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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Digital Diplomacy: Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign

Evan Ryan
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
Douglas Frantz
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs

Macon Phillips, Coordinator for International Information Programs; and Emily Parker, author and senior fellow at the New America Foundation
New York, NY
February 18, 2014

2:00 PM EST


MS. WHELAN: Welcome, everyone. I’m glad you could brave the snow today. My name is Moira Whelan. I’m the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the U.S. State Department, and it’s my honor to open this panel today on the topic of digital diplomacy. And we’re happy to play our small part as part of Social Media Week New York, so welcome to all of you who joined us from there, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

Before we get started, just a quick word about the Foreign Press Center and where you are. The mission of the State Department is to facilitate outreach, and foreign journalists are a big part of our work. And so here in this building, what we do is credential journalists and also facilitate opportunities for them to learn more about American culture, the economy, and society, so events like this today, as well as briefings and trips. So any of you who are foreign journalists, please check in with us afterwards. We’d love to get to know you.

I also want to take a minute to welcome everyone who’s joining us via our livestream today, and also I encourage everyone to share your thoughts with us via Social Media Week. We’ll do our best, as many of you may have known, because of the work done in this building, you may have a little problem connecting the internet, but our hashtag for the event is #SMWState, so we hope you’ll consider letting us know what you think, asking some questions, and continuing in the conversation after the event.

So I want to get started today and introduce our moderator who is with us, Emily Parker. She is celebrating the launch of her new book today, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices of the Internet Underground, and is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and a veteran of the State Department, so she knows about this. But the book is – really gets to the heart of this topic, and I encourage you all to check it out – on sale today, so congratulations.

MS. PARKER: Thank you.

MS. WHELAN: And joining us from Washington is Evan Ryan. She is the Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs and served in the White House prior to this, and is really in charge of a lot of the work applying our digital tools around the world.

Also joining us is Assistant Secretary Doug Frantz, who’s my boss, so I better not screw this up. (Laughter.) He comes to the State Department from the Washington Post and other media outlets and has really witnessed how digital tools have transformed media over the years.

And finally, last but not least, Macon Phillips, who is the Coordinator of International Information Programs at the State Department, which they will get into what the work of each of these elements is. But Macon comes to us from the White House, where he directed all things digital for the President, and I’m sure has some great war stories to share with us today.

So without further ado, I turn it over to you, Emily.

MS. PARKER: Thank you so much. So let’s start with a very general question: How is social media changing the landscape of traditional diplomacy?

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, having just joined the State Department in September and having been on trips to seven countries so far, I consider myself an expert on this topic. (Laughter.) And in all seriousness though, having been there just for that brief amount of time, its impact is profound. In many ways its impact, I think, corresponds to what we’ve seen domestically here in the United States.

And fundamentally I think you’re seeing a few categories of change. One is the category of power and influence in communities, in societies; institutions are less powerful and people are more powerful. And that’s a good thing. But it’s a hard thing, I think, for institutions to adapt to, and so we’re certainly seeing places like the State Department, indeed the White House as well, really prioritize adapting to that new environment.

And the second – and this is sort of not a fun trend, I think, for people like Doug or me – is the rhythm and the pace and the volume of information that’s just exploded. And it’s made having a good working relationship with journalists, it’s has made having a good posture towards the media industry generally all the more important, just because the landscape is so broad.

MS. PARKER: Do you want add anything?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Yeah, I agree with everything Macon said. But I’ve been there a month longer, so I know it better. (Laughter.)

Social media is vitally important to diplomacy at the State Department and the way we’re doing it, and we’re using it across every platform that you can think of just about now. We have 800,000 followers on the State Department Twitter feed, about 480,000 on our Facebook page, a total of about two and a half million across all the platforms. That seems like a small number compared with Justin Bieber – (laughter) – but these are people who are engaged in the world of foreign policy. And so for us, it’s a great tool for reaching out to the people who are empowered, and it’s also a great tool for amplifying our message.

But where I might disagree sometimes – not with Macon but with others – is that I see social media as one tool. And partly it’s because of my age. I’m old, in case you can’t tell. I spent 35 years in the newspaper business. I’m still a believer in the mediation role of journalism. I still believe that journalism has a role here that sometimes is where the mediation of the professionals is sometimes lost in the din of what happens in the social media world. And so we have to be very careful within the State Department, I think, to make sure that we don’t become absorbed in the tools and the toys of social media.

MS. PARKER: As someone who comes from journalism, I’m very sympathetic to that argument.


MS. PARKER: Assistant Secretary Ryan, would you like to add anything?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: Thank you. Thank you, Emily, and hello to my colleagues in New York. I agree with everything Macon and Doug said. And the work we do on exchange programs, I can say it’s vitally important. Well over half of the world’s population right now is under the age of 30, and those are the people we are endeavoring to reach through our exchanges. And those people live online. So for us, our success in terms of enhancing mutual understanding through exchange programs, we need to work online and through digital media.

But we’re also trying to shift how we do these exchanges. And we really are shifting and looking at virtual exchange programs as an important tool of our exchanges, just to increase the reach and the number of people that we’re able to engage with, and also just to make sure that more people have the opportunity to understand the work that we’re doing here in the United States. And for us, exchanges are long-term diplomacy.

