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How US diplomats are using social media, inspired by the Obama campaign

In 2009, the US embassy in South Africa embarked on a new approach to diplomacy. We set up a Facebook page, started a Twitter account and established a presence on MXit, a mobile chat service which attracts millions of youth.

Our embrace of these social media sites reflected a shift in thinking at the US Department of State fuelled by the successful use of social media during Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. But it is South Africa itself that has demonstrated how much we as diplomats have to gain by reaching out to citizens through new media.

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Our Facebook site is one of the largest US Embassy sites in the world, with nearly 23 000 daily post views and close to 8 000 active users. Every day, we listen closely to our Facebook community comment and debate on a wide range of subjects. Some topics are as timely and political as the results of Sudan’s referendum and President Obama’s State of the Union address on January 25th.

Others are more whimsical, like a discussion of which of the world’s nationalities are the “coolest”.

The goal of this exchange isn’t simply to promote our agenda; it’s to listen to the community, and learn from the positive comments as well as the criticisms.

Technology never rewards complacency. If we continued to rely on desktop applications, our reach would remain limited. Between nine and eleven-million South Africans access the internet through their mobile devices. That is roughly twice the number of people in this country with access to the Web via a desktop computer.

Poverty and joblessness are twin scourges on the continent, and many South Africans are unable to afford a personal computer of their own. African technology firms have responded to this reality by creating new business models that allow them to connect the largest possible demographic.

Because of this, the US Mission is introducing a new mobile platform, called ConnectUS, which we have developed in partnership with Cape Town start-up Motribe Mobile Networks. Our aim is to expand our online community to include the vast pool of mobile phone users in South Africa.

Motribe is making it possible for us to increase our engagement inexpensively and reliably. For example, the mobile site will be accessible from approximately 4 500 different makes and models of internet-enabled cell phones currently on the market in South Africa.

ConnectUS is also unique in that the site will belong to its users. We won’t be piggybacking off another company’s platform, as with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The design will be entirely original. We’re proud to partner with South Africa’s own Motribe to launch this site.

Nic Haralambous of Motribe explains that there will be a definite information benefit to ordinary people: “It’s taking information to the people. You can now communicate directly with people who have answers. And it’s info that you would previously have needed a PC for, but now you can get on your phone, and on the move.”

ConnectUS will offer information about visas, education opportunities and Embassy offices, and the latest statements by President Obama and other U.S. government officials, as well as photos and essays about our work with local partners in South Africa.

We will also inform the community about upcoming events and opportunities to engage with us, including the professional exchanges open to South Africans across a range of fields. Perhaps most crucially, ConnectUS will provide a new forum for South Africans to communicate their questions, wishes and concerns to us.

All anyone needs is a cell phone with a browser. In today’s world of global networks, information flows freely and in real time. As diplomats, we acknowledge that our work needs to encompass more than a conversation among elites. Understanding between nations is only possible when diplomats reach out to and understand every facet of the countries to which they are posted.

We’ve all witnessed the power of technology to capture the world’s attention.

In Iran in 2009, cell phones and social media sites disseminated information that would have been otherwise unavailable to global news outlets–and consequently to us. Last year, mobile devices played a critical role in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, as short-message-service (SMS) texting provided a valuable bank of information about victims and conditions to relief workers on the ground. In Egypt, despite restrictions, new media is breaking ground in reporting, organising and focusing the world’s attention as events unfold. In all these cases, private citizens have affected change simply by using the technology at their fingertips.

The spread of timely, accurate information is vital to democracy. This is evident from the alacrity with which authoritarian regimes, which have long muzzled the press, have also sought to restrict internet access and social media sites. Even within the U.S., there are some who have questioned the extent to which our diplomats should engage with global communities via platforms that aren’t readily controllable.

Secretary Clinton is not one of the doubters. In fact, she has urged the State Department to embrace the concept of “21st century statecraft” by becoming part of the online conversation taking place among citizens around the world. The State Department was founded in 1789, when even written mail took weeks to travel between cities. If this 222-year-old institution wants to stay relevant today, it needs to tap into the buzz and engagement of online platforms.

So far, our experience on social media sites shows us that the community is usually self-regulating. People may agree and disagree. They may openly challenge us, as well as one another. That kind of healthy debate is what we need to hear. By listening to this community, we have learned an enormous amount about our work as diplomats.

With ConnectUS, we are looking forward to expanding this community-and our understanding of South Africa’s priorities-even further.

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