U.S. could maintain virtual presence in Syria

Social media provides American officials with potentially valuable outreach tools to promote democracy.

The closing of the U.S. embassy in Damascus on Monday in response to escalating violence may not mean an end to the State Department's virtual ties with Syria, experts told Nextgov.

Even from outside the country, State officials could continue to interact with Syrian citizens on Facebook and Twitter, they said, and to update postings on the embassy's English and Arabic-language websites.

"There's no magic bullet that's going to take the place of having people on the ground in the country," said Sheldon Himelfarb, who researches conflict, media and technology at the United States Institute of Peace. "But, absolutely, social media allows us to continue to reach out to activists and civil society and ordinary citizens regardless of the embassy doors being open."

The State Department hasn't announced any specific plans to maintain its social media presence in Syria and declined to comment on the issue Monday.

Embassy staff regularly used social media before the evacuation and Ambassador Robert Ford often answered questions from Syrian citizens on Facebook.

As of Monday evening, officials had posted a note to the embassy's website saying they had suspended embassy operations but had not noted the closure on the embassy's Facebook and Twitter pages.

One of the most ambitious attempts at virtual diplomacy in recent years was the December launch of the State Department's "virtual embassy" for Tehran, essentially a standard U.S. embassy website without a physical embassy standing behind it. The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since that nation's 1979 Islamic revolution and the ensuing crisis during which embassy officials were held hostage for more than a year.

Posts on the virtual Tehran embassy site include some stock notices about statements by Secretary Hillary Clinton but also include some unique posts clearly aimed at drawing in average Iranians. One recent post honors World Wetlands Day, created by a United Nations Convention signed in the Iranian town of Ramsar in 1971.

The site also includes information about U.S. visas and studying in the United States. Because the Iranian government blocks the embassy site, Iranians can only reach it using circumvention tools.

The two-month-old embassy site is often derided or goes unnoticed in Iranian social media, but a few approving links to embassy pages have begun popping up too, especially to things like the wetlands post that don't tout U.S. foreign policy, said Collin Anderson, an independent researcher who has worked with Iranian and Syrian social media activists and studied the embassy site's reach.

It's difficult to measure how much effect sites like the virtual embassy have, Anderson said, but ideally they can present a clearer vision of U.S. society, culture and policy than what's portrayed in Iranian state media.

"It's basically the hearts and minds things," he said.

The Damascus embassy's website could easily be transitioned into something like the Tehran website, Anderson said, but would be stymied by a lower level of tech savvy in Syria.

About 20 percent of Syrians are online compared with about 30 percent of Iranians, according to the OpenNet Initiative, a joint project by Harvard, the University of Toronto and the SecDev Group, a Canadian security and development company. Syrian Internet is significantly less developed and more regulated, though, according to ONI.

A more important diplomatic tool than maintaining the website, Anderson said, will be maintaining a U.S. presence in social media. Ambassador Ford's Facebook chats, for instance, could be done just as easily from Washington as from Damascus and would reach a wider audience.

"The power of social media is that it's an audience that's not necessarily going to already be sold on an issue," he said. "With the virtual embassy, you have to go there with intent...To get a large audience requires a platform where people are sharing pictures of their dogs and grandkids and then sometimes in your feed there will be some U.S. response to the crackdown in Homs. That's what you get out of social media."