MR. PHILLIPS: One last thing to that. Okay, we had a little feedback. Okay, great. One thing – one point I want to make clear though at the outset, to the extent that it can help shape this conversation about the impact of technology on diplomacy, is that it’s not simply a question of the impact of technology on communications, but it’s bigger than that.

One way of sort of describing it is that I was a part of the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. And people often ask what the secret was to the success and what sort of techniques we used, and always wondering if it was just some spin we had on the use of social media or some question with data. The fundamental strategy that we employed really came from the President, who was a community organizer long before the internet, and understood that a strategy that sought to empower regular people in their own society to effect the change that they wanted to see was the right place to start; and from there, we could adapt and find and use a variety of tools to achieve that.

And I think similarly, our strategy for diplomacy has to start with that empowerment. And obviously, there’s a lot of tools out there to help us achieve that, but to Doug’s point, it’s very seductive – this sort of exploding world of social media, all the clever tools that are out there – and it’s really important to start with a strategy, not just for communications but for overall diplomacy, and then identify the tools that are going to help you build that, digital or otherwise.

MS. PARKER: So these are all really great points for setting up this conversation. So maybe we should get into some more specifics. So I’d love to hear some examples of how social media influenced a particular diplomatic outcome.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Let me start with a simple one. When the fundraising efforts began for the typhoon in the Philippines a couple of months ago, social media played a huge role. And at the State Department and at USAID, our partner in assistance, we pushed that out over our normal social media platforms.

But one of the people in my shop had an idea. At that point, there had been – like two or three hours earlier, somebody had sent out the first selfie – unselfie; an unselfie, not a selfie; an unselfie. And does everybody know what an unselfie is? Well, I’ll show you in a second here.

So my assistant said, “Let’s go see if we can get Secretary Kerry to do an unselfie.” And in a bureaucracy where he is the commander-in-chief basically, to go into his office and ask for that was quite a bold thing. But we knew we needed it fast, and so we went up, and I asked his secretary, and she took us in. And I said, “Mr. Secretary, do you know what a selfie is?” And he said, “Of course.” Turns out he did know, because Secretary Kerry is a very digitally savvy guy. And so I said, “We want to do an unselfie.” And he said, “Okay.”

And so what it was – what an unselfie is – is we took a pad of paper and we wrote down the address for USAID’s fundraising website for the typhoon victims. And because it’s an unselfie, you hold it up like this, so they see [the message on the pad] instead of your face. And then he gets his camera out here and takes a picture like that. And we had to make sure we got the top of his head, so we got the very distinctive John Kerry hair, so they would still know who it was.

But it was – it was just one of those – it took maybe six or seven minutes total, and we sent it out, and it was an enormous hit – not just in terms of attracting followers and people watching it, but in terms of raising money. So that was one of those very quick, quick-on-your-feet episodes where the social media was invaluable. But again, it amplified the larger message. And that’s sort of where I sit in this panel.

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I think that there’s a – you just pick up the newspaper today or your iPad, whatever the choice may be, and you’ll see a ton of headlines that are clearly influenced and driven in some way by the adoption of social media. One of my sort of statistics I think is really fascinating is if you look at what’s happening in the Ukraine and you see a graph of new accounts on Twitter created, there’s actually a spike around the time that a lot of the protests started, which means that a lot of people are signing up for these networks specifically to join in protest, which means that a lot of people are signing up for these networks specifically to join in protest, which is a sort of an interesting introduction to Twitter if you think about it.

But moving past the headlines of today, one of – I had an experience in Africa that really taught me a lesson about the power of social media in a way I hadn’t thought of it before. President Obama has an initiative called the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is really an effort to target the next generation of leadership in that region. And part of it is an exchange that Assistant Secretary Ryan can talk about in more depth, where we have 500 leaders come over this coming summer to develop as leaders. And I went over there a few weeks ago to promote it, and I was in Zimbabwe.

And Zimbabwe, for a guy who’s been doing a lot of domestic politics, is not a place where I think, “Oh, there’s a really active online community. I’m sure, like, we can do all sorts of crazy stuff.” But they had an event targeted at young leaders in Zimbabwe where I came and sat on a panel, a lot like this, and a guy named Sir Nigel, @SirNige, he would get a kick out of you tweeting about him – promoted it to his network on Twitter.

And we had 300 people show up for the event in Zimbabwe. These are – this is a cohort of 25 to 35-year-old young leaders who are connecting with each other in societies that, let’s face it, are pretty difficult sometimes to connect in around issues of common interest like developing a private sector, like participating in the NGO sector, like public service. And to see social media drive that kind of attendance at a real-world event, well, I just had to look out at the crowd and realize they wouldn’t have been here without it.

And so that to me was a super powerful example of how you can see these networks move from offline to online and into events like that.

MS. PARKER: That’s great. Thank you. Assistant Secretary Ryan, would you like to add anything?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: We actually recently, in a crisis situation, were able to work online to try to address the crisis. And that is, through our exchange programs, to date we have 1 million alumni who are alumni of our exchange programs, which is, as you can imagine, it’s an amazing number. But over the holidays when South Sudan was really in crisis, we worked together – all of us, my colleagues sitting with you there, Emily – and reached out to alumni of our exchange programs in South Sudan and really asked them to help put a stop to the violence.

