The Obama administration has the reputation for being Web 2.0-savvy, and for good reason. Barack Obama’s campaign for the US presidency was notable for its use of social media for organizing and fundraising. Supporters were able to keep track of the candidate through websites like Myspace and YouTube, and were prompted to make cash contributions through mobile phone text messages.
The use of these connection technologies, as some now call them - applications that encourage user collaboration, interaction and contribution - have been carried over to the Obama administration, most notably as part of White House and State Department public diplomacy programs.
In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major address on internet freedom, articulating a US policy that would have the effect of assuring access to internet resources and social media in places like China and Iran, where governments block some content and tools.
"The Chinese bristled at the speech, seeing it as an invasion of their sovereignty," said Jared Cohen who serves on Clinton's policy planning staff and advises the secretary of state on the role technology can play in advancing foreign policy objectives. But since the speech, he told ISN Security Watch, Chinese Uighurs have made their presence felt on the internet and have begun advocating for their positions in internet forums.
During the aftermath of last year's Iranian elections, Cohen himself called Twitter CEO Evan Williams, asking him to keep the site up despite scheduled maintenance so that Iranian dissidents could continue to communicate with the outside world.
Keeping up with the game
But the program to use web tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to influence international public opinion actually found its start in the waning days of the Bush administration, when a team of White House and State Department operatives initiated a program attempting to defeat international terrorists in the same cyber venue in which they had achieved so much success in propagandizing, recruiting, organizing and fundraising.
"It was a source of frustration in the Bush administration that we were being outdone by terrorists by means of a technology that we had developed," Juan Carlos Zarate, Bush's deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism, told ISN Security Watch. "Putting out talking points to our ambassadors was not effective when dealing with viral messages emanating from al-Qaida."
At the initiative of James Glassman, a former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, a program centered at the State Department called Public Diplomacy 2.0 was inaugurated (on Glassman, also read "Are Glassman and Doran right on Iran?" by Daniel Florian). Implicit in the program's philosophy was the recognition that the US could best al-Qaida in a Web 2.0 setting.
"Standing at a microphone and preaching doesn't work for us," Glassman told ISN Security Watch. "Instead, we are facilitating a conversation.
"Anyway, we Americans believe in the marketplace of ideas," he added. "Our idea was to use technology and social media to promote a conversation in which our views would be aired."
Al-Qaida was more successful in a Web 1.0 world but suffered when its views were subject to a Web 2.0-type of discussion, noted Zarate. The image of Aiman al-Zawahiri, a top Osama Bin Laden lieutenant, was tainted after an internet discussion of his views "because he could not deal with all the questions about killing Muslims," he said.
Among other things, Glassman, Zarate and their crew started the first US government social networking site called Exchanges International, dealing with educational exchanges. "It was quite benign," said Glassman, "but there was definite opposition to it because we could not control this dot-gov site. People could go on and talk about whatever they wanted."
Control and partnerships
This lack of absolute content control is indeed one of the characteristics of Public Diplomacy 2.0. Another is the forging of partnerships with private-sector, civil society players, whose views align with that of US policy.
"There is a fear that if we can't control the message, then we are giving the enemy more space to exploit internet tools and propagate their message," said Cohen. A better approach is to "realize that the 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak and to understand that maybe we can't control the message but we can influence it. Technology is not the answer, it is a tool and there is always a risk that comes along with using it."
The efforts of Glassman and Zarate “planted the seeds” that led to Clinton's internet freedom address, according to Cohen. "In the last six months of the Bush administration, they began asking questions about how technology can be used as tool to enhance civil society."
The Bush people were moved in this direction at least in part by the recognition that US government voices were no longer considered credible on the world stage. This led them to seek out voices on the internet that aligned with US policy, said Zarate. Among the voices they found were private, anti-terror groups such as the Alliance of Youth Movements and Sisters Against Violent Extremism.
"These groups were aligned with our interests," said Zarate, "but they were not the voices of the US government."
"Governments can best advocate for things like civil rights and against politically motivated censorship by empowering and expanding the discussion to this broader civil society," said Cohen. "You can think of statecraft as a specialized form of troubleshooting. When you're troubleshooting anything you want to have as many stakeholders in the room as possible."
Ultimately, the private sector is an important partner with government in enhancing and preserving internet freedom. "The Google-China issue," said Cohen, "is an example of the shared responsibility of government and the private sector."
For Glassman, the biggest challenge facing Public Diplomacy 2.0 is "spreading the technology." "The more people in Iran have technology that is working and not blocked by government," he said, "the better for freedom and democracy in that country but also for American security."
He sees Public Diplomacy 2.0 as the best hope toward forestalling Iran's eventual deployment of nuclear weapons. "The chances of a diplomatic solution appear to be slim," said Glassman. "The chances of military action may be growing every day but are quite frightening. If instead we use tools of public diplomacy and strategic communications to help the Iranian dissident movement, we might not be able to change the regime, but we might be able to change the regime's behavior."
About this text: This text was first published by the International Relations and Security Network at the ETH Zurich under a Creative Commons license.
Foto: Jenny Solomon - Fotolia.com