The disruptive power of social media on US foreign policy

Following Barack Obama’s successful 2008 election campaign which relied heavily on social media, it’s hardly surprising that Obama and social media are practically synonymous in the world of politics.

What’s less known though is the prominent role social media, under the guidance of Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton, has played in his Presidency’s foreign policy. Memeburn, along with other international media, was afforded the chance to hear Washington’s thoughts on social media and foreign policy, via a virtual press conference conducted by the US State Department.

As part of the State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft month,” Alec Ross, Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation, faced a myriad questions from established media and bloggers from as far afield as Guyana to Kosovo, on how US foreign policy intersects with a medium which is “changing the shape of geo-politics,”.

If one main theme could be found in this session, it would be the US’ belief that social media, rather than being a tool for governments or diplomats, is a tool for citizens. “It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals,” Ross said.

Despite the stated focus on social media, Ross didn’t shy away from discussions on other related matters.

Answering a hot-button question on Wikileaks, Ross was adamant that the decision by a US court allowing the Justice Department to access the Twitter accounts used by WikiLeaks associates did not constitute the online trampling of privacy rights, which the State Department maintains is a basic value.

Ross intimated that Wikileaks’ contentious leaking of documents constituted a criminal act, thus making the seizure of the Twitter records legal. “If you are planning a crime or conducting a crime using the phone, it’s not okay, and if you are planning a crime and conducting a crime using social media, similarly it’s not okay.”

Freedom of Speech
Another basic right, freedom of speech, also came up for discussion. In response to whether attempts to shut down the Somalian militant Islamic group Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account constituted an infringement on freedom of speech online, Ross chose to look at the question more fundamentally. Free speech is of course another basic value the State Department champions.

“My question about terrorist organisations is far more fundamental. Should they exist? And my answer to that is no. They should be dismantled; they should be destroyed. And so in terms of al-Shabaab and other institutions that are purveyors of terror, they’re going to get absolutely no sympathy from me, and they certainly aren’t going to see me advocate for their rights.”

The US a danger rather than an aid to internet freedom
Following the US’ questioning of Chinese web policy at the WTO, Beijing was quick to reply that it opposed the use of internet freedom as “an excuse to interfere in other countries’ foreign policy”, a line of argument which is in no way unique to this particular regime.

Though in this case expressed by a belligerent and repressive government, such fears have also been expressed by others. Foreign Policy contributing editor, Evgeny Morazov in a scathing article on the US’ “digital diplomats” predicted these answers, arguing that the US’ online foreign policy initiatives were in fact a danger, rather than a boon, to global internet freedom.

The idea that the US government can advance the cause of Internet Freedom by loudly affirming its commitment to it – especially when it hypocritically attempts to shut down projects like Wikileaks – is delusional. The best way to promote the goal behind the internet Freedom Agenda may not be not to have an agenda at all.

The US, according to Ross, doesn’t shy away from these concerns.

However, whereas Morazov put forward the idea that no action was the solution for internet freedom, Ross differed, looking to a coalition of many nations as the solution.

Heaping praise on the recently announced European Union initiative to arm dissidents and agitators for democracy in repressive nations with digital weapons, Ross recognised that many across the world may not want to work with the US and could then look to other democratic nations for help. Such a solution, while not a full repudiation, would undoubtedly play a part in answering allegations such as China’s, and that would seem to be the US’ goal.

The 99% & 1%: The Digital Divide
As laudable as the US’ strategy of using technology to advance freedom and democracy may be, the one most obvious problem with it is that in much of the developing world, particularly Africa, access to technologies that allow citizens to engage and grab a slice of this new power are not always available.

Answering a question on this matter posed by Memeburn, Ross, who prior to joining government had spent a “significant percentage of my life… working to help bring technology to poor people,” found this to be “a big concern of mine personally”.

However he pointed to the growing penetration rate of smartphones in Africa – the primary manner of accessing the web on the continent – as a positive, and thus felt that it was correct to “engage so aggressively in this space… rather than waiting for all seven billion people on planet Earth to get access to these tools”.

Ross also understands that not being connected is a disadvantage but added that “I do think we need to continue to focus on bridging the digital divide and ensuring universal access to the internet as it increasingly defines society.”

On another question regarding the developing world, Ross stated his belief that access to technology is always a boon to economic development. Using Indonesia, which he found to be a “fascinating country” as an example, Ross explained his train of thought on the matter.

“I think that the more connected a society is, the more entrepreneurship there will be. The more entrepreneurship there will be, the more economic growth there will be. And I think that Indonesia, which had, I think, more than 8 percent annualised growth in 2009 and 2010, is a perfect proof point for this.”

Where this US policy, the internet Freedom Agenda, may lead the world nobody may know. But with Ross as a driving force, it can be trusted that (as it is) it is neither a policy for propaganda or control. He is adamant of that.

As Ross said of the State Dept in closing; “like the rest of the world, we are learning and adapting to a world that’s becoming increasingly disrupted by social media. This disruption can be good, it can be bad, but we live in a world of constant change… We’ve got to keep pace, we’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn, we’ve got to experiment”.

If experimenting and learning are the cornerstones of the US’ foreign policy social media objectives, a medium still in its infancy, then it’s on the right path with its foreign policy.

You can view or read the full session with Ross here.

Image: jnn1776



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.