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Tom Feran
By Tom Feran August 1, 2013

Sen. Rob Portman says tax dollars went down the drain to buy Facebook fans

Money can’t buy you love, as the Beatles sang, but money can buy you "like."

Sen. Rob Portman thinks the price can be more than it’s worth.

The  Ohio Republican made the point in his monthly statement for July "highlighting Washington’s wasteful spending during a time of record debt and deficits."

This one, decrying "tax dollars down the drain," said the U.S. State Department "spent $630,000 to obtain 2 million Facebook 'Likes'."

"With Washington running budget deficits of more than $1 trillion – or $10,000 per household – the Administration should not be wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous items such as attempting to buy Facebook fans," Portman said.

That clicked with PolitiFact Ohio. We wanted to know more.

Portman said his source was a report by the U.S. State Department’s inspector general.

Completed in May, the 57-page report was one in a periodic series examining policy implementation, resource management and management controls in the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.

The report says the bureau launched digital diplomacy campaigns in 2011 and 2012 that started or expanded online activities in six foreign languages, and started or expanded English-language Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and blogs aimed at foreign audiences.

"The bureau spent about $630,000 on the two campaigns," the inspector general found, "and succeeded in increasing the fans of the English Facebook pages from about 100,000 to more than 2 million for each page. Advertising also helped increase interest in the foreign language pages; by March 2013, they ranged from 68,000 to more than 450,000 fans.

"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," the report said.

The inspector general found that the number of Facebook users who actually engaged with each page was relatively small, with only about 2 percent "liking," sharing or commenting on any item within the previous week. And the report said that the bureau's target audience is older and more influential than the people likely to spend hours engaging on the social site.

The campaign became less effective in 2012, the report said, when Facebook changed its mechanics, making the bureau's fan pages less prominent to users who did not engage with them.

But engaging with fans might not be an improvement over trying to increase the number of them, the inspector general said: "The bureau could reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific PD [public diplomacy] goals."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about the report during a daily briefing with reporters on July 3. She said that the Bureau of International Information Programs had cut its spending on Facebook ads, from $315,000 a year to $36,000 a year.

"Spending on online advertising has significantly decreased," she said. "It’s now at $2,500 a month, and that still allows us to reach out and communicate with a wide range of individuals living overseas. And on June 27th, IIP also submitted to OIG (Office of the Inspector General) its strategy for implementing the report’s recommendations, and also provided an update on those that have already been met. IIP will implement the majority of OIG’s recommendations on or before the start of fiscal year 2014."

It is important to know that the inspector general's stinging report found that the Facebook campaign was being questioned in the bureau by November 2012, and that spending has been cut by almost 90 percent.

But Portman's statement about the State Department spending for Facebook "Likes" is accurate. On the Truth-O-Meter, it rates True.

Our Sources

Sen. Rob Portman, "Your Tax Dollars...Down The Drain: State Department Spent $630,000 To Obtain 2 Million Facebook 'Likes'," July 17, 2013

U.S. State Department, Office of Inspector General, "Inspection of the Bureau of International Information Programs," May 2013

Interview with Portman press office, July 18, 2013

Washington Post, "IG report: State Department spent $630,000 to increase Facebook ‘likes,’" July 3, 2013

Foreign Policy, "OMG! State Department Dropped $630,000 on Facebook 'Likes,'" July 2, 2013

U.S. State Department, Daily Press Briefings, July 3, 2013

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More by Tom Feran

Sen. Rob Portman says tax dollars went down the drain to buy Facebook fans

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