Modern Media and The State Department: Friends or Foes?

Given the modern advances in technology, specifically the combination of social media’s interconnectivity with the transparency provided by the free press, the modern playing field is indeed leveled and globalized—and the diplomatic realm certainly is not immune. This is promising yet slightly unnerving. While there are undoubtedly positive outcomes stemming from increased transparency and open lines of communication across and between nations and foreign publics, they also naturally and significantly increase opportunities for political blunders and miscommunications. Of course, a public diplomacy faux pas (not to mention the occasional disaster) not only causes headaches for the officials doing damage control, but it can also jeopardize the original diplomatic intent. On the other side of the same coin, however,  extreme transparency can also compromise both diplomatic and security interests (I’m looking at you, Snowden).

The concept of deterrence is inherently manifested: increased transparency via the free press and social media can (and should) raise public officials and diplomats to a higher standard of behavior and accountability. At the bare minimum, the larger the scope through which an official is viewed, the more strategic (we hope) their actions will be.

Needless to say, constant interconnectivity is risky. But it’s a risk that State Department strategists say they are willing to make, especially with respect to the utilization of social media. The pros of digital diplomacy far outweigh the cons of potential gaffes, with the tactic helping them engage with foreign officials and publics both for fluff and during crises, like in South Sudan and in the Philippines.

The way officials act is one thing, but even the fibers of diplomacy itself have also adapted to the social media revolution. A survey conducted by Diplo aimed to measure the change seen in terms of diplomatic reporting since the influx of social media. They found that the most significant changes occurred in the areas of immediate and formal reporting: 79% of participants found the reporting to be more prompt, while 78% found it to be more colloquial. Neither of these should come as a surprise considering how each factor highlights and even echoes reasons why many of us also choose to utilize the same tool.

I, for example, often find myself compulsively refreshing my Twitter feed, increasingly relying on it  as a primary source for my own newsgathering and media consumption. While I know that I can attribute this preference to multiple factors, two of them certainly are that it’s immediate and informal. A Tweet isn’t a comprehensive piece of journalism that has hopped from desk to desk up through the bureaucratic editing echelon—it’s raw data filtered and crunched into a 140-character elevator pitch. The State Department seconds this: if we the people find it useful, why shouldn’t they?