The Rise of Social Media: A New Frontier in Diplomacy #4


A.            Winning the Heart and Minds of Peoples through Social Media: the Case of the United States of America
Many argue that the United States State Department is “the world’s leading user of e-diplomacy”, using the apparent role of social media in conducting their public diplomacy and extending their policies as well as influences. Now, there are 25 separate e-diplomacy nodes operating at the State Department Headquarter in Washington D.C., employing over 150 employees, while around 935 overseas staff employing e-diplomacy communication tools.[1]

The use of technological innovation is nothing new in the conduct of the U.S. diplomacy. Long before the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, launched her famous “21st Century Statecraft”, which fundamentally outlined the US adoption of technology and innovation in pursuing their foreign policies agenda and goals, the State Department, in fact, has changed the way it does business since 1990s. Under Clinton Administration, the United States Information Agency (USIA) had conducted activities on computer platforms basis. As the Internet continues to be an integral part of everyday life, in 2000, the State Department continues to strengthen its engagement with wider constituencies by changing USIA’s cultural and exchange programs into the International Information Programs (IIP) with its public diplomacy officers becoming working for State Department area desks and in the field in the U.S. embassies. Moreover, the Taskforce on e-Diplomacy was also established in 2002 and later transformed into the Office of e-Diplomacy, under the wing of Undersecretary for Management.[2]

In 2006, during the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice period, ‘virtual posts’ were set up so that people can visit “a website and chat online with U.S. Diplomats.”[3] Transformational Diplomacy was introduced and following this step, the first State Department blog entry was posted on the OpinioJuris blog in January 2007 by John Belinger III, senior legal advisor. In October the same year, Dipnote, the State Department official blog on public diplomacy was officially launched. [4]

Under the first Obama Administration, which came into office with a keen sense on information and communication technologies’ potentials after the great success in the presidential campaign, the State Department continues to expand its public diplomacy through the use of the 21st-century technology. A wide variety of social networking and communication channels have been considered and utilized to maximize the exposure as well as resonance of the U.S. outreach. These strategies were further strengthened as President Obama signed “Transparency and Open Government: Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” on January 21, 2009. Emphasizing on the use of Web 2.0, this Memorandum outlined, among others, the Administration’s desire to tap into the knowledge of global communities, while at the same time share and expand the U.S. policies and influences.[5]
The appointment of Judith McHale, former President and the CEO of Discovery Communication, - a global giant company with 1.4 billion subscribers in 170 countries and 35 different languages, as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (now this position is held by Ms. Tara D. Shonenshine), reinforced the President’s commitment in advancing the U.S. public diplomacy.

One poignant example of this is the mass distribution of A New Beginning, President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, through a wide variety of Internet applications, including social media outlets, podcasts, as well as a live Webcast on the official White House’s website. Fully funded by the State Department, besides formal channels traditionally used by this institution, the speech and its link were available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, including its translations in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and eight other languages. Estimates say that the speech was spread in more than 200 countries and related text-message as well as tweets reached more than 20,000 users worldwide.[6]

As more creative models of active engagement with public through social media outlets are further developed, the U.S. State Department held a live global Twitter Q&A with the Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy, Tara Sonenshine, in June, 2012.Issues ranging from human rights to violent acts in some parts of the world, as well as the U.S. social cultural programs were questioned, where around 16 million people worldwide were engaged.[7]

Furthermore, President Obama issued a directive entitled "Building a 21st Century Digital Government" on May 23, 2012.As a result, comprehensive Digital Government Strategy was launched, aiming at, among others, delivering better digital services to the American people. Social networking sites are also part of the platforms.[8]

The U.S. Government has decided to take greater advantage of a domestic technological innovation, particularly social media sites. In addition to the establishment of the Office of e-Diplomacy in 2003; the use of internal unclassified online encyclopedia called Diplopedia; the official blogging site, Dipnote; and ExchangesConnect, a cultural exchange social networking site,  theState Department also actively engages with public by utilizing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google +, Flickr, Tumblr and various social media outlets. This paper intends to take a closer look at and limit the observation to the activities in Facebook and Twitter account.

