WASHINGTON — The State Department is tightening its embrace of Twitter and other social media as crises grip the Middle East and Haiti, with officials finding new voice, cheek and influence in the era of digital diplomacy.
Even as it struggles to contain damage caused by WikiLeaks' release of classified internal documents, the department is reaching out across the Internet. It's bypassing traditional news outlets to connect directly and in real time with overseas audiences in the throes of unrest and upheaval.
American diplomacy isn't a newcomer to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr or Twitter, but it has stepped up online efforts as those networks play a growing role in events around the world.
In recent days, department spokesman P.J. Crowley has tweeted to knock down rumors, amplify U.S. policy positions, appeal for calm and urge reforms in Haiti, Tunisia and Lebanon.
Well before he addressed the State Department press corps on the return to Haiti of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and the possible return of ousted President Jean-Betrand Aristide, Crowley took to Twitter to pronounce the U.S. position
"We are surprised by the timing of Duvalier's visit to Haiti," he wrote last Monday, a federal holiday in the U.S. "It adds unpredictability at an uncertain time in Haiti's election process."
Late Thursday night, Crowley commented on Aristide. "We do not doubt President Aristide's desire to help the people of Haiti. But today Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past."
He has posted sharp responses to WikiLeaks and promoted the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Chicago by comparing it Sunday's NFC championship playoff game between Chicago and Green Bay. "Chicago copes with two blitzes: today the visit of the President of China, Hu Jintao, and then Sunday the Green Bay Packers," he tweeted on Friday.
"I've always tried to infuse humor into my messaging and Twitter is perfect for one-liners that get noticed and then spread exponentially," he told The Associated Press. "Finding ways to put Hu Jintao and (Green Bay quarterback) Aaron Rodgers in the same sentence is a way of bridging the traditional divide between what is domestic and international."
On Saturday alone, Crowley informed his Twitter followers that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had called Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to urge speedy political and economic reforms as protests continued in the wake of a popular uprising that toppled the country's longtime autocratic president.
He dismissed as "pure legal fantasy" the claim by WikiLeak's founder Julian Assange's lawyer that Assange might end up in the prison at Guantanamo Bay. "Save it for the movie," Crowley said.
He also chided the authoritarian government of Belarus for its crackdown on opposition leaders.
Crowley's reach — he has 9,717 followers — may not rival that of celebrities, sport stars or even other government officials. But those tracking his pronouncements include virtually all the journalists, pundits and analysts who deal with U.S. foreign policy, as well as ordinary citizens and foreign ministers of other countries.
The audience for his micro-blog posts also expands exponentially when his followers pass along his messages to their followers, particularly when those messages deal with pressing issues of the day.
"The number of retweets he gets relative to the size of his following is very impressive and shows that he has near-mastered the medium," said Alec Ross, Clinton's senior adviser for innovation and State Department "uber-Tweeter," who has nearly 320,000 Twitter followers. "It connects him to an audience of influencers in 100-plus countries."
"What we are looking for is retweets, which tells us what we are saying is getting noticed and passed along to others," Crowley told the AP. "That means we are expanding our reach."
Crowley said he made a New Year's resolution to become more active on Twitter, partly because of the reaction to somewhat irreverent Tweets he posted in 2010 that tweaked North Korea and Iran.
In one, he urged Americans to heed the department's warning not to travel to North Korea after both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton went to the North's capital to win the release of U.S. detainees. Crowley noted that the U.S. had only a limited number of former presidents available for such missions.
He also challenged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to demonstrate good will by bringing the two remaining detained American hikers with him when he visited New York last year for the U.N. General Assembly.
"I now set aside more time in between meetings the daily briefing and interviews to Tweet," Crowley said.
Crowley's Saturday post about Tunisia was just the latest in a series aimed at encouraging calm and reform in the country. "The people of Tunisia have spoken," he wrote on Thursday. "The interim government must create a genuine transition to democracy. The United States will help."
Both Crowley and Ross dispute that the revolution in Tunisia was fomented by either WikiLeaks revelations of U.S. assessments of rampant corruption, which was already well known, or social media. But, they said Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media played an important role in how the revolt played out.
"Dramatic change is happening in Tunisia," Crowley told the AP. But "real social deprivations, including the lack of political and economic opportunity combined with obvious corruption, are the real underlying causes. . Social media served as an accelerant."
"Connection technologies succeeded where mainstream media was blocked or slow to identify and report news," said Ross. "Tools like Twitter can stand-in where traditional media is blocked by an authoritarian regime from reporting. At times like this, the ability of P.J. Crowley to communicate with people through Twitter is very important."
"We are not utopian about technology," he said. "We understand that it just a tool. However, if you want to be relevant in 2011, you need to understand how to harness the power of technology."
Online: State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley's Twitter page: http://twitter.com/PJCrowley