The U.S. State Department has jumped into the world of online communication with a vengeance. January 2012 has been designated 21st Century Statecraft month, and Administration officials have been busy tweeting, blogging, doing online Facebook chats, streaming video, and just about every other social media platform imaginable.
As a public diplomacy tool, the Internet has become a heaven-sent gift for Foggy Bottom. Clearly, there is a very determined effort underway to upgrade the image of the State Department from a rather staid and slow-pokey bureaucracy to a hopping, hip, and super-connected organization.
“Stay tuned to www.state.gov, the DipNote blog, @StateDept on Twitter and the U.S. Department of State’s official Facebook page for additional engagement opportunities on our social media platforms throughout 21st Century Statecraft month,” exhorts the State Department’s press release.
Well, good for State. In an interconnected world, we should certainly take advantage of every tool to push the message out about U.S. diplomacy and statecraft. Today, according to InternetWorldStats.com, about one-third of the world’s 6 billion people are now connected to the Internet, with an explosive growth of 480 percent over the past year. We are in many ways getting closer to Marshall McLuhan’s vision of an electronically connected global village.
A couple of questions present themselves, though: How many of these 2 billion users really want to be connected to the U.S. State Department? If we are reaching the right elite audiences, we are doing the right thing with our Web sites, but other media might well be more suitable to reach a broader audience. How many countries allow their citizens to access State’s Web sites? Iran lost no time blocking the State Department’s virtual embassy site set up to reach Iranian audiences. Is our messaging getting through? What happens during the other 11 months of the year when it is not “21st Century Statecraft Month” anymore?
And a final word of caution: For all the activity that Twitter feeds and Facebook postings seem to reflect, in the greater scheme of things, they represent only a miniscule fraction of the activities undertaken by State. Diplomacy is about a vast range of government-to-government and people-to-people interactions that take place outside the digital realm.
For those who want a taste of what U.S. cyber diplomacy looks like, these were the events of the week January 23–27 available online:
- State launched “My State Department,” an optional interface that allows users to customize their view of the vast electronic collection that comprises www.state.gov.
- On January 24, State Department Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan participated in a “Live at State” video chat to discuss U.S. foreign policy priorities with bloggers and journalists from around the world. The video will be available on www.video.state.gov.
- Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration David Robinson held a Facebook chat on January 24.
- Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer held a Twitter Q&A in Spanish via @USAenEspanol on January 24.
- For the first time, the State Department streamed President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address live to all embassy and consulate Web sites and Facebook pages worldwide. The speech was instantly delivered via a new streaming video channel placed directly on embassy and consulate Web sites and Facebook pages. The speech will be rebroadcast on a 24-hour loop to reach international audiences across all time zones, accompanied by special Q&A sessions with former Members of Congress.
- On January 25, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union William Kennard participated in a discussion organized by the European Broadcasting Union on access to communication networks and creative content online. The video was available on Facebook and YouTube platforms. Follow @USAmbEU and @US2EU for more information.
- Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook and Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement participated in “Conversations with America.” Members of the public could submit their questions in advance of the conversation to the State Department’s DipNote blog.
- On January 26, U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa David Huebner held a Twitter Q&A on how U.S. embassies advance #Dignity4All by supporting human rights for LGBT persons.
- In addition, each Friday during the month of January, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland takes questions from the public selected from the department’s 11 official Twitter feeds (Arabic, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu) and answering them from the press briefing room.