And we got responses from all of our South Sudanese alumni, and it was a real example of how we can use digital diplomacy in conjunction with our network. And our network, as we’ve mentioned, is strengthened through the new tools that we have in digital diplomacy. We wouldn’t have been able to do this 20 years ago. But now we have a direct connection to these alumni who are on the ground in these countries, as in the case in South Sudan and countries of crisis, and we can reach out to them when we need to.

MS. PARKER: Well, those are examples. So let’s talk a little bit about the other side of the coin, which is the downside of social media. As you mentioned, social media is a tool, and tools can be used in all sorts of different ways. And one of the things that social media is doing is it is challenging government control all over the world, including in the United States.

And I’m just curious if you can also give some examples of the risks and challenges of using social media in diplomacy. You also mentioned that sometimes there’s a problem, which is information overthrow or getting verified information. I’d be interested to hear some examples of times when social media maybe has played a less positive role in the diplomatic process, and what’s the best way to avoid some of those pitfalls.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Well, I mean, we encourage every responsible person at the State Department to be engaged in social media. This is particularly true of our ambassadors and the ranking people in posts around the world, because it’s such a powerful communications tool.

But with that encouragement comes a certain amount of risk. And – but these are people generally we have to trust their judgment. Social media is an interactive platform. You know what. And so if you wait to come back to the State Department and get clearance on how to respond to a question over Twitter, it’ll take days if not weeks, and the conversation will be over.

And so you want people to be engaged. You want them to be willing and able to take responsible risks. It’s certainly something that Secretary Kerry has encouraged and we’re pushing it down. And the State Department can be like many bureaucracies – a rather risk-averse environment – and so you have to reinforce this. You have to say to people: Get out there, take responsible risk. Don’t take a big crazy risk and try and change our policy on Iran, but if you’re behaving responsibly, we can expect small mistakes.

And what I’m looking for is that first person who’s going to make a mistake that was taken responsibly in trying to use good judgment so you can pat them on the back and say, “We’ll keep going. We’re willing to take those risks.”

But there are downsides. There was a simple bit of downside out of India last month when it turned out that the regional – deputy regional security officer and his wife had posted some thoughts on their Facebook pages that were not – were seen as hostile toward the Indian public. So you have to be responsible. You have to take into consideration the culture of the place where you are. You have to realize that anything you say on social media, you should consider that it – it being said to the entire public around the world.

When I was a reporter a long time ago, I wrote a biography of a man named Clark Clifford who was a real statesman in Washington and a former defense secretary. And he said to me when I was talking to him for this biography, he said, “Well, I always told people never do anything you don’t want to see on the front page of The Washington Post.” And you can say that now. Never tweet anything you don’t want to see on the front page of The Washington Post or Salon or some other – some website. And you have to use judgment, but if you use judgment, I think we’re willing to accept a certain amount of risk.

MS. PARKER: Do you think we’re moving towards a situation where tweets will be cleared, where tweets will have to be approved before they’re sent out?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: I don’t – I hope not. I think that would defeat the whole purpose. What do you think?

MR. PHILLIPS: Uh, no. I think that one of the greatest assets, if not the greatest asset the State Department has as an organization is its people. It is – for me, moving from the campaign to the White House and now getting into a real proper government agency has been an incredible experience just to get to know people who have been working problems for 15-20 years at a time, some of whom have done that across the world – literally 10 countries or so – and have a more sophisticated understanding of a policy than I ever could.

What we need to do is create a culture that empowers them to move quickly, but also is collaborative enough that they can ask for help. At the White House we certainly try to push the publication of information to the edge of the organization so that people could be in a conversation, they don’t have to clear every tweet or anything like that, with the assumption that we had a workplace where people could say I’m not comfortable with this, I just want to double-check. And it wouldn’t be a black mark against them not understanding; we were all collaborating on something together.

And I think that’s culturally what – where we need to go with the State Department. I think it’s there offline, I just think people are somewhat apprehensive of the digital piece, and a lot of people still getting to know what it looks like, but the fundamental instincts are there.

MS. PARKER: Well, it’s – so there’s kind of an inherent tension here, right, which is social media by definition is spontaneous, it’s rapid, it requires kind of a little bit of unique personality. And the State Department is a bureaucracy; it needs to have a consistent message, it needs to be cautious in what it says to the world. So how do you navigate that tension with kind of letting people respond quickly and spontaneously and in an interesting and original way and not just causing some sort of problem with a more consistent message of U.S. foreign policy?

MR. PHILLIPS: Yeah, I’ll try to take that. And, Evan, just butt in if you have anything to add; it’s okay to sort of chime in here.

So I feel like I can speak to this a little bit because we have the same challenges at the White House. What’s presidential in 2014?

MS. PARKER: Mm-hmm.

