The State Department Isn't Great at the Internet

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Corny, inexplicable YouTube videos featuring low-rent animations. Expensive, unhelpful efforts to get attention on social media. The web marketing efforts of a mid-range Toyota dealership in Fort Worth? No. This is apparently the outreach strategy employed by our very own Department of State.

The latter tactic came to light last week with the release of an inspector general's report outlining the department's Bureau of International Information Programs' spending on trying to get Facebook likes. Over two years, the group spent $630,000 on advertising campaigns that generated millions of likes on Facebook. The inspector general writes:

IIP's four global thematic English-language Facebook pages had garnered more than 2.5 million fans each by mid-March 2013; the number actually engaging with each page was considerably smaller, with just over 2 percent "liking," sharing, or commenting on any item within the previous week.

Or, as the IG drily notes, "A consensus is emerging that developing numbers of Facebook followers and Twitter fans may not lead automatically to target audience engagement." This is a consensus that emerged in the private sector some time during the Bush administration.

Nonetheless, the inspector suggests that the IIP does have some effective tools. For example:

With effective use of technology, IIP has made a significant contribution to the Department of State’s (Department) digital diplomacy outreach effort, increased the reach of its publications, and expanded the use of video in public diplomacy (PD) work.

Via Max Fisher at The Washington Post, here's one of those videos.

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This is meant to be a spoof of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. What he's saying — mocking the defense of Syria's Bashar al-Assad — is secondary. What we should focus on instead is how deeply crappy the production values are. It takes a brief loop of al-Zawahiri, adds a blocky mask to it, and superimposes that on what appears to be a brief loop from the Bollywood film Jodhaa Akbar. (You can see a still here.) Then some guy presumably paid by the State Department makes the sort of corny jokes that one gets from self-appointed comedians who've just discovered YouTube. From the Post's translation: "This matter is our indecision in choosing one of two shaykhs of the killers, excuse me, I mean the jihadists, to be your new oppressor, uhhh, I mean your new leader." Get it? (YouTube commenters being YouTube commenters, one offers, as translated by Google: "Video absurd and fabricated.")

This is one of the 193 videos from the IIP's Digital Outreach Team, a group tasked with "engag[ing] with Arabic, Persian and Urdu language Internet sites, including on blogs, news sites and discussion Forums." Its mission? "[T]o explain U.S. foreign policy and to counter misinformation." According to the Associated Press, the team employs 50 people. It's not clear if that number includes any trained in video production or improvisational comedy.

The IG's report offers that "IIP’s digital outreach should focus more on [public diplomacy] goals rather than raw numbers of social media fans." A 2012 report from Stanford University's Middle East Journal (linked by the Post) assessed that effort.

Of 459 posts by other users, only 4.8% expressed positive views of US foreign policy, 68.0% expressed negative views of US foreign policy, and 27.2% expressed no clear stance. Negativity is typically expressed by calling Obama a liar or a new George Bush, whereas posts with no clear stance tend to express a “wait and see” attitude about Obama’s policies towards the Middle East. The phrase “actions, not words” is repeated across a number of sites.

aIncidentally, if you click the link offered at the Digital Outreach Team's Facebook page, you're taken to the State Department's Arabic outreach page, It trumpets that the agency has "gone social!," linking to its four global Facebook presences, each of which has over 2.5 million likes. That's gotta count for something.

Photo: A cartoon from the Digital Outreach Team's Facebook page.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.