Monday, April 25, 2011

“U.S. State Department Reaches Out to the World Online”

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recently published an online article entitled “U.S. State Department Reaches Out to the World Online.”

The article discusses recent State Department foreign-language social media, such as its Persian Twitter and Facebook pages. A month ago, Iranian democracy activist Amir Hossein Etemadi tweeted hoping for a condemnation of the house arrests of Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi. He received no response. More recently, he wrote on the Facebook page: “I hope that this connection will be two-way, meaning that it's not just us following your page, but more importantly, that you follow the Persian pages and the profiles of Iranians.” He did receive a response to this message, where he was thanked for his message and promised that Washington is listening and responding.

Secretary Clinton recently said: “We have our ear to the ground, talking to digital activists about where they need help, and our diversified approach means we're able to adapt to the range of threats that they face," Clinton said. "We support multiple tools, so if oppressive governments figure out how to target one, others are available.” The department now tweets in 10 different languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Persian. However, as this article points out, the Arabic Twitter has 6,000 followers, but this is not as significant as it seems – many millions of Arabic speakers use the internet worldwide.

Some comments on the department’s Facebook page express skepticism over the true effects of this listening campaign. Yes, there is increased outreach and communication, but what does this mean in terms of policy? Others say communication via social media does help to decrease the gap between themselves and the United States. They feel that any dialogue is a move in the right direction.

Moroccan blogger Hisham Almiraat brings up an interesting observation. He says that Tweeting with Alec Ross, Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation and key player in the social media effort, is much more of a “two-way conversation” than his interactions with the official State Department Arabic account, which he characterizes as robotic. And apparently Ross developed quite a following among middle-class, English-speaking Arabs, as he consistently responded to tweets during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Clay Shirky suggests that the State Department “will actually never be able to use Twitter in a completely open way,” partially due to conflicting communications goals. He says “their inability to say the same thing to all parties is not a function of which technology they're using. Their inability to say the same thing to all parties is a function of what foreign policy is like.”

Similar discussions came up in class last week, as to whether or not listening necessarily needs to be followed up with action in order to have a positive effect. While publics might like to see changes in U.S. foreign policy, foreign-language social media does appear to express interest and provides a new channel of communication that did not exist previously. In this way, public diplomacy can perhaps more effectively reach particular audiences – at least that is the strategy.

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and human rights activist, suggests that this might improve the image of the U.S. among young Arabs, for example. She says: “At least they take [these views] into account when trying to address different political issues in the region […] Especially [it's] that the audience they are targeting is not those people who are watching TV anymore; The Internet today is our TV and radio and everything. It's our media today.”

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