MR. PHILLIPS: I used to say 2009 but time has gone by. But we have this voice of these institutions that is above it all, that is – that speaks with this authority. Yet we’re trying to enter into a medium that is very casual, very personal, and we want to put out content that people are going to not only take in but respond to and share amongst our network and really take and make their own. But we can’t go into that with the sort of virtual suit and tie approach, and this is a big challenge. Humor – I mean, just go log into any of your social media feeds and you’ll probably laugh within three minutes. It probably won’t be one of our jokes. (Laughter.)

This is an area that I think at the White House we made a lot of progress in, the State Department we still have room to improve of looking at how we can have a more human tone in our content since we are going direct to people, yet still respect the seriousness of which – or the seriousness that the issues we grapple with deserve. This is a real challenging tension. On top of that, you have a bias among – all my communication I would say exacerbates it, but just general human behavior – is that conflict motivates a lot more than consensus.

And so when you’re engaging, you get this false sense sometimes that things are a lot more controversial or there’s a lot more antagonism than truly is, because people don’t wake up in the morning and say I am going to get on that guy’s Facebook page and tell him he’s doing a great job. What you see are people who are rising up – sometimes because they have no alternative – to speak out against something. But that’s a bias that we have to factor in to how we’re approaching engagement online.

MS. PARKER: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: And I’ll just add to that, that something that we think about a lot – we think about tone, but we also, for the work that we’re doing, are really trying to reach that younger audience that might not be engaged with us at this point in time, and we’re always trying to think creatively of how we can connect to that younger audience. And one example of a different approach – an approach that probably hasn’t been so common at the State Department – is tomorrow I’m hosting a web chat with Comic-Con and with a Muslim superhero comic called “The 99.” And we’re doing that to try to reach a different audience, an audience that’s an audience of “The 99” and see if they will engage with us and just help them understand that we are a varied, diverse group of people here at the State Department and that we’re reaching out to them in a variety of ways. So we are trying to think of creative approaches, but some of those approaches might not be traditional Foggy Bottom approaches that you would have seen in the past.

MS. PARKER: Thank you. So the – my book actually looks at three countries in particular – China, Cuba, and Russia. And I would put these three countries in the category of countries that are probably a little more challenging on the digital diplomacy front. And they’re challenging because these governments have different ideas about the free flow of information from the United States, but also they’re challenging because – and I remember this from my time at the State Department – there’s a lot of sensitivity about U.S. interference in the digital sphere. So for example, I remember Secretary Clinton had just mentioned that there was a Russian language Twitter feed. And there was this – among other languages; it wasn’t just Russian. And there was a bit of an – a bit of a commotion online in Russia about how the U.S. was invading Russian cyberspace. And you get this a lot.

And then the other part of it is when the U.S. Government tries to engage bloggers in these countries, sometimes it compromises these bloggers. They’re seen as agents of the United States, or they’re seen as spies, or – so I’m curious how you navigate those tensions like China, like Cuba, like Russia. And there are others in that category as well.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Well, I think we’re certainly – the U.S. supports universal rights, including freedom of expression. And those are conversations that all of our diplomats have when they have bilateral engagements. I think the fact that Secretary Kerry took time out of his trip to China over the weekend to meet with four Chinese bloggers – even though he didn’t tell them, “Bring down that great firewall of China,” but the fact that he was there, he took time to listen to them and hear their concerns demonstrates a recognition that open access is good for the people, and it’s good for countries. I mean, part of his message there was that no economy is going to survive if it’s closed to the outside, and if you’re Russia or China or Cuba and you’re trying to shut your internet, it’s a losing proposition. You’re going to lose at some point. And I know that I’m going to read your book over the weekend, and I assume you make some points similar to that. It’s just inevitable that that wall is going to come down. And so we’re there to try and encourage people to have the right to express themselves and to encourage governments to allow that within the parameters of diplomacy.

MR. PHILLIPS: I agree with everything Doug just said and would add that in addition to specific efforts we might take on any given country, any given group, the best thing that the United States can do is continue to demonstrate an open society through our own actions. And that means seeking out critics and confrontation and really encouraging a debate about our values that makes us stronger. That’s certainly something that President Obama believes, and I know because of our time with the White House digital program trying to figure out how we could create opportunities for that, moving from the campaign where we really looked – sought to empower our supporters. We wanted to have a program that really sought to empower and engage everyone, of all perspectives. And that’s something, I think, we’re carrying into the State Department, has been done at the State Department. But as we develop our online engagements, we can’t cherry-pick just the people who agree with us. We have to really solicit and treasure and promote that conflict, that debate, to demonstrate that it’s important.

And the other piece I’ll say about this issue generally that was pointed out to me early on at the State Department, actually, by another former journalist who’s now part of the BBG – he pointed out that our First Amendment, that our framers, our Founding Fathers anticipated a situation like this. Because if you look at the First Amendment, it’s constructed in a way where it says that Congress shall make no law restricting – shall make no law – it didn’t set a law protecting the press; it sort of started from the premise that it’s kind of hard to define the press. It’s kind of hard to define who gets to express freely. And so now, in 2014, our society enjoys that approach to freedom of expression and I think we need to make sure we exploit that to promote that value around the world.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: (Inaudible) agree wholeheartedly with what both Doug and Macon have said. I would just add that I think Secretary Kerry made this point earlier this morning that it’s also an economic imperative; there’s economic benefit to these countries opening up. And as Macon and Doug just said, hopefully we lead by example.

