Obama 'friends' the world with Facebook, Twitter diplomacy

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 31, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Watch President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk about China. Read about it in Chinese. Catch a Web chat with a filmmaker on democracy. Bone up on Mideast peace negotiations and U.S.-Indonesian forest conservation efforts.

Then debate these topics with thousands of strangers around the world while the U.S. government tracks it all.

This was the fare one recent day on the Facebook page of eJournal USA, which is run by the State Department and overseen by a former chief executive of a global media company. About 42,000 people worldwide had signed up as "fans" by late July.

While non-U.S. citizens can't vote for Obama or his political rivals, they can serve as a world-spanning sounding board when the president wants to take the global pulse, exert leverage overseas or simply burnish America's image.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become central global communications tools — June's disputed elections in Iran being a case in point — and the Obama administration has aggressively seized the opportunity to spread its message farther and wider than any predecessor has, without the unwelcome scrutiny of the traditional news media.

So, no matter where you live on planet Earth, and no matter what subjects most interest you, America's president wants to Facebook you, SMS you and maybe one day Tweet you. "Illegal logger give me back my green forests!" one Indonesian commenter implored on the eJournal page. Another, from India, wrote: "China is akin to a monster, out to swallow everything."

This grass-roots networking sounds like the next level of Obama's groundbreaking online presidential-campaign operation, Obama for America, or its post-election incarnation, Organizing for America, which seeks to corral U.S. voters to promote the president's domestic agenda. In reality, though, the administration is playing catch-up with other countries.

Israel, whose image periodically takes a beating worldwide, launched the first government blog in 2006 and held what's thought to be the first news-conference-by-Twitter last December.

Philip Seib, the director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, said the administration was right to hop on the bandwidth wagon.

"The superpowers are stuck in the Cold War," Seib said. "You look at the United States, the Russians, to some extent the French. They rely too heavily on broadcast. The Israelis, I think, are on to something, and I think that's going to be the future. The digital divide is closing, particularly in areas such as the Middle East. More and more young people are accessing the Internet through various ways."

However, Seib said, there must be a coherent strategy for what to do with networks once they were created. "In Barack Obama, you've got the greatest public-diplomacy asset since Benjamin Franklin. But beyond that, how do you decide on the message you want to send to these connections that you've built? You have to have a plan."

Enter Judith McHale.

The former president and CEO of Discovery Communications brought what she'd learned about marketing and networking across 170 countries to the State Department in May as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

"As an outsider looking in ... I felt that this was something missing in our foreign policy toolbox. ... We had to find new ways of communicating with foreign publics, given the role that they have now in the political and social lives of their countries," McHale said in an interview.

Social networks allow the U.S. government to reach "deep into societies" as never before, McHale said, and to "go beyond sort of traditional, elite audiences that one would have reached previously."

Consider Obama's recent trip to Ghana. The U.S. government received 250,000 cell-phone text messages and e-mails from 85 countries on a service set up for the event. He answered a handful on a podcast that was delivered — sometimes by bicycle — for broadcast on radio, rural Africa's favored medium. Thousands more questions and comments were posted online.

The effort isn't without potential pitfalls. Other governments, particularly authoritarian ones, may not look kindly on Obama connecting directly to their citizens, although McHale said there'd been no complaints on that score.

Moreover, the U.S. government is retaining the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of its Facebook "friends" to stay in touch with its new global constituency. "That's just smart public diplomacy," McHale said.

The government's expanding use of social media rankles some veteran journalists, who say that the administration at times seems to be avoiding them — and the scrutiny they can bring to bear.

The Defense Department posted the identity of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier whom the Taliban captured after he left his base in Afghanistan, on Facebook first, then it issued a news release about 10 hours later, NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said.

"They said it was a mistake, yet you continue to see postings on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that are never funneled to the media," Miklaszewski said, adding that while he understands the Pentagon's desire to tap into social media, "excluding the mainstream media is a risky proposition."

McHale and other State Department officials played down privacy concerns, saying that the contact is voluntary and people can opt out at any time — or mask their identities. "We're not sort of checking up on people and saying, 'You said you're John Smith. Are you really John Smith?' " McHale said.

Besides, she said, the U.S. government can't afford not to be involved.

"This is the way people now get their news, they get their information," she said. "It's not as if there'll be a big black hole. That hole will be filled with other information."

That's the view of David Saranga, a spokesman for Israel's New York consulate and a leading proponent of what might be dubbed Public Diplomacy 2.0.

Last December, as Israel's military strikes on the Gaza Strip generated worldwide condemnation for the suffering they inflicted on civilians, Saranga organized a "citizens' press conference" on Twitter, fielding tough questions about Israel's actions.

"New media and social media help me to go directly to the public opinion" without filtering by conventional news media, Saranga said. They also allow him to promote Israel-related topics that the media usually don't cover, he said.

The consulate's Twitter account has about 7,000 "followers," and Saranga said that he found the community largely self-policing, punishing troublemakers. "I've become a big fan of Twitter," he said. "It's an intelligent community."

At the State Department, public diplomacy's new-media budget is still relatively small, $7.6 million annually out of a total of more than $500 million.

McHale said that she took existing initiatives — such as a Digital Outreach Team that promotes the U.S. viewpoint on Arabic-, Persian- and Urdu-language Internet sites _and was fashioning them into a strategic program.

Further initiatives are planned, but McHale said it was also important to move carefully. "You don't want to overwhelm people ... with information that they don't want," she said.

So far, though, there's an appetite for more.

Many foreigners, such as Mette Kliim-Due of Denmark, have connected with a White House page on Facebook more targeted to Americans and to domestic issues.

"Probably I wouldn't get to know that much more from the Facebook site than following newspapers and television," said the 47-year-old Danish wife, mother, cerebral palsy researcher and Obama fan.

"It's a little for the fun. You feel this kind of connection with the ones you join. I think that's the reason. ... It's being a member of a kind of community around the White House."

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