Last week, the Obama administration organized the White House’s first ever Twitter Town Hall. More than 60,000 questions were tweeted well before the start of the town hall—making it a massive outreach on jobs and the economy. While logistically awkward, the amount of participants in the town hall underscores the unrivaled reach of both Twitter as a medium and the imperative to know and use this tool.
Clearly, this administration recognizes the transformative power of social media. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela gets it too.
As Valenzuela’s tenure comes to a close at the State Department, many observers will assess how he left his mark on U.S. foreign policy and policymaking. Most, if not all, past administrations have made an impact on their Latin American policies with an innovative initiative or style. Examples include John F. Kennedy (Alliance for Progress), George H.W. Bush/Bill Clinton (Free Trade Area of the Americas), and George W. Bush (democracy promotion). What will Valenzuela be known for?
With his digital town hall last November, active Twitter feed and Facebook account—amid the burgeoning Facebook presence of U.S. Embassies in the Americas—Valenzuela’s assertive use and understanding of social media stand out as a chief positive contribution. This proactive social media presence falls in line with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “21st Century Statecraft.”
A source at State divulged to me, “Right from the start, [Assistant Secretary Valenzuela] formed a new media team and empowered it to come up with ideas like the digital town hall. From the road, he would send us pictures and messages to upload. If he couldn’t tweet something from the road, he would call [us] after a meeting with a foreign minister, for example, and dictate a tweet over the phone with highlights from the discussion. Fundamentally, he saw social media as an opportunity to reach out directly to young people in the U.S. and the hemisphere writ large.”
To some luddites, using Twitter and Facebook may seem like a teenage pastime or a complete waste of taxpayer money. After all, how meaningful and substantive can a 140-character message be? As it turns out, it can be quite impactful. Consider social media’s role in helping people organize massive protests that toppled autocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa. We don’t want to be irrationally exuberant about the promise of social media, but, modestly put, these tools have become politically and diplomatically essential for articulating and promoting our foreign policy goals.
The world has changed; these formats are fast becoming primary communication and education vehicles. If we are not changing the way we interact with people, we will become obsolete and alienated on the global stage. Look at it this way: in 2008, there were roughly one million Twitter users. Today, there are some 200 million. Also staggering, roughly 12 million Facebook accounts existed just four years ago, while it stands at 600 million today. Imagine where we’ll be in another four years.
“Social media is a byproduct of a brave new world, and if the U.S. government doesn’t use it to advance its interests, then it will not be using one of the most powerful communications tools available to it today,” explains Sheldon Himelfarb, social media guru at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
In the modern era, intergovernmental diplomacy is not enough. Public diplomacy is shifting to more direct, personal and two-way interaction, noted Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale at a recent conference in Washington DC. Engaging people and telling the global community about the American story—through an impartial medium—advances U.S. interests and, in turn, enhances our national security. If we are not the ones telling our story, someone else will fill in that narrative for us.
The State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft” initiative extends beyond Twitter, however. State has used new media technologies to empower local communities and enhance citizen security and safety, such as launching a secure tip-line in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and organizing a free text messaging service in Haiti after the tragic 2010 earthquake. State also hosted its first TechCamp in Santiago, Chile, in November 2010—bringing together some 100 people from the hemisphere, half representing civil society organizations and the other half representing the technology industry.
Ultimately, can we know whether our time is spent effectively? U.S. Embassy Facebook pages may garner “fans,” but is the United States winning their hearts and minds? How do online friendships translate into the real world?
In short: How does the U.S. measure success through 21st Century Statecraft?
This is what I asked Under Secretary McHale at the recent conference. “We don’t know,” was her candid response. McHale said it’s not just about immediate numbers, results or metrics—but rather spotting a trend in views and opinions toward the U.S. over time. Furthermore, she emphasized that social media outreach is not just about black-and-white success; rather, it is to educate the global community about the United States and how to engage it in a more direct and dynamic way.
For now, it is unknown to what extent, if any, social media is helping us meet our public diplomacy goals. One thing is for sure: the United States will lose ground—and our message—by not participating.
As we go forward, a key issue to keep in mind for this brave new world: Is the U.S. communicating, dictating, or listening voyeuristically? Are we developing partnerships or a fan club?
Let’s hope the next assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs will expand on the good work started under Assistant Secretary Valenzuela and continues to develop our online presence into meaningful and dynamic engagement.
Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.