MS. PARKER: Thank you. So, of course I have to ask the Snowden question – which I’m sure you get all the time, and I’m sure if I don’t ask it, somebody will – which is, as you said, one of the U.S. principles is openness and freedom of expression, and right now we’re in an atmosphere where a lot of people are accusing the U.S. of excessive surveillance and of hypocrisy in these areas. And I’m curious if that, in the kind of Snowden or post-Snowden or whatever era we’re in, if that has made it difficult for the U.S. digital diplomacy and internet freedom brand. I mean, is it more difficult to operate in these areas when you kind of have a lot of backlash from abroad?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: I think we’re certainly aware of the Snowden backlash. And unfortunately, I wouldn’t call it the post-Snowden era yet. I fear there’s more to come. But in a way, Emily, it’s apples and oranges. I mean, Snowden is talking about the National Security Agency and other covert operations. What we’re doing through the State Department, through public diplomacy and through public affairs across all social mediums, is transparent; it’s open. So the Snowden blowback has not changed our engagement with the world. In fact, I think it’s underscored the need for transparent engagement, and to go back to the point made both by Macon and Evan that we need to lead by example.

However, the remaining journalist inside of me says, of course, it’s harder now. I mean, people look at us and they think it is hypocritical to argue on behalf of internet freedom worldwide. But I really think that we’re still pushing that message. The United States has to push it, and the President spoke to this last month. We’ve had a debate in the United States. We’ve had the President engage in a way that wouldn’t happen in Russia or China or Cuba or any other number of countries around the world. We have an open debate about whether we got the technology too far ahead of respect for personal privacy.

MR. PHILLIPS: Yeah. Yeah, I think just to underscore what Doug just said, I think our response to these questions, our response to this debate is our best example of the kind of society that we want. Moreover, I think when you look at a guy like Ambassador Pyatt in Kyiv retweeting the voices of regular Ukrainians, I don’t think those two issues cross. Here we have an ambassador who recognizes that the most valid voices he can point to are voices of the people in the country he’s meant to engage with. And that idea of curation and empowerment and elevation of regular people is something that transcends any controversy or any set of technologies – and in fact, predates the internet. And I think that is where we see American values of celebrating individual power come to bear. And I just don’t see that being affected by this.

MS. PARKER: Do you think that – and those are great distinctions. Do you think the public is making those distinctions?

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, it’s hard – I mean, you sit in a suit on a panel stage, it’s hard to sort of say that I get what John Q Public thinks. So I mean, I’ve learned, I think, not to assume anything in this world.

That said, I don’t think we’re seeing serious changes in behavior about public engagement that we could attribute to any given story. But coming back to the point Doug made, I think that the real factor here – how the United States continues to have this debate domestically, led by the President, is our best way to show the rest of the world how we deal with really difficult issues that have valid arguments on all sides, as the President laid out in his speech.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: I’d just add one point. My wife works at a firm where there are lots of young people, 20-somethings. And they have no expectation of privacy. They were not surprised or shocked by the Snowden revelations. They said it’s sort of the way they figure they run their lives – everything – and there is no privacy in terms of their electronic communications. So they weren’t shocked by that at all.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: All I would add is just a very small microcosm of an example, which is we have a program, an exchange program called TechWomen. And it brings women from the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa over to Silicon Valley, where they are mentored and learn skills, marketing, all aspects of business in Silicon Valley. They’re able to then bring back that knowledge to their country and grow their own businesses in digital media, and it’s incredibly popular. We can’t keep up with the demand, and so I don’t think anyone’s looking at us that differently, because we’re leaders in this field.

MS. PARKER: Terrific. Thank you so much. Should we move to questions from the audience? Okay, great. And I’m going to check and see if there are any questions from Twitter. I’m not just checking my phone. (Laughter).

MODERATOR: If you have a question, please raise your hand and we’ll bring the microphone to you.

QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon, and thanks for that. Is this working? Is it on? Great.

This morning, Jonah Peretti, the founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, was talking downtown. And one of the things he said that was interesting was that brands are harmed when they interact with their audience to give them content that they don’t want. So I wanted to know how the State Department approaches that in terms of making sure that it’s interacting with people and giving them the content that they want. And then, how do you measure the value of that? Do you use metrics like traffic metrics, or how do you measure the value of the influence that you impart?

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I should start by admitting that in two hours I’m heading to BuzzFeed and will probably ask some of these same questions. They’re certainly an example of an American company that is incredibly innovative and are really pushing the boundaries on sort of the new media business model.

Fundamentally, what digital offers us is the ability to target our messages more precisely. And that begs a few questions in terms of our strategy: Who are the audiences we seek to reach with various public diplomacy campaigns? And sometimes those questions have already been asked, but sometimes that’s where we really have to start. And if we have too broad of an audience definition, I think Peretti’s right that you can actually see that sort of rebound against you.

