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Twittersphere Lets Us In On Diplomats' 'Normal' Banter


America's ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, made news recently when she responded in 140 characters to snarky comments by her Russian counterpart, after she met with the Russian protest group Pussy Riot.


This exchange started with the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin. He asked of Power: She hasn't joined the band? I would expect her to invite them to perform at the National Cathedral in Washington. Maybe they could arrange a world tour for them, you know?

MONTAGNE: Later on, Ambassador Power shot back through a tweet: Ambassador Churkin, I'd be honored to go on tour with Pussy Riot, a group of girls who speak up and stand out for human rights. Will you join us?

INSKEEP: And she was using exactly 140 characters there. It's just the latest episode of diplomats engaging each other online for the world to see.

MONTAGNE: And for some insight into this, we invited Alec Ross to our studios. He served under Hillary Clinton as the senior adviser for innovation at the State Department. Ross thinks Twitter is really just pulling back the curtain.

ALEC ROSS: There's actually nothing particularly novel about any of this, except that we all get to see it. I mean, this is actually the kind of banter that's pretty normal between Russian diplomats and American diplomats. And the sort of elbow-throwing and a little bit of taunts going back and forward, that's just another day at the office. The difference today versus years past is that a lot of it's being done in public view and on social media.

MONTAGNE: Let me give you, though, another example, which seems like it has the potential for changing things - not just giving us a front row seat at diplomatic doings. And that is the example of Iran, actually. Right off, you had Hassan Rouhani, who was recently elected president - he tweeted the news that he got a call from President Obama some months back, and that was breaking news.

ROSS: Twitter and social media can be used tactically by presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers to make news, and to shape the news in the way in which they want it, without the intermediation of traditional media. One of the great contradictions of the Iranian regime is that its new leaders are such aggressive and enthusiastic users of social media. But those same social media platforms are blocked inside Iran. And so this is clearly a piece of outside-facing propaganda.

MONTAGNE: Can it also get diplomats in trouble, where you might say something in an email or a tweet that you wouldn't say face to face, or you wouldn't say if you had to sit down and write it by hand? I'm thinking here of Caroline Kennedy, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan. She used Twitter to effectively call out the Japanese practice of hunting dolphins, of rounding them up and slaughtering them.

Now, U.S. policy is that the U.S. is against this. But when she tweeted it, Japanese were shocked because it was so bold and in-your-face. Is that a pitfall, maybe?

ROSS: I think Caroline Kennedy did the right thing by calling out the dolphin slaughter in Japan. I think she knew what she was doing. I think she clearly had a sense of what the consequences of her tweeting - that were going to be. And, look, if you aren't taking incoming fire, you're bombing the wrong targets. You can't be ignored and feckless in these positions. You've got to strike out strong positions sometimes, and that means getting people riled up a little bit; and Twitter can do that.

Now, having said that, there is certainly a downside to the use of these tools. Twitter gives great capabilities to reach people directly. And what that means is that if you don't say the right thing, if you say something outside of policy guidance, if you say something poorly, well, then you're going to get the blowback for that.

MONTAGNE: Can you give an example of what you think is a more perfect use of Twitter for this sort of diplomacy?

ROSS: I think the best use of Twitter by senior officials is actually not talking, but listening. What I've actually found the highest and best use of Twitter is - for these officials- is to actually sit and quietly read what other people are saying, and read what people are saying about themselves and what people are saying about our policies.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think tweeting has caught on so much?

ROSS: I think Twitter has caught on because it's designed to be an information network that's very journalism-friendly. It's not based as much on the very strong ties between people that exist on, say, Facebook. It is a nearly universal medium. It supports, you know, dozens of languages. So I think that Twitter is really designed, in part, to be friendly for political movement-making.

MONTAGNE: Alec Ross was the State Department's first-ever special adviser for innovation. He served in that post until last year. Thank you very much for joining us.

ROSS: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.