08/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

YouTube Diplomacy Meets #iranelection

Twitter and the birth of the "real-time" web mark a new chapter in the rapidly evolving new era of public diplomacy.

Four months ago, President Obama's Nawroz message to the Iranian people was posted to YouTube, and just over one month ago, the White House posted the video of president's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. In both cases, the State Department translated, distributed, and engaged audiences around these videos in dozens of languages, and in more than 170 countries. "YouTube Diplomacy" allowed State to control, to the extent possible, the message and certain variables of its distribution.

A week later, the elections in Iran took place, and Twitter and the real-time web entered the equation. Almost instantaneously, the Obama Administration's picture of a chaotic but somewhat controllable medium that could be engaged via YouTube Diplomacy was replaced with the chaos of an overwhelming flow of emails, SMS messages, YouTube videos and Twitter "tweets" providing updates and Iranian requests for assistance in real-time.

The Obama Administration immediately reacted to the "real-time" web by changing its public diplomacy with Iran from active to passive. After directly engaging the Iranian people around Nawroz the week before, the president resisted initial requests for strongly worded official language about the regime's response to protests. At the same time, the target audience of YouTube Diplomacy -- web 2.0 savvy "citizen diplomats" -- did not adjust their behavior in response to a different flow of information. They demonstrated they will still communicate, collaborate, and share with a flow of information around a policy issue, anywhere and anytime, via mobile phone or via laptop.

Twitter added the new dimension that there is no longer an either/or proposition of how someone would choose to engage with or impact this flow of information -- someone without Internet access could still consume and share info via SMS, and someone with mobile Internet access could do more than just retweet information -- they could consume YouTube video (iPhone), read stories (mobile browser), or forward emails. But more importantly, the real-time web allowed anyone, anywhere to participate in the events on the ground in Iran.

There are a number of lessons from the Iran election about this new dynamic. First, by participating in real-time, Americans, and others, quickly learned they could affect the internal politics of Iran. Of greater concern, they could do so without much background in Iran-US relations, or understanding how their actions might affect US foreign policy priorities.

Second, this high degree of participation by "citizen diplomats" seems to contrast with the more passive picture of citizens informing US foreign policy, which has been the core assumption of the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative. Within 4 months, it appears the Obama Administration has had a core assumption of 21st Century Statecraft disproved, and its public silence implies that it may not understand fully the implications of its efforts to date.

Third, Iran has shown that uninformed, and misinformed, citizens can have an impact on events in the ground by virtue of their participation. The flood of information coming from Iran via the real-time web was flawed. Some information was verifiable -- Demotix posted photos coming out of Iran from its verified citizen journalists, Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post selectively curated videos and stories to post, and the NY Times posted articles on its blog The Lede from its sources on the ground. But other information was more suspect -- videos were posted to and circulated on YouTube without confirmation of when or where they had been taped, or even staged. Users searching for the hashtag #iranelection on Twitter could find thousands of tweets circulating unconfirmed rumors, hyperbole or outright lies.

It is hard to deny that the emotional resonance of the images and videos of marches, protests, and shootings fueled engagement. This highlights the fourth lesson: the real-time web exposes the newfound power of citizen participation in foreign policy to the unpredictability of a media cycle. This has been true on Twitter, where #iranelection fluctuates in and out of the Top Trending Topics, recently falling behind Michael Jackson and Harry Potter as most discussed on the platform.

The Obama Administration is absolutely right to ensure US diplomacy engages with and adopts web 2.0 technologies as they evolve. Their framework (People to People and Government to People) is conservative in its agenda, and they have successes to point to already. But the fact remains that anyone, anywhere can participate in the political tumult of another country. We have no idea what the implications of having encouraged citizen diplomats to use these powerful tools of communication, collaboration, and sharing are or will be on the future of Iran, on the behavior of other states, or on the effectiveness of our foreign policy.

The Obama Administration should continue to proceed carefully, but must recalibrate its evangelism of 21st Century Statecraft. To bet heavily on Web 2.0, particularly in light of the events in Iran, is too aggressive a step for the Obama Administration with too unpredictable a technology still early in its infancy.