In Old Media And New, World Leaders Reach Out Directly To Citizens


Iranian president Hassan Rouhani

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani


Diplomacy it would seem is no longer the province of grey-haired elders cutting deals in backrooms. For the past two weeks, the U.S. public has seen a barrage of outreach directed not necessarily at their leaders but at them, using the Internet and American press alike to reach out to them directly in an attempt to frame the international conversation.

On Thursday night, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani published in the Washington Post an op-ed that calls for renewed diplomatic engagement between his country and the United States, the likes of which haven’t been seen since ties were cut in 1979. “International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously,” Rouhani writes, only days after an NBC interview in which he declared his country would never seek nuclear weapons. “Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities,” he continued. According to Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray, the Washington Post worked directly with the Iranian government to place the piece, which was submitted on Wednesday.

While Iranian internet still blocks most social media sites, despite glimpses of hope in recent days and rhetoric that shows the new president is considering opening the web, Rouhani has been quick to take his administration at least into the digital age. Rouhani himself doesn’t man the Twitter account under his name, but it has been determined to be legitimate. His foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, is also a regular tweeter, whose account has received the coveted blue check-mark verifying his account from Twitter.

Rouhani’s article comes one week after Russian President Vladimir Putin penned his own piece in the pages of the New York Times. While Rouhani’s op-ed was calling for new ties with the United States’, Putin’s was devoted to convincing the American people directly to back Russia’s views on Syria. “Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders,” Putin wrote, warning that it “is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. […] We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Putin’s op-ed, however, illustrates the risk of such direct outreach. Rather than swaying opinions towards Moscow, the op-ed prompted abacklash from across the political spectrum as commentators and congressmen alike took umbrage at the piece’s tone. It even caused Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to place an op-ed of his own in — which, incidentally enough, also illustrates the risks of outreach as McCain managed to publish in an entirely different publication than he intended and to little fanfare among Russians.

This week has also seen an exclusive interview of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad air on Fox News. Faced with questions from former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Assad admit to having chemical weapons but declared that the United States should pay for removing them from his country at the estimated cost of $1 billion. Making the interview all the more remarkable, to boost the interview’s signal the Syrian presidency’s official Twitter account tweeted out quotes from the interview as it happened. Assad’s government is no stranger to using social media to shape narratives, or at least attempt to, having gained attention for the considerably rosier view its official Instagram account presents than the reality of the situation.

Not to be left out, the United States is actually in the process of considering how best to revamp its digital diplomatic efforts, after spending more than $600,000 to promote foreign viewership of the State Department’s Facebook pages to little effect. Secretary of State John Kerry has hired Macon Phillips away from the White House to figure out how best to expand foreign audiences. Such attempts have been a hallmark of the Obama administration since the introduction of the president’s now annual Nowruz message, speaking directly to the Iranian people. Previous efforts to have purely “virtual embassies” have been met with mixed success, however, as seen when the Iranian government blocked an earlier Obama administration experiment.

There’s even a way to tell how well the various efforts to win the messaging war online are doing in comparison to each other. The online service Klout offers users the ability to see their “Klout scores” — ranging from 0 – 100 — that theoretically show how well they’re influencing others on the social web. There you can see that the White House’s Twitter account stands strong at a solid 85, while the Kremlin’s English-language account surprisingly enough sits slightly above it at 87. Though a newcomer to Twitter, Rouhani’s score is respectable at 78. Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad’s Klout score stands at a less than impressive 66.