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How Klout could change America’s image abroad

A man, wearing a t-shirt with the design of U.S. flag painted on, takes part on Friday prayers at the main square of the rebel-held town of Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Aug. 12, 2011. (Alexandre Meneghini/AP)

If there’s one thing the Internet has given us, it’s a treasure trove of data about ourselves. We now have access to terabytes of information on the way we interact with our favorite brands. All this information is crunchable in countless ways — and, for better or for worse, collected automatically. For years, few people cared, aside from marketers and advertisers. But that may be changing, as U.S. officials shift gears to a digital-first diplomatic strategy in the face of rising anti-Americanism worldwide.

America’s reputation abroad has reached a new low. In the Middle East, America is even less popular now than when President George W. Bush occupied the White House. Washington’s image has suffered the most in Turkey, plummeting from a high of 52 percent in 2000 to a dismal 10 percent in 2011. In Asia this past week, Vice President Joe Biden tried to build bridges with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s presumptive successor, but the visit was clouded by doubts about the U.S. deficit.

With a rash of pressing issues on the domestic front, President Obama has mostly left the unenviable task of repairing America’s image to State Department diplomats. Since 2009, much of that work has been done through social media channels as part of the Obama administration’s drive toward digital diplomacy. U.S. State Department officials now operate some 230 Facebook accounts, 80 Twitter feeds, 55 YouTube channels and 40 pages on Flickr, according to the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Digital diplomats broadcast messages and multimedia, attract commenters to specially designed forums in foreign languages and monitor trending topics in an attempt to take the world’s pulse. But whether conducted online or off, public diplomacy has always been an inexact science. How do diplomats know whether their efforts are paying off?

While we’re still a ways from being able to identify a direct relationship between specific public diplomacy campaigns and changes in foreign opinion, social analytics applications like Klout may soon become a vital tool for digital diplomats. Klout, which Time magazine included in a list of the year’s 50 best Web sites on August 16, gives its users a score based on how influential they are across a range of social networks. Contributing to the social savviness readout is a wealth of information about users’ most engaged followers and the topics they respond to best.

It’s not hard to see how diplomats can turn this data to their advantage. In an environment that often rewards targeted communication over indiscriminate broadcasting, diplomats have an interest in finding out who their followers are and what they like. Posting content that influencers will spread themselves can maximize the State Department’s impact via network effects while economizing effort. And by learning about their audience, diplomats will be able to tailor their engagement strategy and make course corrections, just as commercial brands do in the private sector.

Of course, Klout isn’t the only company in the burgeoning social analytics industry. For years, Facebook’s Insights feature has given fan page managers access to demographic and behavioral information that helps them promote content more effectively. And Twitter is reportedly is working on its own analytics application, which is currently in private testing.

Social analytics services don’t solve everything. They tell us little about how digital diplomacy advances U.S. foreign policy goals, for example. But they do provide an innovative medium-term solution to the traditional challenge associated with public diplomacy: defining and measuring success.

Brian D. Fung is a freelance journalist who writes about politics and technology. He has worked previously at Foreign Policy magazine, CBS News, NBC and on Capitol Hill. A graduate student at the London School of Economics, Brian holds a degree in political science from Middlebury College. He can be reached via Twitter at @b_fung.

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