How does the State Department practice public diplomacy in the age of social media?

Millions of people around the world are aware that the U.S. Department of State is using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Between them, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. embassies and consulates now collectively manage:

  • 125 YouTube channels with 23,940 subscribers and 12,729,885 million video views
  • 195 Twitter accounts with 1,403,322 followers;
  • 288 Facebook pages with 7,530,095 fans.

The U.S. Department of State also maintains a presence on Flickr, Tumblr, and Google+, and an official blog, DipNote. Its embassies and consulates also maintain a presence on these social media platforms and produce their own blogs.

What many U.S. citizens may not realize is that U.S. foreign service officers are also practicing public diplomacy on China’s Weibo microblogging network or Russia’s vkontakte social network. The U.S. Department of State also publishes social media content in 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Many embassies are also tweeting in local languages, including German, Indonesian, Korean, and Thai.

That’s a lot of talking, to be sure, but in the context of social media, a key question is whether the State Department is listening. After all, news about both human and natural crises often breaks first on Twitter, from the early rumblings of earthquakes to popular uprisings.

This morning, three representatives from the U.S. Department of State shared case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches about how does social media is changing how public diplomacy is practiced in the 21st century. In the video embedded below, you can watch an archive of the discussion from the New America Foundation on lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to share the State Department’s position, listen and, increasingly, engage with a real-time global dialogue.

Video streaming by UstreaPARTICIPANTS

  • Suzanne Hall (@SuzKPH), Senior Advisor, Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair, U.S. Department of State
  • Nick Namba (@nicholasnamba), Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Program
  • Ed Dunn (@EdAndDunn), Acting Director, U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center

From analog to digital diplomacy: a snapshot of the evolution of the tools of the diplomat

A display of the evolution of tech at the State Department
A display at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.

If you’re interested in public diplomacy in the age of social media, I hope you’ll join me (either virtually or in person) at the New America Foundation next week, where I’ll be moderating a discussion on how the latest connection technologies are being applied to statecraft in the 21st century. Who’s participating and why? What have been some lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to listen and engage?

I’ll be talking with the following three representatives from the U.S. Department of State, each of whom will share case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches:

  • SuzKPH
    Suzanne Hall
    , Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • EdAndDunn
    Ed Dunn
    , Acting Director the U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center, U.S. Department of State
  • nicholasnamba
    Nick Namba
    , Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State

If you have questions for the panel, please submit them and vote for others on Google Moderator. Of course, I’ll also be monitoring the hashtag for the event (#SMWdiplomacy) on Twitter during the event, along with comment threads on Google+ and Facebook.


#AskState: U.S. State Department to take questions from Twitter at the podium

Under Secretary McHale Participates in the State Department's First Global "Twitter Q&A"
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith Mchale, center, participates in the State Department's first global Twitter Q & A, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2011.

As part of what it is calling “21st Century Statecraft Month,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland will be taking questions from Twitter from up at the podium during the Daily Press Briefing each Friday afternoon during the month of January. Questions can be submitted using the #AskState hashtag.

The questions will be selected from the Department’s 10 official Twitter feeds, which now include tweets in Arabic, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Urdu:

Whether this is a public relations exercise or another step towards the next generation of digital public diplomacy will depend upon whether State is willing to directly take on its fiercest critics, a constituency that will likely be active on the #askstate hashtag.

While this is an interesting experiment, it’s important to note that the State Department will still be choosing which questions to answer. In a press briefing, Nuland can choose the questioner but not the question. If Nuland would commit to taking the 3 most retweeted questions, say, that would be one thing. Here, they can be selective. For instance, if asked about the Wikileaks saga, sales of American surveillance gear to foreign governments or past State Department involvement in South America, will they take the questions?

There’s also the quiet reality that P.J. Crowley, the former state department spokesman, was (and is) quite active on Twitter as @PJCrowley during his tenure. As far as I know, Nuland doesn’t have an account, which effectively means they’re doing less of that particular brand of 21st century digital diplomacy, not more. @JaredCohen, who has moved on to Google, is similarly no longer a voice for ‘digital diplomacy’ on Twitter, leaving the mantle of being State’s primary “face” on social media on the shoulders of @AlecJRoss, although, to be fair, dozens of other staffers, embassies and officials are on Twitter now as well, from @USMariaOtero to UN @AmbassadorRice.

I’ve posed a question about the State Department’s official stance on the Stop Online Piracy Act, since its passage would seem very likely to directly impact its Internet freedom policy and funding for circumvention technologies. If State takes the question, they’d post it on their YouTube channel.

Below, I’ve embedded a Storify that includes a sample of many other questions that have been asked to date:

The NewsHour interviews Alec J. Ross on digital diplomacy and 21st Century Statecraft

What do State Department officials mean when they talk about ” 21st Century Statecraft?” The PBS Newshour’s digital correspondent, Hari Sreenivasan, sat down with Alec J. Ross, senior adviser for innovation at the State Department, to learn how technology is being leveraged to accomplish foreign policy goals. Sreenivasan subsequently published an excellent post on diplomacy and 21st Century statecraft at the Rundown, the Newshour blog, that includes the video below:

As Sreenivasan notes, the State Department has been rapidly moving forward in its use of technology, as reported in Radar on applying technology for Internet freedom. The question of whether the US should support Internet freedom through technology is a complex one, and deserves serious scrutiny as it moves forward, as evidenced by the Haystack fiasco.

What does 21st Century Statecraft mean? Sreenivasan takes a swing at reporting on Ross’s take:

In light of the seismic shifts taking place in how information and people interact and engage with one another, Ross says a broadening of the practice of statecraft is necessary. Going forward, that means using a balance of soft and hard power to enable and support relationships between non-state actors, and between representatives of governments.The prescription calls for far more than giving diplomats Twitter training, or simply using social media to push “the message” out. It is also about connecting people to resources efficiently and effectively, from NGOs to governments to people in need of aid.

In addition to spending money on new forms of digital diplomacy, the State Department has more often used its clout to convene bright minds from the private sector and the NGO world in a series of Tech@State conferences. They have included gatherings to share ideas on leveraging mobile technology, finding and empowering technology assistance in Haiti’s recovery and, more recently, rethinking Civil Society.

Sreenivasan included a host of excellent links to learn more about 21st Century statecraft, including:

  • An essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “America’s Edge” (requires one-time free registration) by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It was published around the same time that the former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton University was appointed as the new Director of Policy Planning at the State Department.
  • A essay by Eric Shmidt and Jared Cohen of Google titled The Digital Disruption, also in Foreign Affairs, which discusses the challenges facing diplomacy. As Sreenivasan notes, Cohen recently moved to Google from the State Department, where he had been working with Ross on 21st Century Statecraft. The New York Times Magazine covered their digital diplomacy efforts this this past summer.
  • Sam Dupont of NDN has gathered a list of 21st Century statecraft initiatives.

The Newshour has been extending its coverage into Gov 2.0 since Sreenivasan reported on the Gov 2.0 Expo and Summit earlier this year. For more of its past coverage, check out their conversation with Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of HHS, and excerpts from their conversation with White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and federak CIO Vivek Kundra. It’s a significant evolution to see Gov 2.0 be discussed on the Newshour, CBS or Dan Rather reports. Whether it’s enough to raise national awareness of open government challenges, success or failure is itself an open question.