Fundamentally, people want things that are relevant to them. As an American, I am very proud that we have 360 degrees of relevance. We have a diaspora community for every country here in the United States. We have expertise in every industry. We enjoy a rich – richness of relevance. We just have to think about how we can make those connections. And you can look at that – everything from a rapid response to the things that Evan’s working on with our cultural exchanges and our science exchanges. We can find a way to connect some part of America with a member of a foreign public that they want to hear about, even in countries where we struggle at a government-to-government level. People still are excited about our science; they’re still excited about our culture and our arts. So that’s one big point.

In terms of measurement, there’s a plethora of metrics out there, as members of the media – Well, I’m sure you’re very familiar with the ones your editors impose on you and whatnot. One of the basic metrics that I think we need to spend more time on at the State Department is the metric of what’s called in the industry loyalty, which is to say how many people use this content more than once in a period of time; how many use it five times; how many people are showing us by their own effort that they tried it, they went somewhere else, and they came back.

Fundamentally, to me, that is a good test of relevance to someone. And so as we’re looking at our website traffic, as we’re looking at our social media, frankly those are moving past online to our offline spaces like our American spaces all around the world in our embassies. Understanding this notion of repeat engagement and the deepening of the relationship is as important, if not more important, than our just nominal counts – we had so many quadrillion people visit our Facebook page once or what have you. It’s harder to do but it yields better outcomes in terms of forward-looking strategy.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you briefly highlight some of the near-term and long-term initiatives regarding social media that are on deck? And also, are there any examples that you want to point to of State working with foreign governments in the digital space?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Yeah, that’s a great question. We do work closely with our allies in terms of trying to sync up – the very close allies in terms of trying to sync up social media messages. In December I was in London and I met with my counterpart at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He’s much taller than I am, but we have roughly the same jobs. And we talked about exactly that: How can we work together on certain types of messaging when we all – when we have a common goal in terms of diplomacy, in terms of influencing minds around the world? How can we work together? And we’re seeing the beginnings of that. We saw Catherine Ashton of the EU and Secretary Kerry announce the Iran talks resolution, the first resolution, simultaneously over Twitter. So we’re testing that ground I think.

I mean, the problem and the joy of social media is you don’t know what it’s going to be like six months from now. And so we have smart people here like Macon who will – who are trying to look into a crystal ball and see that. But we also have to deal with what’s real, and we’re on almost every platform now at the State Department. We’re on Tumblr. We’re on Instagram. We do some Vines. We started Secretary Kerry, to go back to one of Emily’s earlier questions, and this idea of the State Department voice versus a more human voice – for the first year, Secretary Kerry was restricted to a State Department handle, JK. About two weeks ago, on the first anniversary of his becoming Secretary, he re-launched @JohnKerry, his personal Twitter feed, which he had built up in a big way in the Senate. He was one of the early, early adopters there. And he had enough time under his belt, he was comfortable enough in the office that he felt able to go out and present sort of a more human side. And so there’s a distinct difference there if you – what you get on the State Department Twitter account is different from what you get on John Kerry’s personal account.

So that’s one of the things that we’re toying with: How far can you go? And when I was talking to Hugh Elliott, they had just had a mini catastrophe. One of their principal diplomats had written an open letter to Lebanon, to the country of Lebanon, and it created just a firestorm in the social media because it was very personal, it was very pointed, and there was just this huge blowback. And so I said to Hugh, I mean, “What did you do?” And he said, “We took our lumps and went on.” He said that the rewards far outweigh the risks.

So that, again, that’s part of this nearer-term strategy that we’re trying to figure out how far we can go. We have a document about this thick at the State Department called the Foreign Affairs Manual, which tells you everything you can and cannot do, and mostly the things you cannot do. And we’re trying to adjust that now to allow us to engage in conversations over social media. And this has to be litigated with the lawyers, with the unions and everybody else. Well, when I came in as Assistant Secretary in September, I said, “Let’s kind of ignore that a little bit and let’s engage.” Because we have to engage.

And so, again, it’s testing the water. It’s not exactly pushing the envelope, but for the State Department it’s taking some responsible risks.

MR. PHILLIPS: And I actually think Evan may have the best example in our virtual exchanges that she can talk about. I wanted to just make a very quick point, though, when we’re talking about short, medium and long term, raise your hand if you have heard of WhatsApp. Okay. So I did this at a meeting internal to State Department and fewer hands went up. This is a network that --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: That’s when I learned about it.

MR. PHILLIPS: -- at the end of last year, Twitter had around 260 active – million – users or (inaudible) in the paper. WhatsApp had 400 million. If you go to Africa, everyone raises their hands at WhatsApp. It’s really – ít’s what’s up I guess is what they would say. But I only bring that up because I’ve been in this industry, the digital sort of organizing space since 2005, and I remember when Facebook came along and Twitter and YouTube and all these things. Who knows what networks will be the predominant network in a certain country, in a certain cohort, in two years, five years. It’s part of what makes this really exciting.

When we’re looking at social media strategies and we’re – when we’re talking about the topic at any time, it’s really important not to talk about a specific network – let’s talk about Twitter or let’s talk about – let’s talk about public engagement and understand that there’s a variety of networks to do this.

And one of the things that really – keystone projects for us moving forward with sort of public engagement are these virtual exchanges. Evan, if I – oh, she’s getting a note. Are we not doing the virtual exchanges now? Is that what they’re telling you? (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: (Inaudible) virtual exchanges, but then I have a question. But – so I’ll – so virtual exchanges first. We have worked a lot of virtual exchanges recently. In fact, we were very excited in the fall to launch The Collaboratory, and the primary focus of The Collaboratory is going to be virtual exchanges. We have an exciting one coming up in just, I think, two months, where it’s going to be a virtual exchange with the Mars Rover, where we’re going to bring students from around the U.S., as well as students in South and Central America, and they will submit questions together and they will do this jointly so they learn from one another, see the questions that each other are asking, and they will as these questions of the Mars Rover. This is going to be in conjunction with NASA and Google as well as the State Department.

But we really are making a move to move more and more into the space of virtual exchanges because there are so many people that unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to come here to the United States. And what’s the best way to tie us all together? And that’s online. And so we are doing this through virtual exchanges. And another example I think Macon might be referring to, which is exciting, is our MOOCs. We are – we’ve launched a MOOCs course with Coursera, where people can sign up online, take the course. But an added component that we’re working on, that we’ve launched through the State Department is you then can go to your embassy, to the U.S. embassy in the country where you reside, and take part in an actual dialogue with a Fulbright scholar, an embassy employee, who can help talk you through what you’ve learned online. So that’s a good example of where we’re trying to tie the two approaches together – the new media online approach as well as our in-person exchange approach. And we’ve had tremendous success with it. It’s operating right now in 46 countries around the world and 46 embassies.

And I do have a – yes --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) in person because it will be more understandable --


QUESTION: -- where I’m coming from. I recently attended a SOCOM conference at the U.S. Special Operations Command. They were outraged at the social media, using as an example the situation in Mumbai, in India, where it was under a terrorist attack. Some users on the social networks actually prompted the attackers, the terrorists, what was happening, what the security forces were doing. And so these security people in their conference were very unhappy with that. And so my question now is about Ukraine, about the same situation. What do we say? What do we tweet?


QUESTION: (Inaudible) are they extremists, who may be calling to torch the police, the police vehicles, the government buildings.


QUESTION: Are you planning to do anything like this, like you describe in South Sudan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: Right. That’s a good question. So I don't know if you all heard that question. It’s sort of the flipside. And the example used was in Mumbai, when there were people tweeting with the terrorists in Mumbai and encouraging them and giving them details on the security situation so they had better access. So it’s the flipside. And the other question is what would we say to the people who are tweeting and asking Ukrainian protestors to torch, to torch police vehicles. So it’s the flipside of that.

I would say that I know from our South Sudan experience our message always is to – we don’t feel that violence is the solution in these cases. And I know that that’s the message. I would turn to my colleagues, but I know that’s the message that we in the State Department would encourage of anyone. And we would never condone anyone. But sadly, I would – wonder what my colleagues would say – but unfortunately, for better or for worse, as you point out, we are an interconnected world through these digital media tools. And this is an excellent question, because the sad point is sometimes that’s used for mal intent. And we appreciate your question.

MS. PARKER: I want to take one question from Twitter. Can I do that? Just because people have been sending them in. So this is one question close to my heart and also touched on some things we already talked about.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: It’s about your book, huh?

MS. PARKER: Yeah, it’s about my book.

MR. PHILLIPS: Where can I buy your book? (Laughter.)

MS. PARKER: Actually – no. (Laughter.) It’s a question about – this is something that’s come up, but we can go into a little more detail. Secretary Kerry spoke with bloggers in China. Is there any particular strategy for China and Southeast Asia? So if anyone wants to answer that specifically about that region.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: I’m not sure how much we can say beyond what I said earlier about the Secretary taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to meet with those bloggers. I mean, that’s a symbolic action, and it’s also a concrete, strategic one. He wants to hear their issues. And all across the world, where there are closed societies, we’re encouraging people to find other ways to reach out and to connect.

We have a virtual embassy for Iran. We aren’t in Iran, but we have a virtual embassy. And because Twitter and other social media are banned there, we find other ways to get in. We have ways – we have a platform where we have a whole office basically that is countering the voices of violent extremists around the country. We have people who are sitting in the State Department building in Foggy Bottom who are engaged in constant conversations on extremist websites around the world to inject what we view as the reality into those conversations. We do that in Punjabi, we do it in Arabic, we do it in Somali, we do it in Urdu, and now we started doing it recently in English, because we’ve seen extremist recruitment moving into the English language sphere.

So we’re engaging in every possible way, but we – again, it’s – we can’t tell – what we’ve discovered certainly since the Arab Spring and we knew it before, you can’t tell people what to think. You can’t tell them to open up.

MS. PARKER: I’m sorry. And that question was from @HowMelissa by the way.

MR. PHILLIPS: Okay. Well, How, I’ll just add one other piece to that, which is that it would be foolish to think that we are crafting a strategy we’re going to begin tomorrow vis-à-vis China and bloggers. This has been years worth of work already that led into this meeting this weekend. I’m certain the Secretary will come back and folks will come back and want to reexamine how we can do even more.

