The State Department’s Digital Diplomacy Footprint

Public Diplomacy 2.0

Image Credit: Markus Angermeier (under cca-sa2.5)

What criteria should be used to guide decisions regarding the new approach of using Web 2.0 technology to public diplomacy?

This is an important question to address given the limited resources available to the State Department’s public diplomacy operations in 309 US missions and US virtual presence posts overseas. The new Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs mentioned the combined use of traditional media with new social media, like Facebook, Twitter and online videos (possibly YouTube, as State already has an existing channel). “The culmination of this effort will be a virtual presence that is engaged in a global dialogue, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in all corners of the world.”

I thought this sounds really exciting; but on second thought, I wonder if this is really a realistic approach. First, let’s take a look at State’s digital diplomacy footprint.

The State Department has presence in the following social media, DipNote Blog, Facebook (6,905 fans), YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter (5,057 followers). In addition, it has a multimedia center which hosts its own videos, and photo gallery, and some 30 RSS feeds for subscription. There is no aggregated feed available for all these feeds. I imagine that all of the above are run out of the Public Affairs (PA) shop. These are all geared primarily toward an American audience.

PA is just one of the bureaus under the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (aka “R”); the other two are Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and International Information Programs (IIP). ECA has a social networking site called Exchange Connect with 10,000 members. The other bureau IPP, is home to the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), a ten-person group that actively engages with Arabic, Persian and Urdu language Internet sites, including on blogs, news sites and discussion forums. IPP has, its own Facebook (160 members) and Twitter page (993 followers). It also runs CO.NX (6,105 members) which allows LIVE multimedia webchats. The ECA and IPP bureaus are geared primarily toward a foreign audience.

Dizzy yet? There’s more.

Let’s look closely at the State Department’s Facebook presence. Its Facebook page has 6,775 fans. There is also Consular Affairs with 520 fans. This one had exactly three brief posts, two in February and one in April. One of the fans wrote: No one has written anything here since April, 2008. Wow, how exciting! Another one writes: Why be a fan of CA on FB?… The State Department Passport page has 248 fans. Owner posted the following message:

“We’re hoping that fans can upload some interesting stories and pictures they have that include passports in them. Similar to the projects where a gnome or teddy bear travels around the world, we’re looking for photos of American Citizens and their passports traveling around the world!” (Um, why?)

There were posts from July to September 2008, then nothing. Some folks in South Korea took pity and uploaded four photos of US passports held up against the South Korean backdrop. That’s it!

There is another page called Careers (but you have to join/sign in to read what is posted online), and there are three groups:

Careers in Foreign Affairs (Group) 4,343 members
Civilian Response Corps (Group) 176 members
Diplomatic Security (Group) 403 members

That’s all I’ve been able to dig up on the US-side footprint. I’m sure I’ve missed someone somewhere.

Scoble’s Social Media Starfish
Image credit: dbarefoot

Social Media: The Long Global Stretch

Overseas, the State Department has 173 posts with resident ambassadors (some ambassadors are accredited to additional posts like the one in Sri Lanka who’s also accredited to the Maldives). In addition, there are consulates, virtual presence posts (VPPs), liaison offices and other presence overseas.

I started looking at our most important posts in terms of perceived engagement need and size. Internet statistics referred to here are all derived from the Internet World Stats:

AFGHANISTAN:US Embassy Kabul is on Facebook; its Facebook page is in English with selected translations; it has 494 fans. Post is also on Twitter and Flickr. They have regular up-to-date posts. Its website is not updated as quickly as its social media sites, but I am presuming that the website is run by the information management arm, and the social media sites are run by the public diplomacy shop of the embassy. But between the three social media sites, you generally get a sense, limited it may be, of what Ambassador Eikenberry and his staff are doing in Afghanistan. Although its Internet Penetration Rate (the percentage of the total population of a given country or region that uses the Internet) is small at 1.5%, it had an internet user growth of 49,900.0 %. Yes, really!

Among the missions I have reviewed so far, Afghanistan has one of the most put together operation in terms of options provided, usability and timeliness and relevancy of postings.

Population ( 2008 Est.): 32,738,376

Internet Users (Year 2000): 1,000

Internet Users (Latest Data): 500,000

Penetration (% of Population): 1.5 %

User Growth (2000-2008 ): 49,900.0 %

IRAQ: US Embassy Baghdad has no social media sites. Its website has dead links, current items are posted in Archives, there is no organized photo gallery, and updates are sporadic. Former Ambassador Crocker’s remarks, statements and news are still posted under Embassy News. Ambassador Hill’s items have been filed under the Ambassador’s Archive. (Huh? Can you see me scratching my noggin here?)

Considering that for the last eight years, Iraq has been our most important foreign policy engagement, it is appalling to see its website functions literary like a brick wall online. When US Embassy Baghdad employees were killed by IED on May 25, Ambassador Hill’s May 26 statement did not get posted online until the 27th. I know because I was looking for it. Two days is a long time online, folks. And even as we now know, with a couple clicks of a mouse, the other two unnamed individuals who perished in that attack, the original statement was never revised. Are they really that busy over there, to do a revised statement of our dead?

I don’t know. No one knows and there’s no way to tell because well– they’ve got a brick wall online. Which lead others to ask about the US Embassy Baghdad, “What exactly are they doing?” If we go by the embassy’s press releases, Ambassador Hill has done exactly two things since his arrival in Baghdad: attended the completion of the U.S.-funded Al-Qudas Power Plant and visited the Iraq National Museum. I’m not sure you can use security as an argument for the limited information online. After all, Afghanistan is also a warzone, and we definitely see Ambassador Eikenberry giving speeches, traveling around, having meetings, etc., etc.

