Digital divide thwarts online diplomatic efforts

The State Department is rapidly moving its diplomatic outreach efforts online, with a digital SWAT team of Arabic, Farsi and Urdu speakers to post on chat boards in the Muslim world and a social networking site and video contest to generate excitement about Western-style democracy.

But for all the talk of the Web as a democratic medium, the Internet remains the domain of the developed countries. While three quarters of North America is connected to the Web, just 17.4 percent of Asians and 5.6 percent of Africans are online.

With just a quarter of the planet and a vast majority of the developing world still on the wrong side of the digital divide, is the State Department putting too much emphasis communicating with the Web "haves" and too little effort getting the rest of the globe connected?

Many of the State Department's online outreach efforts are aimed at starting conversations, and that's a good thing, said S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. But leaning on the Web as a way to poll public opinion would be a mistake, he added, considering that most of the Web users the U.S. reaches online are elites.

"That's the real danger of the digital divide: People who have something to say but don't have access to a medium like this are ignored," Sundar argued. "Whenever the government thinks of this venue as their mirror or Petri dish of what the world thinks about America, then it is not a representative microcosm of the world."

But while nearly everyone agrees that the U.S. benefits from wider usage of the Internet, the task of expanding access to computers has largely fallen to nonprofits like One Laptop Per Child, which has distributed more than 800,000 bare-bones laptops around the developing world. Matt Keller, the foundation's director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, argued that State's online outreach should be combined with efforts to increase Internet connectivity.

"It's crazy to cut out billions of the world's people," he said. "And those are the people you need to be talking to."

That's not to say the federal government has been AWOL: USAID has partnered with Microsoft, Cisco, Intel and other companies on technology projects in developing countries. The State Department also recently sponsored a four-day trip to Iraq for executives from Twitter, Google, AT&T and YouTube to help the public and private sector figure out how to use the Internet as they rebuild Iraqi society.

Even in countries where only a select few have access to the State Department's Web sites, the digital divide is just the latest form of an information asymmetry that has been around for a while. Ambassador James Glassman, who was undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs during President Bush's second term, acknowledged that online outreach efforts won't reach large swaths of the world. But, he added, that isn't much a shift for the State Department, whose public diplomacy has always been aimed at political and cultural elites.

To get around limited Internet connectivity, the department is experimenting with mobile phone applications, especially in Africa, where cheap phones and pay-as-you-go plans have brought 300 million devices to the continent's billion people. Among the mobile applications the State Department has developed is the game X-Life, "a series of interrelated adventure modules which explore one idea -- what unites us, rather than what divides us."

Mobile phones are the best option, argued Larry Irving, a former administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under President Clinton who is credited with coining the phrase "digital divide."

"It's like the surface layer of the earth," Irving said. "If you're not using mobile technologies, you're just going to get the crust."

Still, accusing the U.S. of ignoring the digital divide would overstate the current scope of online diplomacy. While the agency's digital team is growing, most outreach efforts in the developing world remain decidedly low-tech, said Jeremy Curtin, who coordinates the department's Bureau of International Information Programs (which runs, the message-board outreach team and other projects).

"Embassies in developing countries will often just print stuff out and hand it to the newspaper down the street," Curtin said. "Using the technology in and of itself is not the goal."

ExchangesConnect, State's social networking site, has just over 9,000 users, only half of whom live outside the U.S. Glassman, under whose watch the site was created, said it had been "a rather bold experiment," though he admitted that he rarely logs on. And while the site did enjoy double-digit increases in users and visits last month, the message is clear: If you build it, they still may not come.

But Curtin and others contend that a large audience isn't always vital for social media to work its magic. In Madagascar, barely 110,000 of the island nation's 20.6 million residents are online. But that didn't stop American embassy officials from successfully using Twitter to bat down a false rumor that the deposed president was taking refuge in the compound, heading off a potential siege.

Even ExchangeConnect's paltry 9,000 users may make the whole enterprise worthwhile if the Web site is attracting influential members, argued Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer and head of global public policy.

"If they can have a multiplicative effect, then that can be powerful," Kelly said. (Facebook just celebrated its 200 millionth user).

The idea that the State Department could tap the right people online who can diffuse the agency's message offline is not unlike "buzz marketing" in advertising, which taps a handful of influentials to spread the word about a product or service.

But even if Irving's "digital divide" could be closed tomorrow, he has no illusions that the State Department will be closing down physical embassies in favor of Second Life consulates anytime soon.

"This isn't going to be a principal vehicle to influence thinking about the United States for some time," Irving said. "It's still early days."