Can the State Department Facebook?

by Peter Spiro

Interesting interview at on public diplomacy and the use of social networking with Elliot Schrage, formerly of Google, now of Facebook (and author of a perceptive 2004 study on workplace codes of conduct).  No surpise, the State Department has a Facebook page.  Schrage has this to say about how governments should put these tools to work:

The challenge is, how do we move the dialogue away from a government-to-government dialogue, and more toward engaging citizens on the ground. I don’t think the United States has a particularly strong track record of doing that successfully. But I would say, based on my conversations with people in the new administration, they have a sensitivity to these issues and to [social media] as a priority like no other administration has had certainly since the dawn of the Internet era. So you’re going to see much more innovation, much more creativity. We have not yet designed the Internet equivalent, or the social networking equivalent, of Voice of America [the official radio and television broadcasting service of the U.S. government]. Voice of America was, for its time, an incredibly powerful tool. Incredibly powerful. But we have not yet come up with the tools and techniques for the social networking era that engage people in a way that the Voice of America really couldn’t, because it was constrained by being a one-way media.

Count me a skeptic.  The VOA in its ideal applications enjoyed a monopoly on information (at least when broadcasting to media-repressed societies), with all its advantages — even if it was a “one-way media” (something I bet they’re nostalgic for at State!).  That’s obviously not going to be replicated in the New World.  (Insurgencies and other nongovernmental entities, by contrast, can use it to their advantage — it is in that sense a leveler.)  Facebook users seem to be saying as much: State has a paltry 6000 “fans”, many fewer than does a mediocre baseball team across the Anacostia River.  Britney Spears has almost a million and a half.

7 Responses

  1. Thank you for your piece and the interesting statistics re facebook. It really does put the State Dept facebook “initiative” in proper perspective.

  2. My old friend and classmate Elliott!  I remember studying for corporate tax with him!  Peter, do you know him – in touch by any chance?  Wonderful guy and a fascinating career, moving back and forth between the corporate and nonprofit-human rights worlds.

  3. Actually, I am kinda optimistic. Although I must say that one only hopes that ‘the new administration [has] a sensitivity to these issues and to [social media] as …like no other administration has had.’ After all there was no facebook when the previous administration started!

    My optimism is around communication more generally. I am engaging in some ultra-violet-sky fantasising here, but surely facebook and other social media could be a means to ‘opening up’ State and other government departments?

    Currently, for poor people in far-away countries, America is really impenetrable in a lot of ways. Whilst there is a lot of information on the State Department website, and most of it is quite good, I can only think that social networking sites, used properly, could be really good way to push this information further.

    For example, there could be a facebook type page on visas, where State Department officials posted information on visas and responded to queries, etc. There could even be one for each category of visas. There could be a facebook page where the State department published its news, etc.

    None of this (the visa page aside) might get a lot of readers and even less fans. But it would get consulted, and, if it was actually treated interactively by State, would lead to a lot more feedback for the State Department which would hopefully improve a lot of things.

    Even if it didn’t it might spread the information to hard-to-reach corners where people might become slightly less susceptible to people-smugglers, etc.

    We can dream, can’t we?

  4. Ken, never met Elliot, but I’ve been an admirer from a distance.  He sure has had more remunrative gigs than the rest of us pointy heads!

    Patrick, yes, you are correct that there are aspects of social networking that an entity like State can put to work, visa logistics being an excellent example.  But that’s really by way of one-way media as well, not networking — it’s good as a bulletin board, but not as an interactive mechanism.  The web absolutely facilitates transparency.  But it won’t reinforce power hierarchies — quite the contrary — and there are many ways in which legacy institutions won’t be able to keep up..

  5. Sure, point taken. Indeed it is my hope that it won’t reinforce power hierarchies! But one power hierarchy out there is the US government, another, especially far away from here, is ‘anti-US’ media (some of it even American).

    Also, the very nature of the forum (and the fact that inevitable younger staffers will be asked to do most of the work) might just might help introduce an element of feedback.

    Like this site, which now has an edit function! Well done, I appreciate it – it permits me to add in the same comment that I do realise that I am engaging in some pretty ultra-violet-sky thinking 🙂

    PS: the time is almost too short for some of the contributors to this site to even re-read their comments properly!

  6. Peter-
    State has been quite good in recent years using the “interactive” tools of the internet to reach out directly to engage audiences. For example, a desk officer for a particular country might engage a university class in that country for a Q and A on U.S. foreign policy.  It may not break down hierarchies per se, but it helps to replicate — through new media — the strengths of the Cold War era public diplomacy efforts, which included a lot more than VOA and RFE.  Even if the U.S. still had as many — or more — American Libraries and American Centers around the world staffed with USIA officers as it did during the Cold War, the internet permits exponentially greater exposure and direct access to individuals than those programs ever could.

    I expect we will see more two-way video conferencing and webchats coming out of the State Department and embassies abroad. It’s both good for public diplomacy and relatively inexpensive.  BTW, I don’t think radio is at all dead.  In many countries radio is still the most effective mass communication tool.  (And Rush Limbaugh may be evidence that it’s still a pretty effective platform in the U.S. as well.)

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