State Department shifts digital resources to social media

With little fanfare, the State Department has abandoned America.gov — an ambitious digital project launched three years ago to promote Democracy abroad — and shifted its resources to social media projects. 

A message on the front page of America.gov informs visitors that, as of March 31, the site is not being updated and will be archived. A notice directs visitors seeking information on U.S. foreign policy to the U.S. embassy and consulate websites or to State.gov.

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The manpower once devoted to the site, provided through the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), is being redirected toward the department’s “social media assets,” which use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. IIP Deputy Assistant Secretary Duncan MacInnes called it a shift to a “more proactive” Web engagement strategy.

Although MacInnes said the department’s official site of record, State.gov, would still serve as a resource, a “static website” like America.gov is no longer the best way to promote understanding of policy.

“The new paradigm, particularly for reaching youth, is you have to go to where people already are on the Web. People don’t visit you, you have to go to them,” said MacInnes. “The material we produced for the America.gov centralized site is now pushed out to the embassy sites.”

America.gov has been archivedThe role of social media in recent revolts in Egypt “validated” the shift in strategy, following a major review that took place from September to January of this year, according to MacInnes. “It was a moment of revelation for many people,” he said. “The government is not particularly entrepreneurial as an organization, generally, but we need to be because things change every year, every six months. We will continually look for new ways to get things out.”

The State Department — through embassies, consulates and U.S. missions — sponsors about 400 sites overseas, and IIP hosts training webinars on social media “best practices.” 

“We’re teaching people to write shorter,” MacInnes said. “Chunky; chunk the information down.”

The America.gov site, launched by the State Department on Jan. 15, 2008, was designed to foster “two-way conversation between America and people in other countries,” according to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The site provided original content translated into at least three languages besides English. It was meant to be a resource for cultural and policy information serving America’s interests abroad. At its launch in early 2008, it was an “exciting” foray into the latest multimedia tools for engaging an online audience.

Social media tools — like Twitter (launched in 2006) and Facebook (2004) — have expanded dramatically in use overseas since the launch of America.gov. These tools are particularly popular with the younger generation. According to the IIP Bureau, 80 percent of the nearly 155,000 Facebook users following its popular Democracy Is page — a companion to the department’s annual Democracy Video Challenge — are younger than 24.

“Half the world is now under the age of 30,” said MacInnes. “We’ve also discovered … that the Web has gone from 75 percent English three or four years ago to 70 percent foreign languages now.”

The bureau is “ramping up” their translation efforts, MacInnes said. 

“We’ll produce an article, we’ll reduce that to a 200 word piece that can be used for a Facebook page and three or four tweets that can be used on a Twitter feed and instant messaging,” he said. 

This “package” of social media material could include photo albums, polls and discussion points to stimulate discussion. Social media and mobile content sent out to embassies overseas is now translated into six major languages including Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese.