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, who are spread around the globe and work at different levels of government: Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden; Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, Alberta.
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 Bildt, who has more than 116,000 followers , soon found Twitter to be “very useful” and also “fun.”
“As a matter of fact, you can say something in 140 characters,” he said. “The restriction isn’t as absolute as I had thought.”
One way Bildt uses Twitter is 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.”
Bildt combines his Twitter posts with a blog. Twitter is for links and instant comments; the blog is for longer, more considered arguments. Bildt tweets in English and blogs in Swedish.
One of Bildt’s followers is McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia. He likes the way Bildt mixes life and work, one moment tweeting about Syria and the next gently complaining about the long line for takeoff at the Istanbul airport.
“The thing I feel most nervous about is blending the personal and the professional,” McFaul said. “That’s new to me. I’m learning where the lines are.”
For instance, McFaul, who is originally from Bozeman, Montana, posted a picture of himself and his wife dancing to country music played by a Montana band in Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence in Moscow.
“I never would have done that three years ago,” McFaul 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 McFaul refers are the U.S. State Department’s social-media team, led by Alec Ross, who is the senior adviser on innovation for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state. Ross spearheads the State Department’s enthusiastic social-media campaign. As McFaul posted earlier this week, quoting Mrs. Clinton: “Our ambassadors are blogging and tweeting, and every embassy has a social-media presence.” (Indeed, Ross’s influence is global – Bildt said that the American briefed the Swedish diplomatic corps at its annual meeting last summer.)
Like Bildt, McFaul has a multilingual, multiplatform social-media strategy. McFaul 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.
Bildt has found that by integrating social media into his normal routines – he writes blog posts in the car or on the plane and “has it in the back of my mind all the time” – “it is not so time-consuming.”
For McFaul, who 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.”
McFaul’s moonlighting 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, McFaul says, social media is more than a tool for communication – it is also a well positioned window into the national debate.
McFaul’s social-media outreach has not protected him from controversy. Indeed, Russian leaders, including President-elect Vladimir V. Putin, have been suspicious from the outset of McFaul, who is a longtime student and occasional advocate of democratization. Just this week, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov accused McFaul of arrogance for remarks made to a Russian news agency about missile defense.
But his social-media presence has given McFaul the tools to reach beyond the sometimes hostile national media and speak to any Russians who care to listen.
Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, 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 platforms.
Nenshi 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 Twitter followers, including foreign fans who say if they lived in Calgary they would vote for Nenshi.
In a city of just over 1 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,” 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.”