Majority of US embassies tweeting for diplomacy, report says

More than two-thirds of U.S. embassies now use Twitter to advance their e-diplomacy efforts, according to a new report by the Sunlight Foundation open government group.

Out of 175 embassies reviewed, 121 had official or semi-official Twitter accounts, while 54 had none, the May 8 study indicated. The transparency group said the figures were current as of March.

The embassies tweet a wide variety of content, including official announcements, news articles, cultural event updates, travel warnings and links to personal Twitter accounts of U.S. ambassadors. Most tweet in English, while a “fair number” also tweet in the language of their host country.

Most of the embassies are primarily broadcasting information, rather than interacting with other users of Twitter, the study said.

Sometimes, people will tweet a question to an embassy, but embassies “are not always able to answer specific questions,” Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, wrote in a blog commentary about the findings. For example, the U.S. embassy in Dublin, Ireland asked a tweeter to call in instead.

One of the standout embassies for engagement is the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, which regularly engages in dialog with users on Twitter, Sunlight Foundation said in the report.

Some of the discussion is about political policy. After an Egyptian user tweeted a skeptical remark about American attitudes toward Arabs transitioning to democracy, the embassy tweeted back: “Not true. We think that democratic transition in #Egypt is good for #Egypt, region, United States, and whole world.”

The State Department only recently compiled a list of embassy Twitter accounts, and currently lists only 99 of the 121 accounts. “This incomplete list suggests that embassy adoption of Twitter is a largely an organic process, and one that has outpaced headquarters,” Schuman wrote.

The study indicated that there was no obvious answer as to why more embassies aren’t using Twitter.

One possibility is that social media use by U.S. ambassadors could be inhibiting adoption by the embassies, the report suggested.

The report cited the example of officials in Russia recently accusing newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul of “promoting regime change” in their country. McFaul has used Twitter and Facebook to defend himself in both Russian and English.

“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 dialog between foreign individuals and the U.S. government,” Schuman wrote.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, May 9, 2012

The State Department tries to focus on building local communities that are customized to the language and culture of a specific geographic location. We do not dictate what social media tools or platforms should be used by an embassy or consulate. These decisions are based on what technologies are available in that geographic location and which tools the community we want to engage with uses. It isn't about what we want to use, it is about going where the people are. Ambassadors and other people in the Department are encouraged to use social media where it makes sense and as it complements their social media strategies. We provide a framework for these strategies based on our policy objectives for a specific location and/or group of people. The embassy or consulate develops those local strategies based on their local environment, availability of technology, policy objectives, resources, and more. More online engagement is a goal we are focused on and are diligently working with embassies and consulates to improve.

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