Twitter’s rise among popular social networking services has dominated headlines over the last several months. Whether as a result of the massive media coverage or its various celebrity endorsements, the microblogging site began experiencing exponential growth in its user base in late 2008. According to Nielsen Online, “unique visitors to Twitter increased 1,382 percent year-over-year, from 475,000 unique visitors in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009.”[i] Since that time, individuals have found a wealth of different uses for Twitter. The site gives users a 140-character limit to explain what they are doing, providing real-time status updates to anyone following them. These updates, or “tweets” as they are called, are used in a variety of ways. In public diplomacy, Twitter has been used as a tool to manage misinformation, mobilize individuals, launch messaging campaigns, engage directly with the public, and provide real-time information updates on government officials. While many government dignitaries use it to inform the public of what they are working on, advocacy groups have been known to use it to coordinate meet-ups and even protests.

During the G20 Summit in London in April 2009, Twitter proved to be a powerful tool in mobilizing people around specific events. As one Telegraph article explained, “The Internet has long been used by protest groups to organize and mobilize supporters and publicize campaigns. But now mobile technology, allied with social media, is providing a new platform for protest.”[ii] Like many other social media tools, Twitter can be accessed through cell phones. Even users without internet on their mobile device can choose to receive tweets via SMS-text messages sent directly to their mobile phone. With the ability to send and receive Twitter updates via mobile phones, G20 protest groups like G20 Meltdown used Twitter to keep fellow protesters informed; with a single-click, protest organizers were able to send instructions and meet-up points to thousands of followers on Twitter. As a result, an estimated 5,000 individuals crowded the streets of London to participate in the two days of protests,[iii] all the while using Twitter to document the event for those unable to attend. This real-time documentation also included visuals of the event. To accompany the 140-character tweets, users were able to instantly upload photos directly to Twitter using camera phones and TwitPic, a program built into most Twitter mobile phone applications.

Just days after the G20 Summit, using Twitter and Facebook to mobilize individuals, 10,000 young Moldovans came together to protest against Moldova’s Communist leadership. The government attempted to intervene by shutting down the internet. According to the New York Times, “After hundreds of firsthand accounts flooded onto the internet via Twitter, internet service in Chisinau, the capital, was abruptly cut off.”[iv]

In contrast with the Moldovan Government, many other government dignitaries are choosing to embrace Twitter and its ability to increase transparency and continually notify the public of their current activities with every tweet. Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan joined Twitter in early May of 2009 in order to engage directly with the public. Known on Twitter as “@QueenRania,” Her Majesty has conducted interviews on the microblogging site, responding to questions and concerns directed to her on Twitter. While Queen Rania is fairly new to Twitter, she is one of the few prominent individuals on the site who personally manages their own Twitter account.[v]

Many foreign diplomats also use Twitter, such as British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and U.S. officials abroad.[vi] The site proved successful for U.S. diplomats who, according to The Washington Post, “‘tweeted’ down false rumors they feared might lead to a siege on the American Embassy in Madagascar”[vii] when rumors began to circulate that the country’s newly ousted president, Marc Ravalomanana, was seeking refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo. U.S. diplomats used Twitter to distribute the following two-part response, “We are aware of media reports that President Ravalomanana of Madagascar is seeking sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo.” They then tweeted, “President Ravalomanana has made no such request and is not in the U.S. Embassy.” According to officials, the State Department has used Twitter since last year, but this was their first time using Twitter to manage misinformation and counter a potential crisis.[viii]

It is difficult to predict how much longer Twitter will make the headlines.  According to a Nielsen study, “about 60 percent of people on Twitter end up abandoning the service after a month.”[ix] Regardless, there is no doubt that Twitter serves as a valuable social media tool to instantly disseminate pertinent information to masses of people.

