Technology Diplomacy: How The WH Pushes Obama’s Message Abroad

Zheng Duo/Newscom

The Obama administration wants to make sure people in Afghanistan and Pakistan heard six key sentences in the president’s announcement about sending more troops – telling them “America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering.”

The State Department took President Obama’s comments and similar remarks made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (they also promised the U.S. has no interest in “occupying” Afghanistan) and translated them into several languages to be spread via compressed video that can be watched on cell phones and mobile devices.

Clinton taped videos directly to the people of Afghanistan and translated into Arabic, Dari, Pashto, and Urdu and one to people in Pakistan, dubbed in Punjabi.

“Building on the lessons of 21st century statecraft, we are aiming to continually listen, learn and engage people around the world,” the State Department’s Katie Dowd wrote. “It is our hope that we can continually leverage new tools and technology to reach and engage people whether they are 10 or 10,000 miles away.”

Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation at State, told TPMDC that citizens in Afghanistan and Pakistan may lack traditional Internet access in computers with high-speed broadband but they are increasingly getting mobile access. (Read more about Ross’ efforts here.)It’s not just the formal administration channels, but the Facebook pages of the U.S. embassies in Kabul and via the consulate Web sites.

It goes right at the Obama administration’s strategy to win hearts and minds abroad through less traditional channels. Each foreign policy push comes in layers – interviews with international media, video messages such as what Obama did for Iranian New Year intended mostly for a foreign audience, a big speech or town hall and then outreach to make sure the message got through.

When the president’s remarks abroad haven’t been disseminated fully by the media, administration and state department officials have pushed his speeches through Facebook and international social networking sites.

In June, they set up a text messaging forum for Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. When Obama spoke in Ghana, the White House offered a similar push via Facebook.

From a messaging standpoint, everything is “new” – it was “A New Beginning” in Egypt, and the Afghanistan troops decision was “A New Way Forward, a New Way to Communicate.”

Explaining the Afghanistan clips, the State Department’s Katie Stanton blogged at that it is an experiment being conducted by new media teams at the State Department and White House.

“We’re hopeful that leveraging technology this way will help us achieve the President’s goal of increasing America’s security and undercutting the appeal of Al Qaeda and other extremists through global engagement,” she said.

Stanton wrote:

Looking at data on, we don’t have a lot of traffic coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan because Internet penetration in the region is relatively low at 2% and 11% respectively. However, mobile penetration is much higher. 52% of the 177 million people in Pakistan have at least 1 mobile device and 30% of the 28.4 million in Afghanistan. Given this trend, we produced short video clips of the President’s segment to Afghans and had it dubbed in Arabic, Dari, Pashto, and Urdu in order for them to be distributed locally on mobile devices. Given the small screens on phones, subtitling wasn’t an appropriate option. The original version in English is also available.

White House aides lauded Obama’s recent town hall in Shanghai , where he talked about the Internet as an important element of a free society, but it was not widely viewed by citizens there.

Aides have said they will be posting the figures at some point on Internet viewership of the town hall.