By Kathy Lally
The Washington Post
MOSCOW — What’s a U.S. 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 U.S. policy, blog it and post it on Facebook, an alternative to the mostly hostile traditional media here.
While Russian Internet use is widespread, 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 Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State who sent him to Moscow two years ago, told him to.
“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’ 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. A few days ago, 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-Qaida.”
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 Barack Obama’s Russia adviser, before becoming ambassador.
The December issue of State, the magazine published by the U.S. 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 Kerry discussing Iran or a link to a strong U.S. statement on human rights in Russia with something personal about himself or his family.
When he and his wife celebrated the new year by watching a Bolshoi Ballet performance of “The Nutcracker,” he tweeted photos and posted them on Facebook, commenting on the wealth of Russian culture. A year and a half ago, a photo of him in Red Square with family members visiting from Montana got a thousand likes.
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.
“It’s in my voice,” he said. “When there’s trouble to be had, it’s mine.”
When Alexei Navalny was convicted over the summer on what were widely considered trumped-up charges of embezzlement, McFaul weighed in as Navalny listened to the verdict, calling the trial politically motivated.
Last month, he discussed his bandaged hand on Twitter — he had broken his little finger in a Russia-U.S. basketball game, an injury requiring surgery.
At a meeting Dec. 11, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asked McFaul how his hand was doing. The ambassador started to explain what had happened. “Yes, yes, I know all about it,” Medvedev interrupted. “I read about it on the Internet.”
McFaul, who reserves days for face-to-face contacts, usually tweets late at night from his home office in Spaso House. He’s often alone in the mansion, which has been the official residence of the U.S. ambassador since diplomatic relations were established with the Soviet Union in 1933. His family returned to California in the fall because of his wife’s career and two sons’ education. They return on holidays, but he has plenty of Twitter time.
From his office, he can see the imposing tower occupied by the Russian Foreign Ministry. One night in May, he came under attack as he sat looking at the tower.
In a series of 15 or more tart tweets, the Foreign Ministry called itself shocked by remarks McFaul had made to students at the Higher School of Economics, describing him as distorting the U.S.-Russian relationship and spreading falsehoods.
McFaul defended himself; his standard PowerPoint presentation had emphasized positive results, he said. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister who was watching in cyberspace, called it the first Twitter war.
“I see that Russia MFA has launched a twitter-war against US Ambassador @McFaul,” tweeted Bildt, who has 251,600 followers. “That’s the new world — followers instead of nukes. Better.”
McFaul, who remains a Stanford professor on leave and follows its sports teams with great attention, said he still has a lot to learn.
“I probably write too much about Stanford,” he said.