Chat room diplomacy

Blogs and virtual consulates are the new diplomatic tools in the State Department's efforts to change public opinion abroad

The State Department has been sending Arabic-speaking employees to popular Arabic language blogs in the past six months to engage people in political conversation and, officials hope, to correct what they say are inaccurate perceptions about the United States.

“There was no voice being heard giving our side of the story,” said Charles Silver, director of the Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation in the Office of Public Diplomacy’s Bureau of International Information Programs. “Acting on the Woody Allen statement that 90 percent of success is simply showing up,” he added, “we decided we needed to be there because we were counting on someone else to give our view of the world.”

Growing concern about the U.S. image has pushed public diplomacy to the forefront of foreign policy. Programs that use new media to inform and influence the opinions of nonofficial foreign audiences have gained greater attention since the high-profile appointment of Bush confidant Karen Hughes in 2005 as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Those new media efforts are centered in State’s Bureau of International Programs, which uses a variety of social-networking tools and strategies to engage people in other countries. Many of the Web tools it uses are the same ones enemies of the United States have been using for some time.

The bureau has had Arabic speakers engage in political discussions about U.S. foreign policy on popular Arabic language Web sites. It also has hosted hundreds of online chats with high-ranking U.S. officials and has begun an experimental project in the virtual online world of Second Life through a partnership with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy.

“Public diplomacy’s role in the war on terror is one of building a relationship with a generation who might be inclined to embrace terrorism,” said Josh Fouts, the center’s director. “We use all the tools available to have a conversation with this generation.”

State officials have consulted with information technology industry leaders on how to use Web applications for public diplomacy. And through the Foreign Institute and the Office of Information Technology, the department is training Foreign Service officers before they go abroad in the diplomatic use of blogs, wikis and podcasts.

“You really have to look at what works in various niches,” said William May, director of planning, budget and applied technology in the Office of Public Diplomacy. “Some places it’s going to work, and other places it’s not.”
Guidelines for the department’s six-month-old blogging program urge employees to be respectful, stick to the facts and not get into arguments. But they should not duck questions, Silver said.

A separate office, the Office of E-Diplomacy, in the Bureau of Information Resource Management, assists foreign service officers abroad by providing virtual consulates and wikis.

An important aspect of using new media and social-networking applications is knowing how to integrate them, said Tom Niblock, former director of the Office of E-Diplomacy who left that position in late August to become counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Our competitors are using new tools in new ways and making our traditional diplomacy and traditional approaches perhaps irrelevant,” he said. “The challenge is to understand this and move into this area.”

A virtual presence
About five years ago, Niblock was a Foreign Service officer at a diplomatic post in Russia. He discovered that Russians, rather than looking to Moscow for clues about how U.S. policies would affect them, were seeking answers locally.
That observation led him to create the Virtual Presence Post, or VPP.

The VPP program uses IT to establish a virtua U.S. presence directed toward local populations. The online consulates offer many of the same services as the traditional consulates housed in buildings.

“We think one of the challenges for American diplomacy is to convey that sense of presence, that sense of availability, that sense of relationship — and a building is not essential to that,” Niblock said. In a perfect world, the United States could have people on the ground everywhere. But given the political and budgetary constraints in which the department operates, VPPs are viable alternatives, he said.

State has 40 VPPs located in Western cultural hubs such as Gothenburg, Sweden, in addition to unstable areas where the United States has no physical presence, such as Mogadishu, Somalia, and Gaza in the Palestinian territories. VPPs are included in the Foreign Affairs Manual as an official type of U.S. presence abroad.

State uses VPPs and the virtual world of Second Life to target specific worldwide audiences. That’s the kind of outreach State should expand, some experts say.

Several factors make new media tools effective for public diplomacy. The informal nature of blogs and Web chats, for example, make them ideal for engaging people on terms that are natural and comfortable, diplomacy experts say.

Limitations of new media
“The informality of blogging and Second Life lends a level of intimacy,” Fouts said. “Blogging is also good in that it provides a forum for debate and discussion,” which are essential ingredients of public diplomacy, he said.

But new media and social-networking tools also have limitations. IT tools can break the ice, but they can’t be expected to cause a thaw, said James Der Derian, director of the Global Security Program at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he also runs the Information Technology, War and Peace Project.

Some observers say that despite the positive steps to engage foreign critics and correct misinformation on blogs, U.S. officials still must do more to respond to inaccurate foreign media reports.

“Egyptian newspapers after the tsunami a few years ago claimed that it was a CIA plot to kill Muslims,” said James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Did we ever respond to that? We certainly didn’t within days.”

But as State expands its blogging program into other languages, policy officials must be realistic about what they are up against, experts say. “Responding on a handful of Islamic Web sites is one thing, but somebody told me that there are 60,000 blogs in Iran alone,” Niblock said.

State officials say blogs and other social-networking tools, despite their advantages, present difficulties for a department known for carefully controlling its messages.

“One of the real challenges is how to participate in a blog without sounding like a department spokesman,” Silver said. “Once we start sounding like a news briefing or Tony Snow over at the White House, nobody’s going to read it or look at it.”

State officials point to the viral effect of blogging and the way messages and postings quickly spread worldwide. But with millions of blogs in hundreds of languages, they know they cannot reach everyone, so much of their blogging effort has been to determine where engagement and investment of limited resources make the most sense.

Tools of the opposition
Still, whatever State officials do is a game of catch-up, they say. Social-networking sites, blogs and online videos have long been used to galvanize opinion against the United States, particularly since the beginning of the Iraq War. Iraqi militants were using videos of beheadings as recruitment tools before members of the YouTube generation had posted their first online videos. Cell phone images showing Saddam Hussein being taunted by Iraqis as they prepared to hang him sparked rage, not only against the sectarian-minded individuals shown in t e video but also against Americans in Iraq.

Internet tools enable tod y’s Islamic radicals, for example, to coordinate actions, share information and recruit new members, Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, an intelligence group that monitors terrorism activities on the Internet, said in congressional testimony earlier this year.

The belief among many Muslim populations that the United States is at war with Islam continues to affect how they view U.S. policies, State officials say.
“One of the perceptions in the world outside the United States is that the U.S. doesn’t listen,” Silver said. “Simply being there and listening and responding seriously is, itself, I think, a very powerful [message].”

Measuring the results of e-diplomacy is a work in process. By collecting Web traffic statistics, State officials are able to assess the popularity of certain programs. But rules that prevent the government from gathering specific information on visitors makes it difficult for the department to quantify the return on its investment in e-diplomacy.

“Public diplomacy traditionally has never been measured by its success in tomorrow’s headlines,” Fouts said. “Public diplomacy is measured over years and generations.”

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