Are Social Media Overrated?

President's Views


In the spirit of creative dissent, which animates all of us in AFSA, let’s take a look at the utility of social media as a diplomatic tool.

Yes, this is serious heresy. Twitter and Facebook are important, we are reminded daily, sometimes along with the minor deities of YouTube and Instagram. I enjoy them for their entertainment value, and appreciate their utility in disseminating linked longer pieces and signaling informal messages; but I still have concerns.

I commend the State Department for using social media to expand our overseas audiences. But overemphasizing this tool may come at a cost to hours spent in face-to-face interchanges, preferably in local languages. That’s where we develop the type of trusting and committed relationships needed to advance U.S. interests.

The utility of social media is the kind of issue that deserves more space for discussion than Twitter’s 140 characters, or even this column’s 600 words, and I welcome your feedback.

So, let’s take a moment to admit how much fun it is to stay in touch with friends from former posts over Facebook and to follow our ambassadors and principals over Twitter. At their best, tweets offer a haiku-like artistry of messaging.

Following news on Facebook and Twitter can save us time, by providing a daily take curated by others we trust, instead of visiting dozens of websites.

Social media can enliven our policy messaging with new forms and ensure we reach online audiences.

All true.

My main concern is that we just don’t know how effective these social media really are for diplomacy. They may offer no more than marginal or superficial ways of influencing foreign audiences. (Note: I am not addressing here their value for intelligence purposes.)

For instance, an Egyptian organizer of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests told me she dismissed Facebook for mobilization in her country. A distinct minority of Egyptians are online, she noted; and Facebook was not a key factor in getting the million-plus people to the Square and keeping them there, or in sparking protests elsewhere in Egypt.

Perhaps the main harm with spending daily time drafting Facebook posts and tweets is the lost opportunity to get out and meet contacts and engage foreign audiences, as well as exchange ideas with one’s colleagues and staff. Those are well-established ways of making an impact and influencing others.

My main concern is that we just don’t know how effective these social media really are for diplomacy.

Here is another concern. My wife doesn’t use Facebook because it reminds her of American-style celebrity culture. The puffed-up holiday letters from friends is the beloved, old-fashioned counterpart; but those come only once a year.

In the realm of public diplomacy, by attempting to exploit public curiosity about diplomats, Facebook and Twitter may unintentionally reinforce an unattractive self-regard (“Look, here’s what I did today!”) that doesn’t necessarily advance any U.S. policy message or value.

Finally, there is social media’s demand for constant input—otherwise your short-attention-span followers and friends could go elsewhere. If one is faced with a need to send three or four tweets a day to keep one’s audience, doesn’t that lend itself to trivial messaging?

In short, social media are fun and relatively new tools whose full utility is as yet unclear. I hope that in our fascination with the new we don’t lessen our focus on the proven, effective work of direct outreach to key contacts and audiences. Doing that well is more satisfying and fun.

Be well, stay safe and keep in touch.


Robert J. Silverman is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.