In Twitter, several relevant accounts have been registered, classified into three big groups: agency accounts, such as the U.S. State Department itself, USAID, and  USAF Band; embassy accounts, such as the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta,  Cairo, London and many others; and individual practitioner accounts, which include Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton andUS Ambassador to Indonesia,

@StateDept is the official account the U.S. State Department in Twitter. Representing the base of U.S. Diplomacy, @StateDept tweets on a variety of matters of state diplomacy. A wide range of issues, starting from simple wishes forNational Day to strong content output,-mostly in the forms of direct links, about political affairs are broadcasted. Relevant information from its sub-agencies, such as USAID, is also ‘retweeted’ or republished. By the time of this writing, @StateDept has 26,423 tweets and 383,085 followers. Similarly, @usembassyjkt is officially managed by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. Producing 12,358 tweets and being followed by 67,638 users, @usembassyjkt mostly broadcasted issues related to social, cultural issues and people-to-people contacts. Quizzes and door prizes are also regularly held, providing additional incentives and attracting more followers and retweet. Issues such as the latest presidential election, the visit of President Obama to Jakarta and choosing school in the U.S. have been amusingly packed, inviting more and more followers of this page.
At this moment, the U.S. State Department does not register and control an official organizational account in Facebook. However, most of the related Facebook accounts are registered and managed by the U.S. embassies abroad, including in Jakarta, Indonesia. In fact, Facebook account for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta has been acknowledged as one of the leading examples of successful use of social media in engaging local people and advancing the U.S. interests in Indonesia. One simple example is the outreach program conducted by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta prior to the visit of President Barack Obama to Indonesia in 2010.[9]

However, drawbacks and constraints do persist in using social media to disseminate public diplomacy campaigns. Not everybody likes the U.S. foreign policies towards certain issues. Those views are also broadcasted and tweeted freely. As public can have the same access, some ‘unpleasant’ or irrelevant comments are received and have the potentials to divert or even destruct the interactive process and messages previously set. Besides, as previously mentioned, different landscape of information communities and e-culture of people in various countries significantly impact the responses and acceptability of policies being distributed through social media. What works well in Indonesia does not apply in Iran or Turkmenistan, for example. Moreover, in some countries, governments do restrict the open access of internet for their peoples which hinder them from receiving information from the outside world.

[1] Fergus Hanson, “Revolution @State: The Spread of EDiplomacy”, Lowy Institute for International Policy, (Accessed November 1 2012) in
[2]Fergus Hanson, ibid.
[3] Farah Stockman, “U.S. to Shifts Envoys to Developing Countries, “The New York Times”, January 19, 2006, (Accessed 6 November 2012)) in
[4] Ben Bain, “State Department Opens Up with Dipnote Blog,” Federal Computer Week, September 27, 2007,(Accessed November 1 2012) in
[5] “Transparency and Open Government: Memorandum for the Head of Executive Departments and Agencies”, the White House, January 2, 2009,(Accessed 3 November 2012) in­_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment
[6]Roy Furchgott, ”State Department to Text Obama Speech, “ The New York Times, June 3, 2009, (Accessed 1 november 2012)  in
[7]Victoria Esser, “Digital Diplomacy: A New Frontier of Diplomacy or Simply a Delusion?”, September 24, 2012, (Accessed 3 November 2012) in November 5, 2012
[8] Digital Government Strategies, (Accessed 3 November 2012) in
[9]Melanie Ciolek, “Understanding Social Media’s Contribution to Public Diplomacy :How Embassy Jakarta’s Facebook Outreach Illuminates the Limitations and Potential for the State Department’s Use of Social Media,” (Accessed 2 November 2012), in socialmedia_indonesia.pdf

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