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Average Canadian ambassador has 306 Twitter followers, lagging rivals: Study

Canadian embassy
When it comes to the battle for hearts and minds in cyberspace, Canada is idle on the sidelines.

That's the conclusion of a new report by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute which criticizes the Conservative government for handcuffing its diplomats abroad.

Stephen Harper's government's "centralized control of public communications makes it virtually impossible for Canadian diplomats to engage in real-time substantive exchanges, which is the currency of the medium," the CDFAI report says. "Unless (Canada's foreign affairs ministry) joins its American and British counterparts in embracing new channels and methods of diplomacy, Canada's voice will progressively fade in international affairs."

It's a warning that sounds so familiar.

Last year, former Canadian ambassador to Germany Paul Dubois shared with me how he was en route to an interview in 2008 with a large public broadcaster, excited over the chance to tout Canada’s vibrant economy and societal values to a huge radio audience.

As he navigated the streets of Berlin, Dubois received an urgent email from Ottawa. The Prime Minister’s Office had ordered him to cancel. No explanation was offered.

“Hell, we’re doing this interview,” said Dubois, who led the Canadian mission in Germany from 2004 until 2008. He instructed his driver to proceed to the radio station.

"It’s ridiculous,” Dubois told me over the phone from France. “Most ambassadors cave in and just says no to speaking invitations now. It’s insulting to have to check your speeches with some 23-year-old kid in the PMO. As a result, fewer people around the world know about Canada and Canadian values. Public engagement is so important.”

Dubois said he was free to book his own speaking engagements before Harper's election.

And as ambassadors are being handcuffed from public speaking, so, too, are they shying away from a public presence on the Internet.

As many as 39 U.S. ambassadors and 73 British ones are operating accounts in their own name on Twitter, Facebook or a blog, according to the CDFAI. Yet only four Canadian ambassadors do. (John Barrett in Austria; Michael Grant in Libya; Arif Lalani in the U.A.E.; and James Lambert in Holland.)

Consider the number of followers of the average Canadian ambassador: 304. (The average Twitter user has 208 followers, according to Beevolve.com)

That pales next to the average U.S. ambassador, who has 16,332 followers. The average U.K. ambassador has 1,802.

It's the same sad story when it comes to the number of followers of the official Canadian embassy, compared to the U.S. and U.K.

There are potential risks, certainly, to giving diplomats more freedom to speak at their discretion.

The report notes that in September 2012, amid a wave of controversy caused by the spread of an anti-Muslim video that was made by a U.S.-based group, the U.S. embassy in Cairo tweeted a message condemning efforts of some to "hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." The message was criticized by many in the U.S. who believe the message failed to stand up for free speech. The White House announced the tweet "was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government," the report says.

Seven months later, in April 2013, the U.S. embassy in Cairo again sent out a controversial tweet, this time linking to a video that featured comedian Jon Stewart mocking the Egyptian government's arrest of a local satirist. The American ambassador later issued a formal apology.

Still, CDFAI notes that Canada should be an Internet leader, thanks to its educated, multiethnic, polygot population, talented diplomatic corps, and cutting edge computer technology.

Canada has had a few laudable achievements. It has made inroads in China, thanks to its active engagement on Weibo, a social media forum. (Although CDFAI notes the Beijing embassy did not seek or obtain authorization from Ottawa before setting up the account.)

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead



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