The President isn’t the only one engaging Americans on Twitter. On June 28, the notice went out from the State Department’s spokesman that Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale would field her first “Twitter Q & A” the following morning.
Under McHale, State has launched a number of new ventures on the Internet. The power of the technology combined with low overhead has made Public Diplomacy 2.0 a highly inviting tool for U.S. diplomats. Social media is the latest tool in American public diplomacy, whether the goal is democracy building in the Middle East, contact with foreign audiences, or promotion of information about the United States.
State announced breathlessly:
Using the hashtag #AskUSA, participants from around the world can simultaneously submit questions and share ideas directly with Under Secretary McHale about strengthening ties and increasing exchanges between the United States and other countries. The U.S. Department of State’s main official Twitter feed, @StateDept, will host the session.
The department added that nine additional languages would be available for questions, including Farsi, Hindi, and Zhogwen (a Chinese language). Impressive, right?
But oddly enough, global Twitter users did not jump at the opportunity to tweet with a distinguished U.S. government official. Tweets fell into three categories:
- Some were questions from the London Independent newspaper, whose correspondent appeared to be writing about U.S. policy towards Egypt, Yemen, and Syria and was trying to nail down information about clashes and tear gas in Tahrir Square.
- The last category was made up of variations on the question, “What does cultural exchange mean for you?” This question was asked over and over again by U.S. embassies in New Zealand, Quito, Bolivia, Russia, and Mexico, as well as the State Department Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. One might conclude, therefore, that this was mainly an exercise in the State Department talking to itself.
There was very little communication from McHale herself. The only answer to be found was McHale’s comment to the question, “What have you done to improve relations between the United States and Iran?” She answered, “We have organized exchange programs between Americans & Iranians, including sports teams & students.”
That answer provides lots of food for thought on the merits of U.S. public diplomacy. More fundamentally, one has to question the value of initiatives like a “global Twitter Q & A,” which sound sexy but provide only the illusion of action and communication.