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"A New Beginning": The Speech Heard (and Facebooked, and Tweeted) 'Round the World

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 9 2009

As the White House is eager to inform us, the ripple effect of President Obama's 55-minute speech called "A New Beginning" delivered last Thursday, June 4th, at Egypt's Cairo University didn't stop that on that day and wasn't limited to that campus. The White House subtitled Obama's speech "President Obama Speaks to the Muslim World." What's become clear over the last few days is that a primary way the White House intends to make sure that this important speech is indeed heard throughout the Muslim World is through technology. What's more, the Obama Administration is smartly making use of an extensive distributed network already at the White House's disposal: the American embassies and diplomatic postings scattered around the planet.

The White House is noting in a press release that State Department entities scattered around the planet engaged in the President Obama's speech in ways that reverberated throughout their geographic areas of political influence. Embassies or consulates in seven countries tweeted along with the speech and engaged with commenters on Twitter about the speech's content and meaning. More than 30 embassies used Facebook to promote the speech and allow locals to participate in discussions around it. (Secretary Hillary Clinton is hoping that one effect of her recently-announced Virtual Student Foreign Service will be to bring additional U.S. embassies onto Facebook.) Some 20,000 people signed up to receive from the State Department SMS text message updates on their cell phones as the speech progressed. And the State Department posted translations of the President's address in 17 different languages: Arabic, Chinese, Dari, French, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Malay, Pashto, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu.

The White House also noted that, all told, YouTube copies of the President's speech have been viewed more than 550,000 times. Their effort in creating a supplemental three-and-a-half-minute "Muslims in America" video feature in various languages spoken in the Muslim world seem to have paid off. That piece, which highlighted attorneys, aide workers, and other Obama Administration officials of Muslim backgrounds, was viewed with Arabic subtitling 10,000 times, in Pashto 4,000 times, in Punjabi 25,000 times, and in Persian 11,000 times.

The White House is candid in admitting that not everyone was a fan of the "Muslims in America" video did earn some 235 "thumbs down" from YouTube viewers.

What's particular striking is the great degree to which Obama's White House and Clinton's State Department are complementing one another in their efforts to conduct online outreach to the Muslim world. State's America.gov site is highlighting a "Being Muslim in America" report that opens with this powerful quote from Eboo Patel, an interfaith leader based in the president's hometown of Chicago: "I love America not because I am under the illusion that it is perfect, but because it allows me -- the child of Muslim immigrants from India -- to participate in its progress, to carve a place in its promise, to play a role in its possibility."

And then there's the State Department's online photo gallery of Muslim American performers and entertainers. Sure, maybe you knew that rapper and actor Mos Def is Muslim. But the lead singer of Kool and the Gang?