Why does government need friends?

Published 12:03 am Sunday, July 14, 2013

Call me old or a fuddy-duddy, but Facebook and other social media doesn’t do much for me — perhaps other than waste my tax money.

Although I have personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, they’re mostly like the Rubik’s Cube of my youth — interesting to fiddle with for a day or two before its final resting place on a shelf.

I’ve chalked them all up to amusing, but not terribly important.

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Some people in our newsroom recently got into a debate about whether Facebook was a useful tool or a complete waste of time that has the potential to magnify jealousy, self-esteem issues and personal misunderstandings. No clear winner in the debate emerged, and the people who like Facebook continue to like it and the ones who don’t continue to think it’s a waste of time.

Mostly, Facebook is of no concern. No one makes you use it, so if you want to avoid it entirely, you can.

Last week, however, a headline about Facebook made me take notice and, quite frankly, made my blood boil a bit.

“The U.S. Government Spent $630,000 To ‘Buy’ Facebook Fans.”

At first it seemed like one of the myriad of ludicrous headlines we all see on the web or in our inboxes or — if you’re so inclined — shared on Facebook.

Taxpayers spending more than half a million dollars on Facebook promotions seemed about as realistic as a recent similar, but fake, headline touting that President Obama was caught complaining about the Fourth of July.

But apparently the headline and accompanying news story about the federal Facebook promotions is true.

The story began with a report from the Office of Inspector General.

The OIG’s report examined the Bureau of International Information Programs. It’s one of the dozens of federal programs of which you’ve probably never heard.

This particular program serves as a propaganda arm of the United States around the globe. Basically it’s a public relations department whose mission is: Trust us, America is good.

The OIG’s report was critical of the dysfunction of the office in a number of ways, including what it described as the failure of the group’s leadership to convey it’s strategic mission and low morale among its employees.

That means the multi-million dollar agency is failing.

But what garnered the most public attention was the $630,000 spent on two Facebook campaigns in 2011 and 2012. The campaigns worked. They garnered tons of “likes.”

But what the feds failed to realize is that Facebook can — and often does — change the rules on their whim. In late 2012, in an effort to sell businesses and in this case the government more services, Facebook decided only users who have engaged — commented, shared, etc. — similar past posts would see all of the new posts.

So the millions of “fans” who were led to “like” the federal government would only see the new promotions if they continued to engage with the federal agency’s social media presence.

The OIG report showed that didn’t happen, meaning not only did the federal program waste a lot of time, but they also wasted a lot of taxpayer money.

If we aim to win friends and influence people overseas, maybe we should just send them each a Rubik’s Cube?


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.