Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Shortcomings of Tweet-o-Diplomacy

Apparently social media PD, with all its multiple "offshoots", is seen as the new panacea for all problems and inter-state tensions. Last week Ashton Kutcher, with an entourage of prominent IT reps, arrived in Moscow to encourage Russia's online community to take up social causes, as well as discuss the recent project "Electronic Russia", which is supposedly an attempt to improve communication and governance in the country.

The delegation visited Russia as a part of Clinton's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative. Lead by DoS's Jared Cohen, the group included high-profile tech people such as eBay CEO John Donahoe, Mozilla Foundation Director Mitchell Baker, and Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter. Kutcher, as the most popular Tweeter, with more than 4.5 million followers, was going to take care of the visit's "celebrity glitz". 

They were supposed to hold important meetings with important Russian officials about important technological projects and discuss the importance of social media in fostering open society. All in the name of opening up yet another field of cooperation and partnership between the two countries, and, perhaps with the hope of establishing closer ties between the web and social media enthusiasts from both the US and Russia (even if just symbolically). Buzz words such as "empowerment," "multi-stakeholder partnership," "E-Government," as well as pompous promises of creating a Russian Silicone Valley or establishing closer corporate cooperation were flying all over the place.

It's all supposed to be great and promising. However, the DoS seems to have overlooked several tiny-bity but very important points:

--> Kutcher - Come on! Couldn't they do better? Not only can't he put a decent sentence together [seemed like someone had given him a list of "key terms" to sprinkle his speeches with, and instead, he just came up with an incoherent sequence of babbling: see video], but his very credibility as a "celebrity diplomat" is to be questioned. The St. Petersburg Times pretty much captured the attitude. CNN's Fortune Brainstorm Tech went even further, detailing some of the Tweet-achievements of the delegation members. Certainly recommend reading the whole piece (makes for a good laugh!), but here are a couple of highlights:
# Howcast CEO Jason Liebman apparently had some advice to share with his enthusiastic young followers on how to play beer pong.
# Cohen described the visit in a tweet as "facilitating peeps-2-peeps". 

(Image courtesy of My Opera)

--> More importantly, Spinternet - While the US thinks social networking sites and 140-character-long messages can foster freedom and openness, it fails, once again, to capture foreign thinking and understand how things work elsewhere. To fall back on Evgeny Morozov's points: Kremlin is actively seeking to use the Internet and the social networking sites to "promote state interests"; while he also warns against embracing a myth of "techno-utopia", especially in less democratic states.

--> Don't get me started on corruption and the power of the state...

It seems like the visit was not very fruitful, and it even failed to gain significant media attention. Was it because the DoS's approach in this case was fundamentally wrong and not really appropriate for the circumstances, or was it Kutcher's fault?

P.S. - I just really hope Armenia doesn't come up with the bright idea of enlisting Kim Kardashian to do our official Public Diplomacy [which seems to be close to non-existent at the moment, by the way]. After all, she's got more than 3 million followers and ranks the 7th in the Top Tweeter list. But then in PD, unlike in celebrity PR, the motto "bad publicity is still publicity" can be dangerous...



  1. Oh, Yelena, I could not agree with you more -- and not simply because Mr. Demi Moore gives me the creeps.

    Yes, Kutcher seems like an odd choice. But maybe he's got that Hasselhoff-esque quality that makes him more popular abroad than in his native country? Granted, he's inarticulate. But "articulate" is hardly the first word that springs to mind when one things of Twitter.

    My real contention is that I have some reservations about Twitter as a medium of communication. How flexible can a communications technology be when its primary distinguishing characteristic is its limitations? I think the State Department's excitement about this demonstrates a lack of reflection. Whom does the DoS hope to reach and what message are they trying to send? Regardless of the answer, I doubt they're accomplishing their goal in 140 characters or less.

    Still, Clinton is making an effort to expand the Department's outreach, and they're bound to hit a few speed bumps along the way. Let's hope the next one looks a little less like an elaborate episode of punk'd...

  2. *thinks* of Twitter. Speaking of inarticulate...

  3. Lena,
    This piece of mine on twittering might amuse you:
    "Twittering; or, Where are the Emily Dickinsons at the State Department?" Huffington Post

  4. Thanks for the comments! :)

    I admire DoS's attempts to use any possible means - including social media - to conduct public diplomacy ("Total PD", remember?). My problem, however, is the WAY they do it and the apparent exaggeration of hope attached to such means. It can be just another component of overall strategy, but it CANNOT be among the leading/most important components. It also has to be VERY well thought out, and should certainly NOT involve the likes of Kutcher, who are derided (no, I wouldn't say he's any more popular in Russia/FSU than here) and who cannot stand a chance of making a real impression, especially after such disastrous press conferences.

    As regards Dr. Brown's post - indeed, very interesting! Again, not that I'm opposed to Twitter in principle, just worried about the underestimation of its limitations: shortcomings. You very correctly point out that in many ways Russian culture is a "high-context" one, that would often prefer depth and elaboration (although not always, especially now). In any case, given the stereotypes held of Americans, not-so-friendly general attitudes, and the NEED TO CONVINCE the public to take the Americans seriously and appreciate what they have to offer, it is dangerous to rely on a sentence-long whine by an DoS official involving bikini, or, to quote one of Kutcher's tweets: "Wonder if its gonna snow today in Sibera? Sorry dumb question." I'm afraid, it will only further reinforce the already-held stereotypes, especially if we're talking about the "larger/mass" public that might not be as well informed or familiar with what America truly stands for. Such representations are turning people off, rather than being appealing...

  5. Hmmm, what can I say.. the virtual PD is still in its infancy in regards to the people who are the supposed "targets" of it. It is clearly visible-the US cannot have a virtual PD in China and Iran, the citizens (or perhaps tribesmen) of Afghanistan and Iraq hardly have internet access and of course, the Russian hackers being in top 3 of the world rank-list hardly need encouragement from the state to sabotage any such attempts in Russia. Let's not forget that according to some polls (I am sorry but they are on the web somewhere too busy looking for hyper links now) the Russian citizens still conceive USA to be their greatest enemy. And that hubby of Moore-well I think he is good for babysitting, but definitely not for a visit in Moscow.

  6. well, that's why they're trying all these cell phone projects (to be implemented) in Afghanistan, radio/TV elsewhere + the Internet. the problem here is not just the medium, but also the message (and well, the latter does depend on the former in cases such as Twitter), since people need good arguments and PROOF to be willing to listen, consider, and especially, to believe.
    yet again, PD cannot make up for bad policy..