State Department's use of social media in Egypt gets mixed reviews

Experts disagree about how effectively the State Department is using social media to understand and influence the public uprising in Egypt.

Experts disagree about how effectively the State Department is using social media to understand and influence the public uprising in Egypt.

State is monitoring events and disseminating information through traditional media outlets, as well as Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, said spokeswoman Leslie Phillips, who noted that the Egyptian government's effort to shut down all international connections to the Internet, "has made things difficult."

Renesys, a Manchester, N.H.-based company that monitors Internet routing data, reported late Monday on its blog that the only remaining Internet service provider operating in Egypt, Noor Group, shut down. The ISP provided internet connectivity to a number of international firms as well as the American University in Cairo, where many American students study abroad.

Nonetheless, the department is using social media to put out critical information, such as details of evacuation flights for American citizens. Although people in Egypt might not be able to view the messages posted online, friends and family members outside Egypt are seeing the messages and relaying the information over the phone to those in Egypt. "[Social media] certainly helps us get the word out," Phillips said.

The department's Twitter feed, for example, informs 55,000 followers about the options for leaving Egypt and provides phone numbers for people who need help. Those messages included: "If your U.S. citizen loved one needs assistance in #Egypt, call 1-202-501-4444 or e-mail"

State is doing an "excellent job" using Twitter and Facebook, said Price Floyd, vice president of digital media strategy at BAE Systems and former principal deputy assistant secretary of the Defense Department, where he specialized in social media. Floyd pointed to Clinton's senior Adviser for innovation, Alec Ross, who has been Tweeting messages in Arabic, the official language of Egypt, to his nearly 322,000 followers.

"It's not just about having the right message, it's being able to reach people with that message," Floyd said. "You have to do [it in a] language they understand."

According to the CIA's onlineWorld Factbook, in 2009 Egypt had about 20.1 million Internet users, ranking it 21st worldwide. While English and French are widely used by educated Egyptians, the CIA estimated the nation's' literacy rate was 71.4 percent in 2005, the latest data provided. By comparison, the U.S.'s literacy rate is 99 percent with more than 245 million Internet users.

By using social media during this crisis, State can reach a younger demographic, Floyd said. "If you're trying to engage and connect with and get information to and from a particular audience . . . increasingly this is the way to do it."

But John Kluge, research and new media officer at the EastWest Institute, a nonpartisan international think-tank, said State appears to be doing little besides monitoring events and issuing innocuous statements, such as "State supports democracy."

For example, on his Twitter page, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley has posted numerous messages along the lines of one he sent Saturday: "The #Egyptian government can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat. President #Mubarak's words pledging reform must be followed by action."

Kluge added, "Publicly I don't think they've taken a strong stand. I think they need too."

He also criticized the department for taking too long to craft its messages, speculating that was probably a reflection of policy deliberations at the White House. "When you're talking about [the] digital world . . . timing is really important, it's something that happens in matter of seconds and minutes, I don't think we're prepared to respond to this," he said.