Last February, when shelling in Homs had intensified, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford posted unclassified satellite imagery on the US Embassy in Damacus’s Facebook page. The pictures showed the Syrian military’s movements as they approached Homs. Ford was no longer in Syria, but he wanted to continue to have a dialogue with the people there. He used the imagery to explain US foreign policy in Syria, reaching the thousands of Syrians who followed him on Facebook.
The move was part of the State Department's new effort to transform how foreign policy is conducted. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made 21st Century Statecraft — using networks and technologies as part of the United States’ foreign policy agenda —a priority. Since then the Department has used social media to further its foreign policy agenda, according to Victoria Esser, the deputy assistant secretary of public affairs for digital strategy at the State Department.
Ford's use of Facebook is one of many examples that show how digital strategy is both informing the State Department and the people in countries where information is not clearly accesible. In January 2012, the State Department opened a virtual embassy in Tehran, hoping to disemminate clear information about how to apply for a US visa, information about attending university in the US, as well as information and context about some US foreign policy decisions.
Esser has been charged with overseeing the State Department's social media platforms, broadcast operations and website. She sat down with GlobalPost's social media team recently and said that social media helps the State Department in three ways — as a way of understanding people and events on the ground in a richer way, as a powerful tool to disseminate messages about US foreign policy, and as a way of stripping away the formality of diplomatic barriers.
Read the interview.