US envoy in Moscow uses Twitter to break down barriers

MOSCOW — What’s a US ambassador to do when he wants to get his message out in a country that enjoys making America look bad, has little patience for Western values, and tightly controls the media? Call him @McFaul, the tweeting ambassador.

For Ambassador Michael McFaul, the unfiltered communication offered by social media means he can tweet US policy, blog it, and post it on Facebook, an alternative to the mostly hostile traditional media here.

While Internet use is widespread in Russia, the majority of people still get their news from television, so McFaul is unlikely to win the nation’s hearts and minds tweet by tweet. But his use of social media gets him buzz — and a direct line to a new audience.


McFaul tweets, he said in an interview, because Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of states who sent him to Moscow two years ago, told him to.

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‘‘Her message was that our diplomacy goes beyond meeting with our counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,’’ he said.

McFaul’s reception when he arrived here in January 2012 helped reinforce his boss’s orders. Officially directed anti-Americanism was on the rise, and television crews, taking cues from the Kremlin, hounded McFaul. They pounced on him when he met with human rights activists. He was accused of giving the activists orders and stirring up revolution.

Time to power up the computer.

Many public officials tweet, but McFaul has been noticed for his willingness to answer questions and get into some give-and-take on Twitter.


Recently, a tweeter asked if there would ever be war between Russia and America. ‘‘Never,’’ he wrote in Russian. That touched off a longer exchange about whether the two countries threatened each other. McFaul argued they faced common threats. Pressed, he tweeted, ‘‘Al Qaeda.’’

Months after his arrival, a paper prepared for the Center for New Media and Society at the New Economic School in Moscow declared that McFaul had taken digital diplomacy much further than other diplomats. Sam Greene, then a senior research fellow at the center, also wrote that McFaul was already among Russia’s 10 most influential bloggers, as evaluated by numbers of mentions by other bloggers and readership.

McFaul, who is 50 and a proud native of Montana, was not a career diplomat. He was a Stanford University political science professor and Russia expert who wrote extensively about democracy-building efforts in the region. He was a member of the National Security Council, serving as President Obama’s Russia adviser, before becoming ambassador.

The December issue of State, the magazine published by the State Department, and the January-February issue of the Foreign Service Journal ran admiring this-is-how-you-do-it articles about his use of social media.

He tries to vary the discourse, following up a tweet about Secretary of State John F. Kerry discussing Iran or a link to a strong US statement on human rights in Russia with something personal.


The State Department gives diplomats unusual leeway on Twitter. In general, the bureaucracy requires diplomats to check with Washington before making public comments, which can lead to long delays because of time differences and irritates journalists who can’t get questions answered when it’s useful. But on Twitter, McFaul can spout off as he chooses. It couldn’t work otherwise.

McFaul is unlikely to win hearts and minds, but his use of social media gets him buzz — and a direct line to a new audience.

‘‘It’s in my voice,’’ he said. ‘‘When there’s trouble to be had, it’s mine.’’