Web-based tools such as blogs and the social-networking site Facebook could interfere with diplomatic outreach efforts, said new media specialists on Tuesday.
"The role of diplomacy given social media is going to be more complicated than it used to be," said Robert Faris, research director at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Faris, who studies practices to censor the Internet, was a member of a panel that discussed the role of new media in last month's Iranian presidential elections. The panel was hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, a private, nonprofit group that funds pro-democracy efforts through annual congressional appropriations.
New media specialists at the event struggled to answer the question of how the State Department can leverage social networks to engage citizens and officials abroad. People in Iran, China, the United States and other foreign countries are having informal conversations through Web services that facilitate anonymity and mass communication.
"All across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran," President Obama noted at a June 23 press briefing. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet."
Governments and citizens "are talking to each other in a more public way than they were before," Faris said.
During and after last month's presidential elections in Iran, supporters of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi protested each other's claims of victory through social network sites and services. At times, the Iranian government reportedly shut down Web sites to squelch dissent and spread disinformation over the Internet.
"I look at high school students and how they circumvent their parents' controls," said Andrew Lewman, executive director of The Tor Project, which develops and distributes free anti-censorship software. "How do you know that who you're talking to are your friends? You don't."
He acknowledged that diplomats on most social media services would have a hard time convincing a sophisticated Web user that they were the federal official they claimed to be. "Governments are used to working at the government level," Lewman added. "And now it's at a personal level. There's a learning curve."
Tor was in heavy use during the recent unrest in Iran, he said. The program bounces a user's communications through a roundabout volunteer-operated network that serves as a proxy. The relay can prevent intruders from identifying a user's online behavior and physical location.
Last month, the Iranian firewall blocked 40 percent to 80 percent of Internet traffic, "so people started running proxies," Lewman said. "During the time of the heaviest blocking, we saw a huge increase in usage."
In an interview with Nextgov, Lewman said the U.S. government in the past has asked Tor programmers to add certain features to enhance privacy and security, but Tor currently is not working on federal projects specific to fighting censorship in Iran or China.