It turns out you can govern in 140 characters. Social media is often accused of coarsening our public discourse and of making us stupid. But some innovative public leaders are taking to their keyboards and finding that the payoff is a direct and personal connection with their communities.
To understand how statecraft by Twitter works, I spoke to three avid practitioners, spread across the globe and working at different levels of government: Carl Bildt, Foreign Minister of Sweden; Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Mr. Bildt is a veteran blogger, but he was dubious about Web 2.0, as the social media revolution is sometimes called. “I was rather skeptical on Twitter,” he told me. “I thought, ‘What can you say in 140 characters?’ ”
But Mr. Bildt, who has more than 116,000 followers, soon found Twitter to be “very useful” and also fun. One way he uses Twitter is to promote his bigger think pieces. “A lot of the tweets are links,” he said. “If I write an op-ed, then I can tweet it.”
One of his followers is Mr. McFaul. The ambassador likes the way Mr. Bildt mixes life and work, one moment tweeting about Syria and the next gently complaining about a long line for takeoff at the Istanbul airport. “The thing I feel most nervous about is blending the personal and the professional,” Mr. McFaul said. “That’s new to me. I’m learning where the lines are.”
Mr. McFaul, a Montana native, posted a picture of himself and his wife dancing to country music played by a Montana band in Spaso House, the ambassador’s Moscow residence. “I never would have done that three years ago,” he said. “And yet the guys say any time there is something personal or something with a photo or video it gets much more pickup or retweets than a statement on Syria.”
“The guys” to whom he refers are the U.S. State Department’s social media team. As Mr. McFaul posted earlier this week, quoting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: “Our ambassadors are blogging and tweeting, and every embassy has a social media presence.”
Like Mr. Bildt, Mr. McFaul has a multilingual, multiplatform social media strategy. He is a Twitter newbie. (In just over two months, he has about 850 posts and more than 22,700 followers.) He blogs when he has a more complicated point to make, and uses Facebook when he wants to converse with a community. He tries to write mostly in Russian, but occasionally uses the Latin alphabet if his Cyrillic keyboard isn’t handy, and will post in English if he wants to communicate with his followers outside Russia.
Because he is writing chiefly in a foreign language, social media amounts to a second shift: “I have my day job as a conventional ambassador, and then starting at 10 p.m. until I get tired I interact on social media.”
Mr. McFaul’s role as social media ambassador has particular relevance in Russia, where the government controls much of the traditional media, especially television, and civil society has moved to the Internet in response. As a result, he says, social media is more than a tool for communication – it is also a well-positioned window into the national debate.
His social media outreach has not protected him from controversy. Indeed, Russian leaders, including president-elect Vladimir Putin, have been suspicious from the outset of Mr. McFaul, a long-time student and occasional advocate of democratization. But his social media presence has given Mr. McFaul the tools to reach beyond a sometimes hostile national media and speak to any Russians who care to listen.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi couldn’t operate in a more different environment. He is an elected leader in a Western democracy. But he, too, has found that social media gives him the power to get his message across directly, without relying on mainstream media.
He has a salty style (he once said on Twitter that a critic should “look into pharmaceuticals” for his “limpness” issue) that has earned him more than 53,000 followers, including foreign fans who say if they lived in Calgary they would vote for him.
In a city of just over one million, that gives the mayor a loud and independent megaphone.
“The really interesting piece about all of this is the way it disintermediates the traditional media,” Mr. Nenshi said. “I’m well on my way to having more Twitter followers than one of the Calgary newspapers has readers. It puts my interactions with the media in a new light.”