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Obama to engage Muslims with social-networking tools

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia | President Obama wants his speech to the Islamic world from Cairo Thursday to resonate beyond Egypt, and the United States government is mounting an aggressive social-networking campaign to engage Muslims in conversation about what he says.

From text-messaging set up by the State Department to targeting the 20 million Muslims using Twitter abroad, the White House, recalling the presidential campaign's potent outreach efforts, also will use Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and a South Asian Web site called Orkut to ensure as many people as possible have access to live streaming, the speech's text and ongoing discussion of the event.

"We have a fairly sophisticated, in general, outreach program that uses some of these tools. ... I would very much characterize the efforts that are being undertaken here as far broader," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "To not just draw people in to see the speech, but also to discuss it. ... There's a tremendous amount of outreach."

Mr. Gibbs told reporters Facebook boasts 10 million users in Turkey, 4 million in Indonesia and 1.2 million in Egypt, and noted that the site, whose founder supports the president, will promote the speech in Muslim nations.

Lorne W. Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, said the implications go far beyond the expected applause at the end of Mr. Obama's speech, and called on the president to talk about human rights.

"Future leaders of more open societies will be listening, and they will remember 20 or 30 years from years now if they got encouragement from the United States," he said.

The president and his aides said the Obama plan to reach out to the world is not beginning with the 40-minute lunchtime speech - 6 a.m. EST - being broadcast throughout the Arab world, and won't end there.

The president told NBC News his speech won't "transform" the problems in the Arab countries, but that getting people tuned in for the future via social networking can further the goal of involving as many people as possible.

Mr. Gibbs told reporters that the problems the president will address won't "either be solved or culminated in one speech," and Mr. Obama's senior political aide added to that: "It is not going to be reversed perhaps in one administration."

The free text-message program - not available in the United States because of a decades-old law forbidding use of taxpayer money on government outreach that could be seen as propaganda - will be translated into Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English. Cell-phone users can sign up at www.america.gov/sms/html.

After the speech, feedback collected via text will be posted on that site and other networking venues. The administration already directed the White House's 241,000 Twitter followers to a place to sign up to watch and engage.