Why is the State Department Tweeting in Arabic? A Conversation with Dana Shell Smith

Recently, the US Department of State implemented an Arabic-language account on Twitter, @USABilAraby. My initial reaction was one of pleasure, but after a bit of thinking, I became curious as to why State would think Twitter to be the appropriate platform for such engagement; after all, despite increasingly large numbers of Twitter users across the Middle East and North Africa, there’s evidence to suggest that the vast majority–and particularly the region’s power players–are bilingual. Additionally, (and anecdotally), Twitter users are often seen as the elite, the people perhaps in least need of diplomatic outreach. And of course, they’re far outnumbered by their counterparts on Facebook.

Given all of these questions, you can imagine then how thrilled I was when I got the chance to talk to Dana Shell Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs, who oversees (among other things), State’s foreign language content on social media platforms. Smith’s experience is in the US Foreign Service, and having served in Amman, Tel Aviv, and Cairo, she is fluent in Arabic (and also speaks Chinese, Spanish, and Hebrew).

Smith explained that the idea behind jumping onto Twitter was simple: For those who have done traditional outreach, moving toward new platforms made sense. She told me that Twitter’s popularity was the reason for choosing it as the first foray into platform-based Arabic content, but that they are open to expanding to other platforms and are actively thinking about which make the most sense for their content. She said that Twitter is great because it’s a conversational platform, but that, “if someone said ‘Libyans aren’t on Twitter,’ you should use X platform,’ then we would.” Ultimately, she said her response to my question (“Why Twitter?”) is: “Twitter…and everything else.”

She then went on to say that joining platforms like Twitter isn’t just about output, and that it’s not just about being heard, but also about hearing. The @USABilAraby account follows what Smith refers to as “thought leaders.” She says: “We’re all passionate about the Middle East. So the people we follow are the people who are thought leaders. We seek out the people who think differently. We take seriously what Secretary Clinton said about listening: Twitter is a great way for us to understand diverse opinions. I think it’s equally important who we’re following as who we’re tweeting to.”

I told her that some of the complaints I’d heard from friends in the region were that the account was seemingly more oriented toward broadcasting messages–though by the time I spoke to her I noted that that had changed, and that the people behind the Twitter account had begun responding to questions and criticism. Smith explained, “We’re learning the medium, this is a cultural shift for us. The responses are from our spokespeople, people already allowed to go on the record. It’s empowering to do what we already do, but in a different medium.”

In going over my notes post-conversation, one particular quote from Smith jumped out at me: “We have to customize ourselves for the world we live in, not the other way around.” Though this particular statement no doubt sounds like words of a digital immigrant–which, for what it’s worth, Smith acknowledges she is–it’s absolutely apropos to the current state of the world. We have come to expect responses from corporations, politicians, even celebrities online; it is therefore a good thing that the Department of State–or, truly, any government entity–is willing to engage on these terms.

Post Script: I feel the need to add a couple of my own thoughts here, inspired by conversations from friends who read this after I posted it.  Approving of State moving toward open conversation is not necessarily approval of State’s policies; while I am genuinely thrilled to see them willing to engage in discussion with colleagues in the Arab world (something we know happens privately already), the question remains: does open conversation in public spaces engender openness toward policies?  If State is able to hear more clearly from the so-called “Arab Street” (or is it Arab tweet?) online, will that have any actual effect on policy?

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