Social Media: 'Essential Tool' In U.S. Foreign Policy

What role do social media and other non-state actors play in foreign policy? James Lewis, director of technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Ari Shapiro that websites like Facebook are an "essential tool" to America's global agenda.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

There was a time when the most powerful entities in the world were all countries with governments and leaders. But today some of the world's most powerful entities are corporations, or organizations, or websites like Facebook and Twitter, even WikiLeaks, even Wal-Mart.

To talk about how American foreign policy changes when this country is negotiating with powerful entities that are not countries, we've called James Lewis. He's director of technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Welcome.

Mr. JAMES LEWIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Hi, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine, thanks. So how much do these forces - Facebook, Twitter, WikiLeaks - influence America's global agenda?

Mr. LEWIS: I think they've become an essential tool, and it's a tool that we're not always sure what the best way to use it will be. The U.S. can't direct it but it can benefit from it.

SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to say, that word tool implies something that we can use and we can control, but there's a real extent to which we can't control what happens on Twitter or on Facebook.

Mr. LEWIS: You know, I think the State Department is more like a cheerleader. They think Facebook or Twitter is wonderful and sometimes they'll encourage them to do things. But the tools themselves are actually kind of neutral and so a lot depends on what the people in the country want to do. It's a way to amplify any opposition, it's a way to reinforce it, but it doesn't create opposition and it's not something that we can use to go in and interfere with politics.

SHAPIRO: Is it disinterested or could there come a time when, say, Facebook's global agenda and the United States's global agenda are at odds?

Mr. LEWIS: So far we've been lucky in that most of the companies that have appeared have been American companies and they share our values, right? We're already starting to see some opposition to this from regimes like China or Iran. They don't like it. They think Facebook or Twitter is an American tool to destabilize their governments. Because the affect is destabilizing. What isn't right is that it's something the U.S. is doing intentionally.

On the other hand, we're also seeing people who don't share our values pick up these tools and start to use them. And the best examples, of course, are the jihadis, who are very keen at using YouTube and their own social networks.

SHAPIRO: And so how does the U.S. State Department, which has decades if not centuries of experience negotiating the push-pull of one country against another, adjust its approach when it's a push-pull between one country - the United States - and on the other side something like WikiLeaks or even something like al-Qaida?

Mr. LEWIS: Wikileaks is a good example of how this sort of thing can work against the U.S. I mean, the people who did WikiLeaks intended to harm the U.S. And lots of people picked up the new tools and are using them for their own political ends. And the state is kind of feeling its way into how you take advantage of this.

In general, it's easier for us as a country and for other Western countries to deal with these things because we have the political mechanisms, so you know, let people dissent from government views, object to government views and it doesn't create a regime crisis. Not true in other places.

SHAPIRO: You know, this feels like a very new world that we're talking about, but on the other hand I think of something like the East India Company and I wonder whether this is not a tale as old as time, that an organization that is not a country has tremendous influence on the global stage.

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah, I think that the difference is that the organization has influence but it also gives influence to people who use its services, right?

SHAPIRO: So, you mean Facebook enables Facebook users, Twitter enables Twitter users. You don't have the CEO of Twitter dictating what its global agenda might be.

Mr. LEWIS: I don't think Twitter or Facebook or Google or any of these, I don't think they have a political agenda. They have probably some, you know, resonance with the democratic values you see in the U.S., but they don't have a political agenda. And that means it's sort of a dance for the State Department - you want to work with the companies to get them to enable the things we like, but at the same time we haven't been bashful about going and saying maybe you should take that guy off Facebook, maybe you should take that guy off YouTube. Can't always do it, but it's definitely a balancing act between the things we like to encourage and the things that could cause us harm.

SHAPIRO: James Lewis is director of technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Great to talk with you.

Mr. LEWIS: Thanks a lot.

SHAPIRO: The global power that is MORNING EDITION is on Facebook.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

You can reach us at Facebook.com/MorningEdition. It's NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: