Sunday, February 22, 2009

The 3AM Phone Call and the 11PM Tweet

Under the Obama administration the U.S. Department of State seems to be trying to revamp its stodgy image by using online social media much more aggressively than ever before in its public relations campaigns. At the same time, the use of third-party commercial sites to store what would normally be considered the public records of a government agency should give some digital rights advocates pause. (See 1, 2, 3 for some specific cases worthy of concern involving YouTube.)

As a case in point, it is interesting to observe yesterday's Twitter feed from the agency during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to China. Rather than just using Twitter as a traditional one-to-many channel for official announcements, the feed shows interchanges with U.S. expat and Nanjing Diary author Betsy Drager and Boston local anchor R.D. Sahl.

For example, using its blogging identity, Dipnote, the Twittering State Department drew attention to a "Behind the Scenes" album on Flickr with "New photos from Secretary Clinton's trip to China" last night. (See below.)
Those who arrived at the "U.S. Department of State's photostream" on Flickr from the Twitter link would find factory tour photos of the interior of the "Taiyanggong Gas-Fired Plant" or a miniature representation of the site in a "Taiyanggong Gas-Fired Plant Model." Oddly, visitors might also notice that the copyright symbol was prominently displayed below the images, which has since been corrected to a Creative Commons license, which had been the norm for materials on Flickr from the Obama administration. (Click on the image below to see "all rights reserved" earlier state.)

But the most interesting digital event of the evening came in response to a post from Global Voices Online board member Rebecca MacKinnon, who asked the following pointed question: "Telegraph quotes @zengjinyan:"I am under house arrest because Hilary Clinton came" @dipnote: comment from state dept pls?
Soon Dipnote replied to MacKinnon's query with a "we're looking into it" message, which was subsequently deleted from the Twitter feed.

Like me, MacKinnon immediately noticed the deletion on the diplomatic Twitter page, and she also noticed the copyright on the Flickr images from China and announced it to her followers. A correction of the license soon followed. Perhaps as with Virtualpolitik pal Chris Soghoian of Surveillance State, the Obama administration wants to show that it can act quickly when it comes to materials on the web that violate its stated philosophy of transparency and access.

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