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Ever since the U.S. ambassador to Syria left the country, Robert Ford has been using social media to monitor events on the ground and try to shape them. On his Facebook page, Ford has posted satellite images of tanks moving on cities and a pipeline fire spreading toxic fumes.
As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the State Department has been encouraging ambassadors like Ford to engage in social media diplomacy.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Before ambassadors head out on assignment, they get a course in what Alec Ross calls 21st century statecraft.
ALEC ROSS: I tell all our ambassadors, remember you only have one mouth but you have two ears. So use this as a way not just to communicating with the citizens of the country where you're serving, but also understanding the point of view of people who may not be sitting with you at a mahogany table inside the embassy.
KELEMEN: Sitting at such a table in the State Department's Rare Books Room, the senior advisor on innovation says it wasn't an easy start for Ambassador Ford in Syria. He had early run-ins with pro-government bloggers, known as the Syrian electronic army.
ROSS: What we could have done is we could have curled into the fetal position and said, oh, well, this didn't work. On the contrary, what Ambassador Ford did is he responded to some of the misinformation that was published by the Syrian electronic army. And the real Syrian citizens themselves then lashed out against the Syrian electronic army.
KELEMEN: And the army retreated, Ross says. He also points to another ambassador, Michael McFaul in Russia, using social media to counter what's being said about him in the Russian press.
ROSS: Today, if somebody is lying about you in the media - and there have been plenty of things that are factually inaccurate written about Ambassador McFaul - we now have the tools to be able to get the real facts out there.
KELEMEN: McFaul seems to be online 24 hours a day, batting back rumors, writing about his reset of relations with Russia, or talking his date nights with his wife. John Brown, who teaches public diplomacy at Georgetown University, wonders if the ambassador can keep up that pace.
PROFESSOR JOHN BROWN: I'm concerned about this, especially as someone who was involved in public diplomacy for over 20 years on behalf of our government, mostly in Eastern Europe. And, you know, ultimately what's most important about public diplomacy in my view, is not Facebook to Facebook, but face to face
KELEMEN: Brown also says that the State Department still seems to be of two minds, promoting social media while also trying to control the message and keep tabs on personal blogs of Foreign Service officers.
Former State Department spokesman PJ Crowley remembers causing some heartburn when he tweeted about Hosni Mubarak last year, saying Egypt can't just reshuffle the deck and stand pat. Crowley was known for his pithy tweets and says the bureaucracy needs time to get used to these tools.
P.J. CROWLEY: Twitter is the ultimate tool for one-liners. I mean, I once had a tweet on some subject and someone was concerned about it, and said you lost the nuance. And I said, well, you know, at 140 characters there is no nuance to Twitter.
KELEMEN: Crowley, who now teaches at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs, says ambassadors will undoubtedly get into trouble every now and then. But to be effective, they have to put themselves out there.
CROWLEY: The conduct of diplomacy is going to have to be much more decentralized than it has been in the past. And that involves educated risk-taking, that's the kind of thing you see a Mike McFaul and Robert Ford doing. You know, they got to their posts and rather than sitting on the sidelines, they jumped into the pool.
KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassadors to Thailand, Zimbabwe and Japan are winning high praise from the State Department's social media guru, Alec Ross. He doesn't sound too worried about missteps.
ROSS: Social media is a lot less risky medium than live television; you can edit yourself, you can think ahead of time before you hit send. So, I actually think that if you look at the vast amount of communication that this administration has done over social media over the last few years, it's actually shocking that there have been as few mistakes as there have been.
KELEMEN: Last Christmas, U.S. officials at the United Nations tweeted a picture of Russia's ambassador in the face of the Grinch. Though it came at a tense time in U.S./Russian ties, Ross says that was a non-issue.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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