Clinton State Department looks to boost online presence

While face-to-face diplomacy will always be a mainstay at the State Department, the increasing ubiquity of the Internet is pushing the agency to follow its audience online. In a handful of recent online efforts, the department has began to explore the opportunities and limitations of its newest medium of engagement.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we've barely scratched the surface as to what we can use to communicate with people around the world," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a Feb. 4 meeting with agency staffers in Washington. Clinton went on to acknowledge that the government "is behind nearly everybody, except in certain discrete areas, in terms of technology. And we are, in my view, wasting time, wasting money, wasting opportunities, because we are not prepared to communicate effectively with what is out there in the business world and the private world."

Last month, then-Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy James K. Glassman ventured into the virtual world Second Life to debate eight Egyptian bloggers. To be technically correct, it was the avatars -- online representations -- of Glassman and the bloggers that debated each other. Two hundred people participated in the discussion, 45 percent of them from the Middle East.

The U.S. Institute of Peace recently used Twitter for the first time at a conference on media and diplomacy, enabling nearly 40 "Twitterers" from places like India, Morocco and Egypt to participate. And in October, the State Department launched ExchangesConnect, one of the first federal social networking sites.

These examples illustrate a point Glassman conveyed at the U.S.I.P. conference, held Feb. 3 at the Newseum in Washington. "We would like to see the government as a facilitator and convener," Glassman said. "We think it's more effective than using a megaphone or preaching at people. What we want to do is encourage a conversation in which we are part."

The government has a long history of relying on one-way communication tools such as print or radio to shape debate within other countries. But the Internet has opened a forum where people expect to have their voices heard and where public diplomacy efforts require engagement and debate rather than simply broadcasting.

Kathy Bushkin Calvin, executive vice president of the United Nations Foundation, sees the Internet as particularly resistant to heavy-handed PR campaigns. "New media and the Internet are the ultimate bullshit detectors," she said. "You know going into that media you can't just do PR, it's not a vehicle of PR."

But, of course, the Web is hardly immune to propaganda, as was demonstrated during the Israeli invasion of Gaza last December, when supporters of both sides brought the conflict online by hacking and creating Web sites like Help Us Win. Nor is it always going to be used in ways that are hospitable to U.S. policy -- witness the reliance of al-Qaida and other terrorist networks on the Internet for recruitment and communication.

That may be why Jeremy Curtin, coordinator of the State's Bureau of International Information Programs (which runs, among other new media public diplomacy efforts), adds a caveat to Glassman's notion of encouraging conversation. The State Department has a vested interest, Curtin said, in "trying to help lead the conversation in ways that are constructive," emphasizing that part of the department's mission is to advocate U.S. policies.

In her remarks on Feb. 4, Clinton said the government should turn to new technologies as "tools... to further our own work." But she has yet to appoint a successor to Glassman, out of whose office came two of the department's most recent -- and ambitious -- public diplomacy efforts: ExchangesConnect and the Alliance of Youth Movement, an online campaign Glassman says is geared toward empowering young people to "rise up against the kind of violent extremism represented by al-Qaida and the FARC," a Colombian guerrilla organization.

The Alliance, modeled on "One million voices against FARC," a Facebook group started by young Colombians, offers a glimpse into the future of government engagement online, according to both Glassman and Calvin. Part of that means partnering with private organizations -- the Alliance includes Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV and Howcast.

"To some degree, the answer for the government's role online is dexterity and willingness to foster work of NGOs and be prepared constantly in the changing media environment," said Calvin. She stressed, though, that in order for government not to appear biased in favor of any single private company, it must act as an "alliance-builder" rather than relying on one-to-one partnerships.

For all its efforts, however, there is more the government could be doing. Josh Fouts of the consulting firm Dancing Ink Productions (which helped facilitate the Second Life discussion featuring Glassman), said that the State Department "has been very cautious in regard to using new technology." He emphasized how "critically important" it is for Glassman's successor not to restrict engagement with the world to those outlets set up and controlled by government. "If public diplomacy officers are not in the mix of [online conversation], then they're basically out of the game," Fouts said.

State's digital outreach team -- federal officials who log on to discussion forums in Arabic, Persian and Urdu to discuss U.S. foreign policy -- has only a dozen people. Glassman recalled a former Defense Department official commenting that if such a program had been in the DOD, that number would have been 800.

Curtin acknowledged a general shortcoming of funding and expertise, saying there is "room for exponential growth" in some areas of the department's online diplomacy efforts. For the 2009 budget, Curtin said he has requested funding to hire more people to continue revamping, which was launched a year ago and has been adding a slew of interactive and multimedia components such as Web chats and videos. It's also published in six languages other than English -- something else Curtin hopes to expand.

Curtin said that "signs are there that Secretary Clinton will lead us in a direction to use technology to advance our communication mission."

Money isn't the only challenge, though, and Curtin said that the hurdles the federal government must overcome are uniquely difficult compared to those private companies face when adopting online tools. Issues of privacy, security (which Clinton mentioned as a concern at the Department meeting last week) and accountability arise. "It's a real challenge for any large organization to act with the nimbleness and the informality of voice that is necessary for the Web 2.0 world," Curtin said.

"Government has always been driven by an effort to control information, but to be part of this conversation inherent in Internet culture is to let go of control of information and roll with it," Fouts said. "That's very challenging to the culture of government. Bureaucracy abhors that."