American Public Diplomacy towards the Arab World in the Digital Age


USAID Beirut
Aid as public diplomacy. USAID billboard in Beirut, January 2007. " From the American people to the Lebanese people. For hope. For life. For Lebanon".
Photo credit: 
Lina Khatib


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Wiliam Dutton
University of Oxford
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Michael Thelwall
University of Wolverhampton

Discourse on American public diplomacy has been traditionally focused on use of the broadcast media by the US government, such as Voice of America, to reach out to audiences in the Middle East and other regions. For example, much has been written about initiatives such as Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra television, and their struggles to gain credibility among Arab audiences.

However, the internet is enabling new approaches to public diplomacy, which are being developed by the United States Department of State. The Department has formed a Digital Outreach Team (DOT) to engage directly with citizens in the Middle East.

The DOT is composed of American citizens (of Arab, Pakistani and Persian descent) who post messages, using their real names, on popular Arabic, Urdu, and Persian language internet forums, news sites and blogs in those languages. This permits them to present the US administration's views on issues related to American foreign policy in a transparent manner. This initiative is unique, worldwide. No other government diplomatic agency uses this method to disseminate messages to its target audiences beyond its borders by engaging in a two-way online dialogue.

This case study describes the process and reach of this new method of internet diplomacy. Does this method provide a promising new conception of public diplomacy for the USA and other nations to move from a more one-way information flow to a more interactive, and individualized, approach to connecting with the Middle East? Is this a useful complement to more traditional forms of public diplomacy? How are they coordinated in ways that improve the quality of diplomatic communication?

The findings from this study are presented in the working paper "Public Diplomacy 2.0" which can be downloaded below.