Social media has proven to be a valuable tool in this regard, and the State Department has made impressive gains in their mission to turn conflict into conversation. Cabinet officials, foreign dignitaries, and embassies are experimenting with ways to inject America’s voice into the global chatter. Some of their experiments are paying dividends that few expected. Here’s a look at some of these efforts.
President Barack Obama garners an enormous response when he solicits the country’s opinion online, as when he circumvented the White House press corps with YouTube-submitted questions this past February an effort that received over 11,000 responses.
But when Obama fields Internet questions from local residents during an overseas trip, the numbers are staggering a whopping 17,000 responses during a visit to Ghana, and an astounding 250,000 in South Africa (though some responses did come from outside Africa). Given the relatively smaller population and shallow Internet penetration, these numbers speak volumes about the world’s web-based engagement with U.S. leaders.
Obama’s responses alone, just out of sheer publicity, may have some positive impact on foreign attitudes. But, for Bill May, Director of the State Department’s Office of Innovative Engagement (i.e. social media), being at the epicenter of online chatter is what he thinks of as the “new version of the last three feet.”
May was invoking Edward R. Murrow’s famous public diplomacy strategy where he wrote, “The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” In public diplomacy, there are a latent number of people throughout the world who will befriend America’s vision after a thorough conversation. The reverberation of Obama’s message, coupled with the hyper-local follow-ups from America’s Embassies, can reach more of those hidden friends than ever before.
Indeed, when Elizabeth Tradeau of the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria tweeted, “South Africa, what’s the impact of new media in your view of America?” there was a mix of negative and positive comments. But, one in particular seemed to prove May’s point:
@USembPretoria: for one, the US seems much friendlier than I imagine and accessible.
For every serious news or political blog, there are likely twice as many dedicated to sex, drugs, or rock n’ roll. And when Bill Clinton pioneered a youth outreach strategy answering questions from MTV fans, it was the infamous “boxers or briefs” question that garnered him the most attention. In the end, entertainment is just so much more appealing.
Seizing on this strategy, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia has seen Facebook fan growth of jaw-dropping proportions, an increase from 36,000 to 120,000 in roughly one month. On a single Facebook post, the embassy often receives between 700 to 1,000 comments (that’s about 10 times more comments than The Huffington Post). This is especially astonishing when you consider that less than 10% of Indonesia’s population even uses Facebook.
So, what’s their winning strategy? Simple social games, where users can dress up Barack Obama in local garb and share the creation with friends, or suggest what Obama should eat during his next visit.
While the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia does delve into some culturally thorny issues, foreign diplomat Tristram Perry admits that Facebook is “not a good venue for hard policy topics.” Instead, he says “we make our Facebook fun. Jazz, technology, tourism we have a fascinating history. There’s lots about it that people admire.”
The embassy saw huge traffic from an essay contest to win a trip to “Barack Obama’s America” (Hawaii and Chicago), where winners will blog about their tour for what will surely be a stadium’s worth of jealous peers back home.
Many of the messages texted to President Obama plead for “not a hand out, but a hand up,” says Trudeau of the South Africans she speaks with. Centuries of colonization, war, and resource scarcity have paralyzed innovation in many parts of the world. To jump-start the economy, the U.S. helps plant what is seen as the seed of technological innovation: Education.
For instance, in the humble rural township of Mamelodi, just outside Pretoria, the Embassy provides technological and scientific literacy to disadvantaged children. In the Mae Jemison reading room, which is named after the first female African-American astronaut, children are “introduced to the Internet,” says Trudeau. She tells them, “This is how you use Google this is how you get an e-mail account,” and my personal favorite as a writing teacher, “don’t use Wikipedia as a source.” The students’ curiosity is limitless. During class, Trudeau observes that students bunch up by computers “six-deep” in line “looking, exploring,” and are eager to learn more.
The current business culture in South Africa points to some promising returns on this educational investment. “It’s like being in Silicon [Valley] or San Francisco in 2004 with Biz Stone and all of his friends,” said one visiting American at a local technology conference, as recounted by Trudeau. “It’s journalists, it’s editors, it’s tech entrepreneurs … they all use Twitter to connect. It’s a very interconnected, very engaged community,” Trudeau notes.
The State Department has taken to providing timely information on crises and policy via social networks. During an attempted coup in Madagascar, a rumor began circulating that the threatened president was seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy. After refuting the rumors themselves, the State Department tweeted out the correct information, “and immediately we started getting retweets and people saying ‘thanks for the correction,’” notes Daniel Schaub, Director of Digital Communications for the State Department. “And, then within probably an hour or so, the traditional media had caught it,” helping to blanket the spreading fire of a rumor that “could potentially put embassy staff at risk.”
Moreover, Schaub’s department manages Secretary Hillary Clinton’s blog, Dipnote, which provides rich context for otherwise curt policy pronouncements. Dipnote is now cited by news organizations such as the Associated Press and The New York Times for detailed explanations of Department policy and procedure.
The importance of this supplementary information should not be underestimated. A recent study suggests that the clarity of White House rhetoric can impact the political world. “If the president is able to define an intervention in simple, compelling terms, he is likely to get considerably more support from the public,” says Associate Professor Cooper Drury, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy Analysis.
Every single Department official I spoke with admitted that the era of one-way broadcasting is dying. The ubiquity of mobile and social technologies means the U.S. must now have an ear as well as a voice. It seems like an unprecedented opportunity to open a dialogue with people and communities all over the world who would otherwise be isolated.
It should be noted that members of the State Department often disagree with their bosses on best practices. But, they also understand that conversation, even in 140 characters, may one day mean the difference between conflict and peace.
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