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eDiplomacy: How the State Department Uses Social Media

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan (REUTERS/POOL New).

When the telegraph first came into use, it scandalized the foreign policy establishment. It was more than two decades after the first Morse telegraph networks were established before the U.S. State Department connected its overseas missions through this new communications tool. How, you wonder, would these same Mandarins have reacted to being told they needed to pay serious attention to Facebook or viral videos?

Foreign ministries the world over are scrambling to catch up to this new operating environment, but one in particular has taken some striking initiative: the U.S. Department of State.

My Brookings paper which launched today, Baked in and Wired: eDiplomacy @ State, tracks State’s remarkable emergence as the leading innovator in its field. It drills into three areas where its use of ediplomacy has been particularly striking: public diplomacy, internet freedom, and knowledge management.

There’s a lot of detail in the paper, but looking at the topline points in just one of these areas – public diplomacy – reveals the changes and challenges connection technologies have ushered in.

State now communicates directly with over 15 million people via Facebook and Twitter. That’s about double the audience size from January, and back in January its direct audience reach was already larger than the paid subscriber base of the ten largest newspapers in the U.S. combined.

It’s easy to assume this is just a broadcast function. But State’s use of social media is much broader than that. The paper identifies six different ways social media is being used by State. These include many that are obvious – like fast official messaging and consular updates – but many that are subtler. State’s move into "Diplo-media" for example has seen it grow its audience rapidly. The paper defines diplo-media as:

  1. Content that seeks to advance broad national interests.
  2. An editorial approach that downplays associations with the State Department or U.S. government.
  3. Content that is participatory and towards the entertainment end of the content spectrum.

Another is the makings of a resiliency capability (although it is not yet necessarily conceived of in this way). This capability has three components:

  1. Real-time monitoring: The Bureau of Public Affairs’ Rapid Response Unit has a small team monitoring social media responses to developments that have the potential to impact U.S. national interests. They produce short daily briefing reports with an anecdotal look at the online response to specific events/issues (for example, on the closure of the U.S. embassy in Syria) across the Arabic, Chinese, English and Spanish social media spheres.
     
  2. Identification and cultivation of key online influencers: It is now possible to create maps of online influencers by subject area, which would allow diplomats on the ground to have a better sense of who is driving discussion on specific issues and who they should be reaching out to (in the same way diplomats currently use intuition to identify and build relations with politicians, officials and journalists they think influential).
     
  3. Capability to speak (and engage) directly with a mass audience: State now has a global reach of over 15 million people on Facebook and Twitter alone and this is on a very strong growth trajectory.

Combined, these three facets amount to a nascent resiliency capability that would allow State to quickly identify social media conversations that have the potential to affect national interests, to put their own case directly to a large online audience, and to reach out and explain their perspective to key online influencers.

These changes also bring challenges. Who should control editorial lines when communicating which such massive audiences, what role is there for advertising and how does State best mitigate the negative fallout from crisis like that caused by the viral video "Innocence of Muslims" that spark mass protests across the world but cut across the core right to freedom of speech?

For more detail, read Baked in and Wired: eDiplomacy @ State » 

  • Fergus Hanson is a nonresident fellow in Brookings’ Foreign Policy program. His research focuses on ediplomacy, Australian foreign ministry reform, and public opinion polling. Hanson previously served as a visiting fellow at Brookings during the winter and spring of 2012. Before joining Brookings, Hanson was program director for polling at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia.

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