The public diplomacy game is going viral, as Russia has been demonstrating of late with its remarkable agility in getting its message out about the Ukraine conflict in today's networked information environment. Eager to compete in what might be called social warfare, the United States has just soft-launched Share America, a new site that looks much like another enormously successful vendor of social media fodder, Upworthy.
And what Share America is serving up is bite-sized nuggets of video, photos and text, all optimized to be as shareable as possible on the Web. The goal is to feed content aligned with stated American values -- "democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society," reads the site -- in the ever-hungry maw of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networks.
"Share America is an effort to take the issues that the United States cares about, and present them in ways that people will find interesting and in turn share through their networks," said Macon Phillips, who leads the Bureau of International Information Programs at the State Department. "As I've traveled around to posts all over the world, one thing is clear: We use our social presences as the main way we publish information for audiences in those countries. And so we want to create and publish information that we can provide to our colleagues in the field through their own social network and to allies around the world who share our interests."
State Department officials are taking a liberal view of what constitutes reflections of American interests. Leading the home page Tuesday was a video of Steve Jobs's 2005 commencement address at Stanford. But other posts are more straightforward, such as a White House photo that reveals the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote decorating the Oval Office's rug. Each Share America story comes equipped with prominent "Share This" and "Tweet This" buttons. And there's little hiding the source -- the .gov address is baked into each shared link, even in shortened form.
American diplomats have long tried to win the information game. And under both previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Secretary John Kerry, the State Department has attempted to identify and even amplify the nuances of an increasingly horizontal world; the 21st Century Statecraft push centered on the idea that there is growing power in peer-to-peer communications. But now that formal outreach channels like Voice of America are competing with thousands, if not millions, of less formal channels, it can be difficult for governments to find traction.
Tom Cochran, the former chief technology officer at Atlantic Media, joined the State Department in March, bringing his knowledge of how the modern, data-driven media environment works. Cochran is helping to drive the creation of Share America. Each post on the site is produced by State Department staff.
Cochran will be among the first to know whether the world is, indeed, eager to share Share America's vision of America. But just as the Internet has revealed the world's common love of cat photos, officials are hoping that it will also reveal its love of American-style freedom.