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Should Ambassadors Tweet? U.S. Embassies and Social Media

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By Daniel Schuman, Cassandra LaRussa, and Ryan Sibley with Daniel Cloud, Kevin Koehler, Andrew Pendleton, Matt Rumsey, and Bridget Todd.

Twitter has become an important tool for social revolutions and civilian mobilization across the world, from Egypt to London to Iran, and has been increasingly embraced by the U.S. government. A Sunlight Foundation investigation looked at Twitter use by U.S. embassies and found that approximately 69 percent of embassies have official or semi-official Twitter accounts as of March 2012.

See our results here.

The U.S. State Department encourages the use of social media and actively tweets as part of a new “21st Century Statecraft” initiative, with diplomats required to undergo Twitter training. But why do 121 U.S. embassies have Twitter accounts, and 54 do not? What do they say through these accounts? And who listens?

Speaking in 140 Characters

Each of the 121 different embassies on Twitter has its own approach to communications. Some accounts are purely official, while others link to the personal Twitter account of the ambassador. Some embassies primarily share news articles about foreign affairs and circulate embassy newsletters, while others focus on cultural events in America and in their respective countries. Many “re-tweet” messages from the State Department and other government agencies, and some -- such as the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan -- post information about violence and safety precautions.

Most Twitter feeds have more outgoing content than interactions with their followers. Occasionally, people will tweet “at” an embassy, but embassies are not always able to answer specific questions. The U.S. Embassy in Dublin,  for example, responded to a visa inquiry by telling the tweeter to call instead.

The Egyptian Embassy, however, demonstrates how social media can be used for active engagement. Individuals and organizations regularly tweet “at” the embassy, and the embassy consistently tweets back. For instance, the embassy replied to a critical tweet with “sorry you feel that way, happy to talk with you if you like to discuss anything in particular.”  It also shows instances of policy discussions between individuals and embassy officials. For example, an Egyptian tweeted “America would never want a smooth democratic transition for an Arab country knowing that said nations are anti Israel.” The embassy tweeted back “Not true. We think that democratic transition in #Egypt is good for #Egypt, region, United States, and whole world.” It may be 140 characters, but it is dialogue.

 

You Speak My Language

Many embassies make an effort to connect in local languages. A fair number of U.S. embassy Twitter accounts post messages in languages other than English, including China and Spain.

Take for instance the Twitter feed for the US embassy in Athens, which happens to post to the account in both English and Greek. According Marie Blanchard, a spokesperson for the embassy, they use the twitter feed to broadcast news related to the U.S. government and Greece in addition to features about Greece. This Greece-focused Twitter feed is handled by a writer employed by the embassy, but Blanchard said that the ambassador himself might start tweeting soon, adding that the importance of Twitter to the embassy is growing.

While many of these Twitter accounts are aimed at both citizens in their host country and Americans abroad, some pick one or the other. The account of the U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, “American Corner,” is aimed almost exclusively at Macedonians and educates Macedonians about American government and culture and offers information about opportunities to get an education in the U.S. The “American Corner” is broadcast in English, however, which likely limits its reach.

Oddly enough, of the 121 embassies that tweet, only 99 have their Twitter accounts linked to from their official websites, although there are at least 119 official Twitter accounts. Ten embassy websites link to the Ambassador’s personal account, including two embassies (Japan and Bulgaria) that link to the ambassador’s personal account but do not maintain a separate account of their own. (It’s unclear whether the ambassador to Japan’s account is official.) When we started researching this story in December, we could not find a U.S. State Department list of embassy Twitter accounts, but there is now a list of 99 embassy accounts. This incomplete list suggests that embassy adoption of Twitter is a largely an organic process, and one that has outpaced headquarters.

Why Aren’t More Embassies Tweeting?

There does not seem to be a clear answer as to why more embassies aren’t using Twitter. We did find a weak correlation between how free a country is (as judged by Freedom House) and the local embassy’s use of Twitter. Of the “free” countries with U.S. embassies, 51 embassies are tweeting, and only 22 are not. Of the countries labeled “partly free,” 39 embassies tweet while 13 do not. Only 27 embassies in “not free” countries have Twitter accounts, while 16 do not.

We tried to examine whether Twitter use by an embassy correlated with Twitter adoption in a country, but we were unable to obtain reliable numbers of the number of people in a country using Twitter. (Neither Twitter nor comScore, a digital marketing intelligence firm, would release their data on Twitter usage rates.) The U.S. embassies in the top 10 countries identified by comScore for Twitter penetration all maintain Twitter accounts.  We did not look at Internet penetration rates as a proxy for Twitter penetration because some countries use a Twitter alternative.

It could be that social media activity by U.S. ambassadors could itself inhibit its adoption by embassies. (Some ambassadors maintain a separate non-embassy Twitter account.) In February for example, officials in Russia accused the recently appointed U.S. Ambassador and Twitter enthusiast Michael McFaul of “promoting regime change”  in Russia. McFaul has used both Twitter and Facebook accounts to defend himself on a large and direct scale in both Russian and English.

Although U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was forced to leave that country in early February, he continues to use social media to communicate with Syrians and bring international attention to the violence taking place in his former host country. The official embassy Twitter account frequently links to messages from Ford via his Facebook page. The use of Twitter is unique in that it offers a way to bypass traditional media avenues and communicate directly on a large scale.

The challenges that Ambassador McFaul is facing in Russia demonstrate how U.S. embassies that participate in social media are vulnerable to backlash from their host country. However, it is clear that Twitter is has become a valuable mechanism to circumvent traditional media channels and foster a direct dialogue between foreign individuals and the U.S. government.

Methodology: To determine whether an embassy tweeted, we examined the official embassy page for a link to a twitter account and performed a Google search for "US Embassy {country name} twitter."

This article arose out of Sunlight Olympics, where staff from different departments were given a few days to come up with unique projects that drew upon their particular skills.

Image: Twitter Bird, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image from Creative Tools' photostream.

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