But let’s just examine over the past few years, we’ve done – I was part of a virtual teleconference between the White House and Chinese bloggers at the embassy in 2010. The President had a town hall there, which touched on a lot of issues, including the freedom of expression. And there’s been a long-standing strategy there. Could we do more? Well, I think we’re definitely going to be asking ourselves that question this coming week, but that shouldn’t sort of replace the idea that we’re already doing quite a bit to support that value – that American value of freedom of expression around the world, not just in China.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Kahraman Haliscelik. I am with Turkey’s national broadcaster, Turkish Radio and Television. Now, the social media promotes openness and everything is out there and you can see everything and you can read everything, you can access it. But traditional diplomacy is the opposite. You have to be kind of secret until you do something, or at least that’s the concept. How far in digital diplomacy – I mean, it’s a very wide topic, obviously, digital diplomacy, but when it comes to the State Department kind of diplomacy, how far do you – or are you willing to go into it, into social media, kind of tell the world what you are doing?


QUESTION: What are the limits that are (inaudible)? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Yeah, I don’t think there’s a straight-line limit. It’s situational limits here. I mean, there is diplomacy that happens quietly between governments, between diplomats, and then there’s what we do, which is public diplomacy, public affairs. So my job, the job of the 200 people who work for me, is to push out a public message and to engage the public. Same for Evan, same for Macon. Another side of the house is doing the quieter stuff. So I don’t think that they cross over.

Sometimes, I guess there are concerns within diplomatic circles at the State Department that we’re going too far in terms of engagement. And so we have conversations on that, and basic policies certainly get cleared. We have guidance. We have guidance for our social engagement, just the way diplomats who go out and talk have guidance. So we respect that. We respect those rules.

MR. PHILLIPS: I mean, but I would go further and say I don’t agree. I don’t agree that as a rule, diplomacy sort of exceeds – rather, diplomacy must at some point be private. I certainly think when we’re talking about negotiations, there’s an argument for privacy between parties and things like that, national security matters. I think what you’re seeing now, though, is less a question of what’s private and public and more how the traditional methods of engagement can actually be complemented by public engagement, but how they both can flow back into diplomatic priorities. Which is to say private conversations are a heck of a lot easier when there’s public space for a leader to make difficult decisions.

And that public space is absolutely affected by public diplomacy. They’re all interrelated. What’s very important is to not have on one floor public diplomacy, and on a different floor, diplomacy, and have these two separate. It is just beyond imagination that you can walk out your door, turn on your computer, pick up a newspaper, and think that we’re not in a new era of public engagement and public empowerment that has a material impact on traditional diplomacy. And I say that knowing that while our colleagues, I think, are certainly looking at how best to adapt to that, they all recognize that North Star, that public diplomacy is a central part of our overall diplomatic strategy.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more question.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. A great panel. A question, really, about the general acceleration of change and the pace with which things are moving, and also about sort of the negativity that’s possible in this. So if at any given time, we’re looking at a web that’s moving something like 20 percent of their traffic is cat images and happy days, on the other side you’re looking at it and saying there’s a lot of outrage, and outrage accelerates. And from the State Department perspective, if you – my question is: How do you help break that cycle on the outrage side of it? At the end of the day, ultimately, could you also be running the risk of accelerating outrage?


QUESTION: And what would you do in that --

MR. PHILLIPS: So I know far too much about this topic of outrage. But first, I want to pause, because I think Evan was actually giving an answer, and – Evan, did you have anything you wanted to add to the earlier?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: Thank you, Macon. I was just saying – I’ll say very quickly that what I think we all do, and this speaks a lot to what you said, is that we’re working on grassroots diplomacy, and that it helps a leader in any country with their diplomacy if they have the support of their public, as we’ve seen. And what we’re doing with our public diplomacy is really trying to build that support. So I think a lot of what we’re doing is grassroots diplomacy.

MR. PHILLIPS: (Inaudible) that’s what she looks like when she’s outraged, yeah. So I’ll hand this off to Doug here in a second, but my basic realization over the past few years of dealing with a lot of critics and a lot of people who feel very passionately about various policy positions in a society where we encourage that, we celebrate that, is that people haven’t been heard enough, that – it isn’t to diminish the substance of people’s criticisms, but just the act of listening is such a rare thing for large institutions, even in the United States, that for us to be able to engage with people in other countries, particularly those where their own governments may not be as responsive, is a very powerful thing in of itself. The real challenge is being a steward of that feedback in a way where we can actually bring that to the policy-making process.

So what I – a different way of saying that is: You show up and you listen to a lot of people who are outraged. What is the process by which you look at that feedback and actually turn it into actionable input for the United States to consider as it moves forward? Because one of the challenging parts of outrage and criticism is that it just gets so wild and crazy, it’s not as constructive. And fundamentally, that’s what diplomacy should be about, is constructive work together with other countries and other people. And so how we harness what we can pretty much understand is a cold-fusion level supply of energy manifested in outrage into more constructive input for American foreign policy making I think is the question of the day, and certainly a huge opportunity for us moving forward.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: That strikes me as the answer of the day. (Laughter.)

MS. PARKER: I think that’s all we have time for, right? Okay. Thank you. Thank you all very much.



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