State Department hits send on new Arabic Twitter site

Role of social media in Egyptian uprising cited as one reason to expand Tweets to participate in Arab world conversation.

The State Department launched a new Twitter feed late Tuesday, USA in Arabic, in which nearly all Tweets are sent in Arabic.

The department was already a big Twitter user. It has an official page with about 60,000 followers. State's main spokesman, P.J. Crowley, has more than 18,000 followers on his page and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, Alec Ross, has some 325,000 followers on his site.

The new Arabic language feed @USAbilAraby by Thursday had about 700 followers, and was quickly growing in popularity. Its first Tweet referenced the fact that the recent uprisings in Egypt were organized in part through social media. "There is a huge vibrant conversation [happening] in the Arab world," said State spokeswoman Tanya Powell. "We want to make sure we are participating in that conversation."

By both listening and communicating, the department believes Tweeting in Arabic is a useful and effective way to share U.S. policy positions, Powell said, declining further comment.

State also is re-Tweeting messages from the site in English on its main feed. For example, a message posted on the Arabic page on Thursday afternoon was present on the department's main site 15 minutes after the initial post: "RT @USAbilAraby President Obama to youth and all Egyptians: America will do everything to support orderly, genuine transition to democracy."

Other messages have included several similar to the main State Twitter site, which received mixed reviews last month because of what some perceived as its lack of hard policy stands. Some Tweets on the new site relayed policy statements, such as Obama saying, "There is no room to return to the previous situation," in Egypt, according to Google Translator. Other Tweets were informational, such as a notice that Clinton would appear on al Jazeera TV.

Erik Nisbet, an assistant professor specializing in comparative political communications at Ohio State University in Columbus, said he is surprised State did not have an Arabic feed sooner. It reaches a certain demographic, practically all younger Arabs, he said, who also tend to be the most politically active.

Most in the Middle East do not read or speak English well, Nisbet said, and Internet penetration is not high. About a fourth of the population in the Arab states are Internet users, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a Geneva-based United Nations agency for information and communication technology issues.

Yet Nisbet warned that some Middle Easterners might not trust the information presented because it still comes from a governmental source and "the U.S. government lacks a lot of credibility in the region."

"It's not going to fundamentally change anything," he said, but acting with the idea of public diplomacy, it will help the United States -- which already maintains an Arabic television station, al Hurra, and radio station, Radio Sawa -- to get its message out.

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