BOSTON, Massachusetts — Last February, when shelling in Homs had intensified, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford posted unclassified satellite imagery on the US Embassy in Damacus’s Facebook page. The pictures showed the Syrian military’s movements as they approached Homs. Ford was no longer in Syria, but he wanted to continue to have a dialogue with the people there. He used the imagery to explain US foreign policy in Syria, reaching the thousands of Syrians who followed him on Facebook.
The move was part of the State Department's new effort to transform how foreign policy is conducted. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made 21st Century Statecraft — using networks and technologies as part of the United States’ foreign policy agenda —a priority. Since then the Department has used social media to further its foreign policy agenda, according to Victoria Esser, the deputy assistant secretary of public affairs for digital strategy at the State Department.
Ford's use of Facebook is one of many examples that show how digital strategy is both informing the State Department and the people in countries where information is not clearly accesible. In January 2012, the State Department opened a virtual embassy in Tehran, hoping to disemminate clear information about how to apply for a US visa, information about attending university in the US, as well as information and context about some US foreign policy decisions.
Esser has been charged with overseeing the State Department's social media platforms, broadcast operations and website. She sat down with GlobalPost's social media team recently and said that social media helps the State Department in three ways — as a way of understanding people and events on the ground in a richer way, as a powerful tool to disseminate messages about US foreign policy, and as a way of stripping away the formality of diplomatic barriers.
Have you noticed any ways in which your policy has been shaped by conversations, from either the virtual embassy in Tehran or social media?
Esser: I would take a step back from the specific question and talk about the role of the dialogues that you're hearing on social media on the creation of foreign policy. To me, social media is in some ways like a giant public opinion poll, only a lot more chaotic, and a lot more real time. And of course it factors into policymaking, but you're not going to govern or create policy by public opinion, solely. Governments are designed to be responsive to people, so of course the feedback that you're getting factors into the creation of foreign policy decision making.
In countries like Iran where internet freedom can be seriously limited, how do you make sure that people can use social media to ask the State Departments questions?
Esser: I would say two things, first of all by the end of last year, the Department had spent about $70 million in training and policy advocacy to help keep [people] safe in the most repressive regimes... In Iran, an incredibly closed off government is trying to create an intranet essentially, and cut off citizens by creating an electronic curtain. But we're seeing citizens able to access the virtual embassy [in Tehran]. There are ways, people will find a way, and we believe that it's important to be active in those spaces where people are trying to engage in dialogue as a way to keep communication open and provide access to information.
How is the State Department planning on capitalizing on the changes now being seen in Burma [Myanmar]. Do you have plans to engage that population using a similar strategy?
Esser: We're certainly thinking about it. It's an important time, so we do want to think it through. It's certainly a challenging environment, right? You know the limitations of the lack of internet penetration there, which one would hope that as the country continues to open up that will change. When the Secretary made her historic trip there, it was challenging just to get the photo and video out of there in real time because of the bandwidth issues. But we did, and we have some really great pictures. So, there's no easy answer to it, but we are going to figure out what makes sense in that environment.
How do you think that social media under the State Department would be different under a Mitt Romney administration?
Esser: I'm not going to speculate on who’s going to be the next president, or what that president may or may not do. When Secretary Clinton came in, she laid down this marker that for us to be focused on using innovation to forward our foreign policy goals... You have to recognize that it's important and you have to empower the people that you work with to engage in these online networks. It’s still a big, traditional bureaucracy, and that brings inherent challenges, but there is a real sense to me, a real willingness that it's okay. It has to come from the leadership and [Clinton] has said let's take smart risks. Smart being the operative word, but let's take smart risks and try different things and not everything is going to work but we need to try and we need to keep up with what's happening in the world.