Although one might be tempted to argue that with less than 1% internet penetration rate, it would make no sense to deploy social media options online — Iraq had a user growth rate of 2,100.0 % from 2000-2008. That is nowhere near Afghanistan’s breathtaking number, but look – the absent is always wrong. And a static website with limited usability might as well be absent. Ambassador Adam Ereli is heading the PA shop in Baghdad (unless website has not been updated with info of departure). Guys, surely you can do better than a brick wall?

Population ( 2008 Est.): 28,221,181

Internet Users (Year 2000): 12,500

Internet Users (Latest Data): 275,000

Penetration (% of Population): 1.0 %

User Growth (2000-2008 ): 2,100.0 %

(%) of Table (Middle East): 0.6 %

Broadband Internet data is not available.

EGYPT: US Embassy Cairo does not have its own Facebook page. There is a Facebook page run by Education USA/Study USA-Egypt, with 5,408 fans. Education USA is a global network of more than 450 advising centers supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State.

US Embassy Cairo does have a Pilot Speakers Program, and Video Clips, but has no links to the Study USA-Egypt page on its website, nor does it have any other social media. I do wonder why it has no social media outreach online. Egypt accounts for 19.4 % of internet users in Africa. That’s the largest percentage of users in the continent. Although its penetration rate is in the low double digits at 12.9%, it also had an internet user growth rate of 2,240.5 % from 2000-2008.

Population ( 2008 Est.): 81,713,517

Internet Users (Year 2000): 450,000

Internet Users (Latest Data): 10,532,400

Penetration (% of Population): 12.9 %

User Growth ( 2000-2008 ): 2,240.5 %

Users % in Africa: 19.4 % (largest % of users in Africa)

: US Mission China includes the Embassy in Beijing, five constituent posts and six virtual presence posts (VPPs). It has no social media of any sort, and half of its webpage is wasted white space. I can’t tell if there are specific restrictions online that apply to this mission (because it’s China and it uses the Great Firewall!). Our digital diplomacy there appears restricted to mostly static website pages that would give anyone a headache, me included; and I generally know my way around these websites.

China has 66,464,000 broadband Internet connections as of Dec 2007. China’s internet users account for close to half the users in all of Asia at 45.3% (followed by Japan at 14.3 % and India at 12.3 %). That’s a large chunk of the online pie. And the US missions are barely there.

Population ( 2008 Est.): 1,330,044,605

Internet Users (Year 2000): 22,500,000

Internet Users (Latest Data): 298,000,000

Penetration (% of Population): 22.4 %

User Growth ( 2000-2008 ): 1,224.4 %

Users (%) in Asia: 45.3 %

: US Mission Mexico is not on Facebook but it does have a US Mission Mexico Blog, in Spanish. The mission includes the US Embassy in Mexico, nine constituent posts (none linked to the mission blog) and two VPPs linked to the blog (one has a Photo Gallery of the area’s local scenes). It has no other social media site. Mexico accounts for the second largest internet users in Latin America at 16.1% (Brazil accounts for 39.8 % of internet users in Lat-Am, followed by Mexico at 16.1 % and Argentina at 11.8 %). It also has an internet penetration rate of 24.9%, slightly higher than the world average.

Population ( 2008 Est.): 109,955,400

Internet Users (Year 2000):

Internet Users (Latest Data): 27,400,000

Penetration (% of Population): 24.9 %

User Growth ( 2000-2008 ): 910.2 %

Users (%) in Latin America: 16.1 %

IRAN: We don’t have a diplomatic presence in Tehran. Initially, I thought well how come we don’t have a VPP there? As far back as 2006, there was a plan for a VPP in Tehran according to this presentation from Thomas Niblock of the eDiplomacy Office. I don’t know if under new management, this would now go forward.

But there are 465,100 Broadband Internet connections in Iran as of Sept 2007. It has 23,000,000 internet users as of Mar 2008 and an internet penetration rate of 34.9%. It ranks second in terms of user growth in the Middle East at 9,100.0 %. It accounts for 50.2 % of all internet users in the region. That’s a significant chunk of the online pie, and the United States is well – absent, in every way.

Population ( 2008 Est.): 65,875,223

Internet Users (Year 2000): 250,000

Internet Users (Latest Data): 23,000,000

Penetration (% of Population): 34.9 %

User Growth (2000-2008 ): 9,100.0 %

User (%) of Table (Middle East): 50.2 %

I find it interesting that although there are multiple sites online, there appears to be no cohesion or central theme in them (besides the fact that they are all distinct parts of the State Department). I kind of expected each site to be the building blocks to a larger whole; but they’re not. You find social media deployed in places where you don’t expect to see it, and missing in places where you expect to see it. You see sites with up-to-date regular posts, and sites with sporadic posts. You see sites with welcome remarks from senior embassy officials, and sites with no such thing. Some sites are also run by Information Resource Centers while others by Public Affairs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me as if some of these sites were rolled out off the cuff, with no clear achievable goals and objectives in mind beyond the act of showing up online.

Why is there a separate Facebook page for Passport, when there is Consular Affairs? You’d think that a better community to form would be Americans Abroad or something along those lines for the often misunderstood official services to Americans living and traveling abroad.

How come Exchange Connect and CO.NX are operationally separated instead of working hand in glove? They are both geared toward foreign audiences so why are they not working in collaboration with each other? I know, the answer probably would be – different bureaus, different pots of money. But why does it have to be that way, especially on a social media platform? Does anybody know?

to be continued ….