Saturday, July 24, 2010

Two Skeptics Ask: Is Twitter a Tool of Statecraft, Or Just An Entertaining Outlet?

First, The Economist's technology columnist is suspicious of the phrase “21st-century statecraft” as it is used by people like Alex Ross and Jared Cohen. See the recent New York Times Magazine article (here) for Ross and Cohen's rosy interpretation.

The Economist's guy is suspicious because:

I can't define it, even though I've listened to Alec Ross speak about it twice. (Mr Ross is the senior advisor for innovation at America's Department of State.) Is it a new kind of state-run broadcaster, a digital Radio Free Europe? Is it a new kind of public diplomacy? Is it a new kind of foreign aid, a digital USAID? Is it a quicker, less centralised way of determining America's public response to an international event? Does it signal a focus on the role the internet plays in human rights and international trade?

I've now encountered it for a third time, in a profile of Mr Ross and a colleague, Jared Cohen, in the New York Times Magazine. And I've decided that “21st-century statecraft” is just a grab-bag; it means all of those things. Some of them are good ideas. Some of them are not. And all they have in common is that the internet exists. Over the last twenty years, industry by industry, young men and women have made a living by saying “You don't get it, old man, this is the internet. Everything's different now.” I don't blame Mr Ross for wanting this gig; it's a good one. (It was mine, once.) The problem with “you don't get it, old man” is that it fails to distinguish what about the new is good, and what is bad, and it often fails to recognise that much of what you can do on the internet is not new at all.

Or take another idea: digital public diplomacy. Mr Ross has been working with Farah Pandith, America’s new special representative to Muslim communities. He wants to help amplify her physical presence with an online one, telling her “There should be a trail of Muslim engagement behind you.” But there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between what Ms Pandith is expected to do and what Karen Hughes did as the ambassador for public diplomacy during the second Bush administration. Ms Pandith, who was born in Kashmir, might be easier for Muslims to relate to than Ms Hughes, but both set out to solve the same problem: The world just doesn’t seem to understand how great America is. This is the central problem of public diplomacy, which is expected to fill in the gaps between America’s policies and its self-image. I’m not sure how Twitter is going to help.

Next up is Rami G. Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He is skeptical bordering on dismissive in a recent article about When Arabs Tweet:

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has repeatedly stressed Washington’s commitment to such programs as part of President Barrack Obama’s call for greater engagement between the United States and Islamic societies.

-- snip --

Millions of young people communicate with each other digitally, express their views and identities, and sometimes mobilize for causes as disparate as promoting a new movie, arranging a dance party, sharing photos or bemoaning a tired old dictator. In some countries like Iran and Egypt, we are told, tens of thousands of bloggers are at work expressing their independent views and challenging the established order.

But what do young people actually do, or aim to achieve, with the new media? Are the new digital and social media a credible tool for challenging established political orders and bringing about political change in our region?

My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.

Watching Arab pundits criticize Arab governments, Israel or the United States — common fare on Arab satellite television — is great vicarious satisfaction for ordinary men and women who live in political cultures that deny them serious opportunities for free speech.

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

This is partly because the modern Middle Eastern security state is firmly in control of the key levers of power — guns and money, mainly — and has learned to live with the digital open flow of information, as long as this does not translate into actual political action that seeks to change policies or ruling elites.

How should interested foreign parties engage in such an environment?

-- snip --

The antidote is simple, but humbling: lower the contradictions in Western policies towards Middle Eastern governments and activists, and grasp more accurately the fact that young people use the digital media mainly for entertainment and vicarious, escapist self-expression.

For their part, Ross, Cohen, and their Girl Geek colleague Katie, show no signs of doubt whatsoever.

No comments: