State Department spent $630,000 buying friends on Facebook

Alec Hill Contributor

In 2011 and 2012, The U.S. Department of State spent $630,000 to gain “likes” on its Facebook page, The Washington Examiner reported Tuesday.

According to a May 2013 brief written by the State Department’s Inspector General, two ad campaigns engineered by the Bureau of International Information Programs were successful for a time in boosting numbers for the page, but were largely useless in terms of meaningful outreach.

The campaign “succeeded in increasing the fans of the English Facebook pages from about 100,000 to more than 2 million for each page. Advertising also helped increase interest in the foreign language pages; by March 2013, they ranged from 68,000 to more than 450,000 fans,” the report notes. Nonetheless, “Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaign as ‘buying fans’ who may have once clicked on an ad or ‘liked’ a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further.”

Seemingly confirming such criticisms, the IG described only a fraction of the State Department’s ‘fans’ as “actually engaging with each page … with just over 2 percent ‘liking,’ sharing, or commenting on any item within the previous week.”

Curiously, the alleged 1.9 million “likes” that the efforts resulted in have all but vanished. The State Department’s official Facebook page — and the next two results of the search term “U.S. State Department” combined — currently only add up to roughly 366,000 likes.

The IG’s report, labelled “Sensitive But Unclassified” also found problems with the priorities that such numbers-based efforts reflected. State Department officials faced a conflict between maintaining large numbers of “fans” and connecting with more engaged community members by posting “policy material” that, “especially if it is not related closely to the primary interest of the page fans, would drive away their youthful audience and cause their fan numbers and engagement statistics to drop,” the IG wrote.

Choosing to chase, and spend taxpayers dollars on, numbers over meaningful engagement, the IG said, highlighted the department’s need for a “social media policy strategy. This kind of document is essential to clarify the goals of IIP’s social media efforts, acknowledge the tradeoff between seeking high numbers of fans and engaging with foreign audiences, and find the right balance between youth and elite audience engagement.”

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