When it comes to using new technology in public diplomacy, it seems government officials and other public diplomats are more aware than ever of the need to engage directly with the public. In another effort to keep the public informed, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both started conducting digital town hall meetings and uploading video recording of them addressing the public on various relevant issues. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have worked to make the videos as interactive as possible. As part of President Obama’s continued effort to engage with the public and provide Americans with a direct line to the administration, the White House launched “Open For Questions,” allowing individuals to submit questions to the President, which he would then later answer during the digital town hall.[x]

All in all, these current trends of using technology for public diplomacy revolve primarily around disseminating information and messaging campaigns. While disseminating information and shaping messages are certainly important parts of public diplomacy, so too is cultural exchange. Therefore, it is important to remember that the internet not only facilitates information sharing, but it also connects individuals around the globe; it is this latter point that deserves more attention.

The U.S. State Department seems to understand this void and plans to spend the next year creating a program that could truly capitalize on the internet’s potential to foster cultural exchange. During her speech at New York University’s 2009 commencement exercises, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a new initiative called the “Virtual Student Foreign Service.” Secretary Clinton explained that, “American students will partner with our embassies abroad to conduct digital diplomacy that reflects the realities of the networked world.” [xi] While there is little information available about this new program, it will hopefully be the beginning of a larger effort to foster cultural exchange online.

Part of online cultural exchange requires the preservation of cultural heritage. The digitization of such heritage ensures that it can be easily shared on the internet. Recently, the United Nations launched the World Digital Library, an online, digital library seeking to display and explain the wealth of all human cultures in seven languages for students around the world.[xii] According to the library’s website, two of its principle objectives are to promote international and intercultural understanding, and expand the volume and variety of cultural content on the internet.[xiii]

A recent report from U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, titled “Time to Get Back in the Game,” called for the revitalization of American cultural centers around the world. However, the various security concerns associated with making these centers more accessible to the public — usually by moving them outside of embassy grounds — raise a major barrier to reviving the cultural hubs.[xiv] With these difficulties, an online interactive cultural center, similar to the World Digital Library, could be a valuable asset.

When it comes to public diplomacy, simply spreading information is not enough. The burgeoning uses of social media technology for fostering cultural exchanges online are encouraging, and they will surely become more widespread as these innovations grow in popularity around the globe.

Anna Berthold is a Digital Strategist and Multimedia Producer for The African Commons Project, a non-profit organization based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Anna received a Master’s of Public Diplomacy and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Southern California.

[i] “Twitter’s Tweet Smell Of Success” Nielsen Online. 18 March 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[ii] Claudine Beaumont, “G20: Protesters use Twitter, Facebook and social media tools to organise demonstrations.” The Telegraph. 2 April 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[iii] Dominic Casciani, “Eyewitness: Two days of protests” BBC Online. 3 April 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[iv] Ellen Barry “Protests in Moldova Explode, With Help of Twitter” The New York Times. 7 April 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[v] “Bring Down the Walls,” Tweets Queen Rania in First Twitter Interview” World Economic Forum. 16 May 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[vi] “European diplomats turn to Twitter” Times & Transcript. 27 April 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[vii] Matthew Lee, “US ‘tweets’ down embassy rumor” Washington Times. 17 March 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[viii] Matthew Lee, “US ‘tweets’ down embassy rumor” Washington Times. 17 March 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[ix] “Update: Return of the Twitter Quitters” Nielsen Online. 30 April 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[x] “Open for Questions: President Obama to Answer Your Questions on Thursday” 24 March 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[xi] “Secretary Clinton Launches Virtual Student Foreign Service Initiative” DipNote. 13 May 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[xii] Edward Cody, “U.N. Launches Library Of World’s Knowledge” Washington Post Foreign Service. 21 April 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[xiii] “About the World Digital Library: Mission” World Digital Library. (accessed 17 May 2009).

[xiv] “U.S. Public Diplomacy – Time to Get Back in the Game, A report to Member of the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate.” 111th Congress, 1st Session.  13 February 2009. (accessed 17 May 2009).