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Social-Media Expert Says Conflicting U.S. Foreign-Policy Goals Hamper Effective Communication

Social-media expert Clay Shirky
Earlier this year, as uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa were successfully employing social media to overcome autocrats, the U.S. State Department sensed the moment was right to expand its foreign-language presence on the microblogging site Twitter. The department now tweets in nine languages, including Arabic, Persian, and Russian.

RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash spoke with Clay Shirky, a professor, author, and expert on the Internet and social media, about the State Department's new initiative and the role new communications technologies can play in spreading democratic values.

RFE/RL: The U.S. State Department has recently expanded its presence in the world of social media by launching official Twitter accounts in Arabic, Hindi, Persian, Russian, and other languages. So far, it appears that most of the tweets have been little snippets of official statements of public-policy pronouncements. Does this represent, to you, a full-fledged use of social networking's potential or do you think that this is more for show -- to indicate that the State Department is keeping up with the times?

Clay Shirky: The State Department can't not do things for show since it's under such scrutiny. I think the problem is deeper.

I think even if the State Department had some much more integrated way in which it wanted to use Twitter, foreign policy is the single hardest issue to manage in a democratic government -- at least if you're the United States, because we have two deeply conflicting commitments.

One, we care about democracy. We are a democracy and we want to see the other countries of the world be democracies, if, for no other reason, that it makes us safer.

But two, we have to have bilateral relations with every country on earth. And so we have to maintain a degree of cordiality with countries that are not democracies.

In the past, we've managed that by saying different things to people in different channels. So there's one official State Department statement on some issue, then there will be the talking-heads circuit on Sunday morning TV, in which people who have some inside knowledge offer more nuanced views.

And then of course there's the backstage conversation among the diplomats themselves, which we have now seen thanks to WikiLeaks. And what I think is really startling about the State Department's use of Twitter is the way in which it has become painfully obvious that they actually can't say the same thing to everybody.
What I think is really startling about the State Department's use of Twitter is the way in which it has become painfully obvious that they actually can't say the same thing to everybody.

RFE/RL: Does a particular example of this dilemma come to mind?

Shirky: In the days when [former State Department spokesman] P.J. Crowley was employed by the State Department, he would tweet things that were clearly sort of nuanced communications to our allies in the Middle East and North Africa.

This was during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. [Former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak had made some half-hearted promise of meaningless reform and Crowley came out and said, "Now Mubarak must back his words up with strong actions." And you think, "Come on! We've been propping that guy up for 30 years and we know he's not going to do anything of the kind."

So I think -- what my interpretation of what Crowley was doing was that he was communicating to our other allies in the region, "We're not going to throw Mubarak under the bus right away, but our patience is running thin and there are conditions under which we change our allegiances here."

So that was kind of a nuanced communication, but of course, the people in Egypt and Tunisia are also reading Crowley's tweets and it just makes the United States look like jerks.

RFE/RL: Do you see the U.S. State Department being able to adjust its Twitter practices in the future to get around this problem?

Shirky: The tension between managing the different kinds of State Department communications suggests to me that they will actually never be able to use Twitter in a completely open way.

In part, [that is] because they actually genuinely have conflicting goals. Their inability to say the same thing to all parties is not a function of whichever technology they're using. Their inability to say the same thing to all parties is a function of what foreign policy is like.

So, you know, I hope that people get something out of them tweeting in Portuguese and then that may open up some sense of the United States and our position and values in the world.

But I don't think that this marks anything terribly revolutionary -- their use of Twitter. And maybe more to the point, I don't think it could, because I think that the constraints on the State Department are so deep that no amount of new communications tools gets us out of those issues.

RFE/RL: Along with its new Twitter initiatives, the State Department is making an effort -- much of it behind the scenes, according to reports -- on the Internet-freedom front. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her second annual speech on the topic on February 15, said that the department would be awarding millions of dollars in funding to support digital activists and technologists as they try to evade government censors. How effective do you think Washington has been in this regard?

Shirky: There were a couple of high-profile disasters early on, Haystack being the most famous one. It was designed to help Iranian dissidents evade censorship by the Ahmadinejad regime, [but] but not only did it not work, it exposed the very dissidents that it was trying to help to the risk of discovery and arrest. So that was fairly catastrophic.

However, one thing that you can say about Secretary Clinton is not only is she smart, but she learns from mistakes, and I think it's a fair bet that nothing of that kind has happened again. I'm willing to bet....
We're going to see an enormous amount of investment in both pro-censorship and pro-propaganda technologies.

I know people inside [the] State [Department] doing work on that. Of course I don't have [security] clearance and I don't know what they're doing, but there are people whose sense of the space I trust and I believe that they are actually doing things to improve the lines of communications [among] the dissidents and between the dissidents and the United States.

Where I'm concerned is on a slightly different axis, which is, I think, that there has been, at least rhetorically, an overemphasis on evading censorship between dissidents in autocratic regimes and, broadly, the media environment of the West -- "If only people could get to Wikipedia and 'The New York Times'" kind of stuff.

In fact, I think one of the things that we can learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the Bahraini, Yemeni, and Syrian uprisings is that what matters with these tools is not the dissidents' ability to get to information, but their ability to get to each other.

So while I am optimistic about anticensorship models, I'm not optimistic that access to information is actually the main issue that we face in helping people who want to see democratic governments brought into autocratic environments. I think it's much more the social piece than the information piece that is the thing worth fighting for.

RFE/RL: One question on a bit of a different topic: Many were taken by surprise when in late January the Mubarak regime in Egypt was able to enact an Internet blackout across the country. When the government lifted the blackout after that failed to keep people off the streets, it then decided to employ social media to try to accomplish the same goal. That didn’t work either. Do you expect other authoritarian leaders to resort to a blackout attempt, or will the Mubarak case strike that out as a possibility?

Shirky: As to whether the strategy will be used again, yes of course it will. [That's] because it's a desperation move and in desperate times people do desperate things.

By the time a state gets pushed to managing a real uprising, it will do anything that it thinks buys it even 24 hours. So as ineffective as the Egyptian strategy was, there are really only a couple of strategies that countries have.

This is sometimes called "the conservative dilemma"; sometimes "the dictator's dilemma," which is [when] dictators who previously enjoyed completely unfettered access to the communications landscape are suddenly faced with media that allow people to hear one another without government involvement.

[They] basically face a trade-off between censorship and propaganda, which is exactly what you just outlined with Mubarak. First he shuts the Internet down -- that's censorship. That backfires enormously. So then he turns to propaganda but propaganda also doesn't work because he no longer owns the space.

So I think what we'll see is increasingly sophisticated attempts to shut the Internet down selectively -- a neighborhood, or a city, or a region at a time -- rather than to take a whole country offline. Or [they will try to] to shut it down for certain kinds of content. But the censorship option is really one of only two options that dictators have about novel threatening content that flows into their country, so we're going to see an enormous amount of investment in both pro-censorship and pro-propaganda technologies.