Project Disrupt: Being PC Digital Innovation and Global Democracies

Macon Phillips used to work for Blue State Digital and the 2008 Obama campaign. He is now the Coordinator of the US State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. IIP is the State Department’s public diplomacy communications unit. They are the ones who manage the infrastructure for the consulate and embassy websites around the world.  They are responsible for digital diplomacy projects, to help promote the US around the world and advance it’s interests.


This blog post is organised thematically, as opposed to chronologically.


IIP has a role in supporting US missions around the world, this is about finding both virtual and real spaces to  support engagement and discussion with people around the world about key issues facing them. The virtual world focuses on social media and websites, but also includes speakers who make virtual, as well as real life, appearances in places to talk about priority issues. These priority issues may be issues within countries, but they are also starting to talk about issues that transcend countries.


Macon talked about two significant power shifts  that are occurring in the world today. We have the tech explosion driving connections, social media, media and engagement. Social media is a game changer for how we as people engage with each other and source our media experiences. The way that many of us get our news and views now is online. We read blogs, we have Twitter or Facebook, thus we get exposed to stories from the US and UK as much as from NZ and Australia.


At the same time that we are becoming more connected people are becoming less trusting of institutions, be they govt or corporates. People don’t trust government leaders to make the right choices. This means that institutions like the US Government it’s component parts, like State, have to find a way to overcome this distrust. One place where trust is growing is in individual people.


This institution vs individual is a key challenge that many organisations face. How have the US State Department faced this challenge? We can see a response in the growing number of accounts they have. Many projecting the image of real people. The John Kerry account, or the State Department spokesperson, or the former US Ambassador to New Zealand. The State Department are leveraging this growth in trust of individuals. I guess this growth in trust should be expected. In real life, we trust people we know more than people we don’t, and online we feel that we “know” people that we follow, even more so those we we interact with.


One particular initiative that  Macon talked about was the #yalichat hashtag that the US State Department started. This hashtag grew out of a Young African Leaders Initiative. This initiative was originally going to be a scholarship for 500 young leaders from Africa. However, with over 10,000 applications, it was understood that there was a need, as well as potential, for the idea for a virtual community to grow. During the original chat session, held on Twitter there were around 8000 individual accounts involved in the chat. But what they found most interesting was that the chat led to a 30% increase in connections between those involved in the chat. So not only was the discussion helping promote US interests. But at the same time was helping to develop connections within and across countries. This example shows that twitter is not just about two way interaction, but it is about multi direction communication between people spread all across the world. It can be used as a force for good.


The people who make the best Ambassadors are average Americans. This is why the IIP supports the US Diplomatic service by sourcing Americans to visit, both in real life and virtually, places around the world. They help to bring a more human face to the US. Instead of seeing the monolithic United States, they see individual Americans with the skills, ability and willingness to help.


While he was working for the Obama administration Macon oversaw the use of Google Moderation to help select questions submitted by online users. The majority of the top questions were variations on the issue of legalisation of marijuana. This obviously caused a bit of consternation among the staffers, but it is an example of how social media can be used to show what people care about. It might be a difficult issue to talk about, but it is something people want to talk about.


Macon sees the job of social media as helping to make the administration more approachable. This is wider than just using social media to push out information that is already available. It is about developing content that is easy for people to follow and understand, no matter what their level of engagement with the issue is. When people search for information about political issues, it will normally be in the format of a google search along the lines of admin name + policy area. This normally results in the government website, be it or coming up high in the google rankings. If people are to be engaged, it can’t just be a press release that is returned. It needs to be information that is accessible to people, so there needs to be processes in place to make this possible, it involves high quality writers, designers and other content producers. It is this holistic approach to social media and engagement that will be successful, be it for government organisations, or private organisations.


There was a short period of QandA. One question that was interesting was around which social media platform has the most impact reaching global audiences. As a classic politics guy, Macon said he wasn’t going to give a simple answer. For the here and now, real time information and engagement as well as news, he sees Twitter as being a key tool. It allows for quick information turn around and multi angle communication. But, surprisingly he said “don’t gloss over email”. Well executed email lists and campaigns are still very useful when it comes to engagement and discussion. Recently the US Secretary of State sent an email to 65,000 people in Africa. But as with any social media, it is about well executed campaigns that need to be supported at all steps of the process to keep the quality of the product going up, so that the quality of information coming back is equally high.


Final point of Macon’s that I want to talk about is his observation that critics and dissenters  need to be sought out by government and campaigns to help foster debate online. There is no point in ignoring or excluding those who disagree, all that achieves is turning social media in to a series of distinct echo chambers, which doesn’t help anyone achieve anything.  This also links in with the issue of filter bubbles cause by the way search engines work. The fact that they track you and others, and use this to influence the results they return to different people for the same search means there is a risk that news and information consumption becomes self selecting and self reinforcing, which is not conducive to a healthy debate or a healthy democracy.