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Social Media & Public Diplomacy

by on October 28, 2011

Today, almost everyone I know is on Twitter and Facebook. It’s how people stay connected—be it family, friends, or people who share interests. Organizations and businesses have jumped on the social media bandwagon to promote themselves, and the government tries to do the same. Every governmental department has a Twitter account. You can “like” them on Facebook. Yet, once again, the U.S.’ attempts at public diplomacy falls short.

The reason I believe that these attempts at public diplomacy through social media outreach fall short is based on authenticity.  Facebook was successful because it provided an opportunity for you to learn more about your friends and connect with people (although most people use it for gaming now). Twitter allows you to interact with your favorite celebrities. However, when the government gets involved, we know that someone has been hired to craft the messages that are being sent out. Even if we guess that this is happening with our favorite actors and musicians, we know that this is the case from our government. People don’t go to social media outlets for serious business, they go to have fun and keep in touch with their networks.

Ultimately,  the people that are the most candid on Twitter have the most followers. This may be why the official State Department Twitter account has about 175,000 followers, while Snooki from “Jersey Shore” has 3.5 million. Or maybe this just means that the Rapture is imminent.


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  1. This is absolutely true. When organizations like governmental departments get on social networking sites it often looks sad and forced, like they’re telling ‘the kids’ how ‘hip’ they are. “Hey, like me on Facebook, I’m relevant!” They are relevant, but social networking is about people you know and trends that you are truly interested in, and being fed carefully crafted messages, that as you say, lack in authenticity. And the gov’t is the worst at being candid, with news stations waiting breathlessly for any misstep.

  2. Very good point.

  3. William Nyikuli permalink

    The problem with most social media as practiced by public international & domestic organization first of all like you say, it is ghostwritten. I suspect (and I might be totally wrong) that the Secretary of State is not actually logging in and tweeting. The other aspect to it is i wonder how much actual interaction goes on there. Media is no longer just one-to-many one way traffic. It’s evolved to a many-to-many interactive model in many cases. I think that some of these organizations use new media with old thinking. Yes they’ll tweet or get liked on Facebook, but their mindset is still a one-to-many one way flow. An example of this is blogging. For me–my personal opinion–it’s counterproductive to have a blog, and then not respond to, or at the very least at least read the comments. Because then why have a blog? Might as well have regular news articles/bulletins.

  4. MaryJ permalink

    Let me offer a somewhat different point of view:

    While these comments may well be true in a U.S. context, in many places overseas — especially where traditional media are censored to a degree — young people are actively using Facebook and other social media for political goals (broadly defined). They’re setting up pages to organize national demonstrations, and to get people together for local community improvement efforts, and everything in between. And they’re also sharing info about scholarships, competitions, and other “leg up” opportunities via social media.

    When a foreign embassy in one of these countries sets up a Facebook page (or Twitter account), ideally many potential “friends” already know some of the embassy staff personally, and the resulting informal online exchanges pull in those friends’ friends … and their friends. Plus, a lot of readers have very pragmatic economic goals: they want to learn English, get a visa, find out about training opportunities, learn about scholarships — and so they are very interested in what the embassy has to say about these subjects. Especially when the embassy promptly answers questions that are posted. And of course there are always some folks proactively seek to point out the shortcomings of that embassy’s government, which on occasion prompts a really interesting multi-dimensional debate.

    All of this is very different from a Facebook or Twitter account that just pushes out official talking points from some distant capital — although I would posit that those talking points can get a better hearing via a well-developed embassy social media page than via other channels.

    Edward R. Murrow famously talked about the “last three feet” in public diplomacy — the zone of personal relationships on the ground that ensure messages broadcast from 10,000 miles away are listened to. In an age where many young people conduct a huge part of their lives online, I believe these last three feet can be digital … but they still have to involve personal relationships. And I believe embassies’ use of Facebook and Twitter can make this happen.

    Mary Jeffers
    (U.S. Department of State)

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