State Department Guru Talks Twitter Diplomacy

Jared Cohen of the U.S. State Department i i

Jared Cohen of the U.S. State Department (center) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on April 22, along with Richard Robbins of AT&T (left) and Jason Liebman of Howcast. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Jared Cohen of the U.S. State Department

Jared Cohen of the U.S. State Department (center) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on April 22, along with Richard Robbins of AT&T (left) and Jason Liebman of Howcast.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

It used to be that when the U.S. State Department wanted to improve cultural relations overseas, they'd send the New York Philharmonic, or a production of Oklahoma or Porgy and Bess.

But with younger people all over the world text messaging and communicating through social media networks, the State Department now has a point person on social media and youth issues. Jared Cohen spoke to Scott Simon from Mexico City, where he has been this week for the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit.

A transcript follows:

Scott Simon: I wanted to ask you, I understand part of your job involves contacts with the Muslim world, and you were said to be reportedly the man who persuaded Twitter not to take themselves down for some repair during events in Iran following the presidential election. Could you tell us your side of the story?

Jared Cohen: Absolutely. Last April, I took a delegation of senior executives from Silicon Valley to Baghdad, to see if we could come up with some collaborations between the tech industry and various Iraqi stakeholders. Now, one of the people on that delegation was Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. Jack and I, as a result of that trip, developed a relationship. And in June, when it became clear that Twitter was a valuable tool for citizen empowerment in Iran, Jack and I had a conversation about the role that Twitter was playing as a tool for people in Iran to be able to express themselves. And as Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton has mentioned on a number of occasions, we urged them to be aware of the situation, but at the end of the day it was Twitter's decision.

What are some of the things you've been talking about at this summit in Mexico City?

So, the main idea behind the Alliance of Youth Movements is to recognize that civil society has fundamentally changed. You still have your traditional NGOs and organizations that are out there doing great grassroots work. But you also have a new cadre of civil society actors, and these are the young people who, you know, they have a URL or a Web site instead of an office, they have followers and members instead of a paid staff, and they use open-source platforms instead of having a robust budget. And what we want to do with the Alliance of Youth Movements, and what we have been doing for the past year, is identifying who those 21st century leaders are — the ones that have emerged on the global scene as a result of technology — and actually bringing them together in one place so they can share best practices, but more importantly so they can partner with those traditional NGOs who want to use the tools but just don't know how to do it. And, likewise, so that way those traditional NGOs can work with those that have emerged as a result of technology and actually teach them and work with them on how to be a sustainable organization.

We get e-mails complaining about the fact that sometimes we get so enamored of the possibilities we forget that billions of the people in the world can't afford the technology to participate.

The problem with that argument is we pay attention to the statistics today as opposed to the trends. So take a country like Pakistan, for instance: In 2001, Pakistan had 750,000 mobile phone subscriptions. By 2008, just seven years later, it had 78 million, which is an astronomical jump. In Afghanistan, today there's 23 percent of the population with access to mobile phones; they say by 2011 it's going to be close to 72 percent. So it's not about how many people have access today, it's about how many people have access tomorrow and a year from now. And so we have a unique opportunity to engage in that space while access is continuing to spread.

If Osama bin Laden is out there, could he be on Twitter?

I mean, you're getting at an interesting question, Scott, which is basically are hostile actors or violent actors using these technologies? And the answer is yes, they are. You know, Mexican drug cartels use YouTube to evoke fear through horrific imagery and video. Hezbollah uses video games to try to socialize young people to be comfortable with the idea of killing Jews and Israelis. Al-Qaida uses chat rooms. It's rampant. The 21st century is a very bad time to be a control freak. And at the end of the day, we have two options: We can recognize that nobody can control these technologies — bad people will continue to use them, but that's all the more reason to engage in these spaces. And the other option is to be fearful that hostile actors might use it and shy away from it. If you do that, it's not going to stop them from using it. In fact, all it's going to do is give them more of an opening without any effort to counter their narratives.

As I may not have to tell you, Mr. Cohen, there are people who draw an exactly contrary lesson from events in Iran earlier this year. And they say that for all the attention the so-called Twitter revolution got in the media, in the end, what it principally did was allow the Iranian government to track down a lot of activists and shut them up.

I would disagree with that assessment. I would argue that what you saw in the context of the post-election use of technology in Iran in June, or the variety of other contexts in which technology has been used, is that every time young people showcase their ability to use technology to express themselves and empower themselves, it leads to innovation in other parts of the world. In a country like the United States, technology facilitates basic civil liberties or freedoms where they already have it. A country where there's restrictions on civil liberties, these kids read the instruction manual. These kids make sure they know every use of these technologies because without them they're disconnected from certain freedoms that they get by virtue of having access to these tools. And so I would argue that there's never a net loss in innovation. That just even putting the use of these technologies out on the public domain, that showcasing the power of these technologies as a tool to organize and express oneself, is in and of itself a victory.

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