Twitter age of diplomacy
14 August 2010
India’s foreign ministry recently joined Twitter, following counterparts in the USA and Britain and plunging into the sometimes tricky, sticky world of social networking domains. The Twitter account of the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, http://twitter.com/Indiandiplomacy, is part of an emerging phenomenon called “Public Diplomacy 2.0’’, or 21st century statecraft through Internet.
“Public Diplomacy 2.0’’, originally made in the USA, pops up curious possibilities about how governments and politicians fare in future. Will the next US presidential elections in 2012, as example, be decided on which candidate more devastatingly tweets?
India’s external affairs ministry on Twitter is, of course, an irony of sorts, after Shashi Tharoor, their former junior boss and minister of state for external affairs, already discovering how Twitter and controversies are made for each other. His sacking in April, for non-Twitter reasons, hasn’t dimmed his Twitter popularity, with almost 900,000 users apparently interested in his worldviews, within the 140-character limit of Twitter posts.
Pioneering tweeters and controversies appear an inevitable marriage, it seems. Former US first deputy assistant secretary of state Colleen Graffy, credited as being the first senior diplomat to use Twitter, also had to fend off unwanted drama. She told me she sees Twitter as being part of social networking tools that “multiply the outreach capabilities of embassies in a way that was never possible when engagement was only face-to-face.”
Graffy, presently director of Global Programs and professor at the Pepperdine University School of Law, London, was a primary architect behind the US State Department delivering “Public Diplomacy 2.0’’. Most American embassies now have Twitter accounts.
“During the Cold War, our challenge had been to get information into a closed system. Today, our challenge is to compete effectively in an open system,” Graffy e-mailed me from China last month, after having her iPhone4G stolen while visiting the American Pavilion in the World Expo in Shanghai. Graffy promptly tweeted about the theft, with a follow-up posting mentioning the “interesting cultural experience filing police report in Shanghai for stolen iPhone.”
Similar personal messages in her two-year old Twitter account had critics growling about her tweets containing inane travelogues than diplomatic insights. One of her recent postings said: “Of course I make it to Heathrow in plenty of time & Frankfurt flight is delayed. Hopefully not long enough to miss my flight to Hong Kong!”
Graffy admitted to being completely taken aback by the controversy her tweets let loose. But she defends her version of “Public Diplomacy 2.0’’, saying people need to see people in power as ordinary people. She mentioned a young Romanian student telling her during an official visit to East Europe: “We feel like we already know you - you are not some intimidating government official. We feel comfortable talking with you.”
Twitter is becoming harder to be ignored in global public relations. Only four years old, the San Francisco-based Twitter - also called “SMS of the Internet’’ - has an estimated 100 million users worldwide, with 60 per cent outside the USA.
Twitter, as I discovered this week, is not bad a medium, provided of course, how we use it. Junk content, after all, is part of every media form, and Twitter junk at least comes only about two or three lines long.
Twitter describes itself as a “real-time information network, powered by people all around the world”. It began with users having 140-characters in text to answer the loaded, somewhat existential question: “What are you doing now?” Since then, Twitter changed to asking the less personal “What’s happening?” and became a rapidly widening worldwide window to the world outside.
Inevitably, diplomats, politicians and even heads of state are diving into Twitter. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev visited the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on 22 June. Twitter creators Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone would have hardly dreamed in 2006, when launching the service, about the President of Russia popping up in their office four years later to open his account.
Twitter power hit a high in June 2009, when the US state department asked the company to delay a planned upgrade for Iranian users, to avoid interrupting Twitter service at the height of anti-governmental protests. Young Iranians were tweeting to protest against the national elections, after their government had sent media packing, including CNN. Twitter was about the only news outlet from Iran, before it too was unplugged. Media pundits pegged the Teheran protests as the birth of the “Twitter Revolution”.
Revolutionary cutting-edge communication tools are obviously not much use without quality content, or laying out more essential basic foundations. One of the first postings India’s foreign office mandarins put up was an ancient photo album of Rabindranath Tagore, though what he had to do with foreign policy was a mystery left unsolved. In contrast, the US state department and the British foreign office Twitter accounts are better nourished with abridged foreign policy briefings, news, links to the foreign office website, transcripts of online discussions and more hints at some potential of “Public Diplomacy 2.0’’.
However, Indian diplomacy on Twitter has matured during the past month, offering useful foreign policy material, official briefings, interview transcripts, comments, copies of agreements between India and other countries, such as with Burma on 27 July.
But even before traipsing too deeply into Twitter and “Public Diplomacy 2.0’’, India’s diplomats would do well to catch up with “Public Diplomacy 1.0’’ - namely, updating the ministry website from its current Internet Stone Age existence, publishing correct telephone numbers of Indian embassies worldwide, and reducing complaints of shoddy service to those contacting the embassies in person. The dal-roti basics have to be served before any scraps of Twitter dessert.
The writer is a freelance contributor