of structuration predicts that such rules get changed. What, then, are we to do with the "old rules?" One answer may actually come from William S. Gilbert, who wrote that, during the Napoleonic Wars, the "House of Peers … Did nothing in particular,/And did it very well." Structuration theory explains that we do not change the rules; they change as a result of the motivated actions that occurring (and not just our own). Our responsibility is to be aware of change, rather than to impose it. This is not to say that State Department rules and guidelines may be counterproductive. They can actually be very productive, but only if they reflect that awareness of change taking place, rather than a resistance to it. If we wish to advance the practices of diplomacy, we should reserve the rhetoric of demonization for that counterproductive spirit of resistance, rather than for other countries that do not agree with us on all matters!

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