The concept of “buying friends” has taken on a whole new meaning in the realm of social media, and according to a new report, it appears even the U.S. State Department has shelled out a few hundred thousand dollars to up its own social popularity.

According to a May report from the Office of the Inspector General, the department’s Bureau of International Information Programs spent about $630,000 on two Facebook campaigns to increase its number of followers on English-language Facebook pages.

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A view of Facebook’s “Like” button May 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. Social-networking giant Facebook will go public on the NASDAQ May 18 with its initial public offering, trading under the symbol FB, in an effort to raise $10.6 billion. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)

The campaigns were successful garnering more than 2 million new followers for each page — up from 100,000 — and it also increased following on foreign-language pages.

But those within the bureau questioned this practice, according to the report.

“Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns 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. Defenders of advertising point to the difficulty of finding a page on Facebook with a general search and the need to use ads to increase visibility,” the report stated.

For example, four of the bureau’s English-language Facebook pages are cited as having more than 2.5 million fans by mid-March of this year, but only 2 percent actually are engaged in activity on the pages.

“Engagement on each posting varied, and most of that interaction was in the form of ‘likes.’ Many postings had fewer than 100 comments or shares; the most popular ones had several hundred,” according to the report.

On Facebook, less engagement means less of a chance that any postings will make it onto users newsfeeds informing them of the bureau’s activities.

“This change sharply reduced the value of having large numbers of marginally interested fans and means that IIP must continually spend money on sponsored story ads or else its ‘reach’ statistics will plummet,” the report stated.

The other offices and bureaus of the State Department were found to have more than 150 social media accounts that are “wrestling with the issue of strategy and coordination” and having some overlap issues. Here’s an example:

The Department’s effort to engage with the Iranian people has resulted in overlapping social media efforts by IIP and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA). Each has a Persian- language Facebook page and Twitter feed. Because of the sensitivity of Iran policy, IIP’s Facebook page, Vision of America, covers only “soft” nonpolicy topics like American culture, entrepreneurship, the environment, and science and technology. The NEA-run page,

USAdarFarsi, includes both policy and nonpolicy topics. Thanks to advertising, Vision of America has more fans—more than 400,000 in mid-March 2013, compared to USAdarFarsi’s 100,000. However, less than 1 percent of IIP site fans were living in Iran, where there is no Facebook advertising, whereas more than half of NEA site fans were in Iran. Despite its greater fan numbers, Vision of America’s total engagement is about equal to USAdarFarsi’s, with about 12,000 people sharing, “liking,” or commenting on any item on each site within the previous week in mid-March 2013. The IIP and NEA Twitter sites are the same size, with about 15,000 followers each.

It is not efficient for the Department to have competing Persian-language Facebook and Twitter sites. It is important for the United States to have a platform for speaking to the Iranian people. Locating the joint Persian-language social media sites in NEA would place them closest to the policymakers and recognize the fact that USAdarFarsi has greater reach in Iran. At the same time, it is important for Iranians to understand American society and values, which is the expertise the IIP social media staff provides.

The report recommends the IIP “direct its digital advertising to specific public diplomacy goals” that “find the right balance between youth and elite audience engagement.” It also states that a social media strategy should be adopted that actually drives engagement to accomplish the IIP’s goals.

It advocates that the public affairs office for the department work with IIP to coordinate regular meetings that would help get all parties working together without overlap.

The IG report stated that during its inspection the IIP stopped paying for advertising on Facebook as it evaluated its pages and program goals.

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(H/T: Washington Examiner)

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