The Foreign Service Journal - March 2014 - page 7

MARCH 2014
n the spirit of creative dissent, which
animates all of us in AFSA, let’s take a
look at the utility of social media as a
diplomatic tool.
Yes, this is serious heresy. Twitter
and Facebook are important, we are
reminded daily, sometimes along with
the minor deities of YouTube and Insta-
gram. I enjoy them for their entertain-
ment value, and appreciate their utility in
disseminating linked longer pieces and
signaling informal messages; but I still
have concerns.
I commend the State Department for
using social media to expand our over-
seas audiences. But overemphasizing this
tool may come at a cost to hours spent
in face-to-face interchanges, prefer-
ably in local languages. That’s where we
develop the type of trusting and commit-
ted relationships needed to advance U.S.
The utility of social media is the kind
of issue that deserves more space for
discussion than Twitter’s 140 characters,
or even this column’s 600 words, and I
welcome your feedback.
So, let’s take a moment to admit how
much fun it is to stay in touch with friends
from former posts over Facebook and to
follow our ambassadors and
principals over Twitter. At their
best, tweets offer a haiku-like
artistry of messaging.
Following news on Face-
book and Twitter can save us
time, by providing a daily take
curated by others we trust,
instead of visiting dozens of
Social media can enliven our policy
messaging with new forms and ensure we
reach online audiences.
All true.
My main concern is that we just don’t
know how effective these social media
really are for diplomacy. They may offer
no more than marginal or superficial
ways of influencing foreign audiences.
(Note: I am not addressing here their
value for intelligence purposes.)
For instance, an Egyptian organizer of
the 2011 Tahrir Square protests told me
she dismissed Facebook for mobiliza-
tion in her country. A distinct minority
of Egyptians are online, she noted; and
Facebook was not a key factor in getting
the million-plus people to the Square
and keeping them there, or in sparking
protests elsewhere in Egypt.
Perhaps the main harmwith spending
daily time drafting Facebook posts and
tweets is the lost opportunity to get out
and meet contacts and engage foreign
audiences, as well as exchange
ideas with one’s colleagues and
staff. Those are well-established
ways of making an impact and
influencing others.
Here is another concern.
My wife doesn’t use Facebook
because it reminds her of
American-style celebrity culture. The
puffed-up holiday letters from friends is
the beloved, old-fashioned counterpart;
but those come only once a year.
In the realm of public diplomacy, by
attempting to exploit public curiosity
about diplomats, Facebook and Twit-
ter may unintentionally reinforce an
unattractive self-regard (“Look, here’s
what I did today!”) that doesn’t necessar-
ily advance any U.S. policy message or
Finally, there is social media’s
demand for constant input—otherwise
your short-attention-span followers and
friends could go elsewhere. If one is faced
with a need to send three or four tweets a
day to keep one’s audience, doesn’t that
lend itself to trivial messaging?
In short, social media are fun and
relatively new tools whose full utility is as
yet unclear. I hope that in our fascination
with the new we don’t lessen our focus
on the proven, effective work of direct
outreach to key contacts and audiences.
Doing that well is more satisfying and
Be well, stay safe and keep in touch.
Are Social Media Overrated?
Robert J. Silverman is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.
Mymain concern is that we just don’t
know how effective these social media
really are for diplomacy.
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