State fields Twitter questions


After her daily press briefing Friday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland took questions from a new audience -- several hundred Tweeters spread across a dozen or more nations.

State solicited questions under the #AskState hash tag as part of its 21st Century Statecraft month and is accepting them in English and nine other languages. Nuland plans to answer five questions after her press briefings every Friday.

The first week's questions were submitted in English, Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and French. Nuland said she will answer questions from five other language feeds next week. Those are Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.

The department hasn't decided how it will divvy up questions in future weeks, but is aiming to make sure all the language feeds are well-represented, a State official who was not authorized to speak on the record told Nextgov .

"We're looking to select questions that have a great prevalence [on the Twitter feeds]," the official said. "We obviously can't answer all the questions, but we're not looking for softballs. We're looking for questions people care about and those are sort of all over the map."

Questions Tweeted under the English #AskState hash tag in advance of Friday's briefing spread far and wide. Those questions did touch on some big-ticket issues such as sanctions against Iran, but the most Tweeted and re-Tweeted questions were outside the foreign policy mainstream, according to a Nextgov analysis of all 105 questions.

The most popular topic, according to that analysis, was U.S policy toward the separatist Pakistani region of Balochistan, which garnered 28 Tweeted questions. That campaign was clearly led by a few busy Tweeters. One, who Tweeted under the handle @FaizBaluch, urged: "All #Baloch tweeples: must participate in the following event."

The hash tag results prompted Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee to joke at the opening of Nuland's regular press conference Friday that he had several burning question about Balochistan but didn't want to upstage the Twitter briefing.

"Since it looks like you're going to be answering questions about Balochistan later this afternoon, then the briefing's over; I won't ask about them," Lee said.

Nuland did not answer any questions about Balochistan during the Twitter briefing, nor did she speak about the second most Tweeted topic under the English hash tag: the future of opponents of Iran's theocratic regime now based at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Supporters of the Ashraf camp regularly protest outside the State Department and Tweeted several videos of their protests under the hash tag Thursday.

She did respond to the third most popular issue Tweeted under the English hash tag, which asked why the United States hasn't done more to remove Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whom American officials have said is responsible for a genocide in that nation's Darfur region and whom the International Criminal Court has charged with crimes against humanity.

U.S. officials are actively seeking a diplomatic solution in Sudan, Nuland said, and don't believe a military effort to remove al-Bashir would be effective.

An Arabic-language Tweet asked, "about the U.S. refusal to intervene militarily to stop the massacre against Syrian civilians," according to Nuland's paraphrase. She responded that the United States supports a peaceful resolution to the protests against President Basher Assad's regime and peaceful demonstrators have asked U.S. officials not to intervene militarily.

The other questions Nuland responded to included:

- A Chinese-language Tweet asked which was more important: maintaining U.S. military power or supporting human rights. [She said they're both important.]

- A Farsi Tweet asked about U.S. aid to help Iranians subvert their regime's tightening control over citizens' Internet access. [Nuland gave a rundown of U.S. resources spent on combating Internet censorship globally and condemned Iranian censorship.]

- A French Tweet asked whether new U.S. defense spending cuts will affect U.S. commitments under NATO. [She said they would not.]

More than 500 Tweets came in under the different language #AskState hash tags in the 24 hours before Nuland's Twitter briefing, according to department officials. Those Tweets reached roughly 3.7 million followers of State's numerous Twitter accounts, she said.

State manages about 190 social media accounts spread across Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Those include about 90 accounts managed by department officials or divisions and about 100 more managed by individual embassies.

The department has planned several other digital events during January, including a live video chat for international journalists and bloggers with Senior Adviser for Innovation Alec Ross and a Twitter question-and-answer session with the U.S. embassy in Haiti focused on that nation's recovery from its 2010 earthquake.

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