The diplomatic tightrope in the age of Social Media
Considering the complex cloak and dagger diplomacy surrounding US-Iran relations deputy US State Department Spokesman Robert Duguid comes out with a pretty open account of how and why the State Department asked Twitter not to close down during the post-election uprising in Iran.
“We don’t have anyone on the ground in Iran; we haven’t since our hostages were set free in 1981. So for us just knowing the information was coming out that this real information, or at least piecemeal information that you knew was happening on the day was important,” Mr Duguid told The Punch from Washington.
“It was also evident to us that without social media being available that those groups who were opposing the crackdown and opposing the election results would not have a voice. So yes we learnt that Twitter was going to go down for maintenance. So we talked about it upstairs at the public affairs section, and one of our number knew the folks at Twitter.”
“Jared Cohen after talking to P.J. Crowley (Assistant Secretary of State) said ‘Hey, Twitter is planning on closing down while all this is going on for maintenance” and PJ and Jared said, “Why don’t we delay that”, and they did. And they had the Secretary’s (Clinton) full backing. That was one way to support the Iranian opposition so we did.”
Duguid relates the story not to boast about the role of Twitter in the protests - one gets the distinct impression that he would prefer not to be relying an independent social media company for intelligence - but more a matter-of-fact acceptance of the part it played.
That’s not to say Duguid is sold on the trend of proclaiming Twitter and other social media as proxy news sources, an opinion forged from the task of giving daily press briefings in Washington.
“It is often very hard to disprove a completely false and negative story. Somebody will say, “You were doing this.” And we just say “no we’re not” and they say “Well why are people saying it on Twitter?” Well it’s because that’s what people do on the internet, it’s the eternal chain letter.”
“We are interpreting stories that come of the internet in a traditional media sense which says because a story is everywhere it must have validity, when in reality the story is just everyway because we have the means of transmission.”
Still the State Department’s real face of social media is not the grizzled persona of Duguid; it’s the rock star charisma of Alec Ross.
Ross ticks all the boxes of as a member of team Obama’s policy heartthrobs. A former elementary school teacher in Baltimore’s inner city neighbourhoods, his pedagogical methods using computers in the mid-nineties were not only ahead of their time they were successful.
He went on to found the non-profit One Economy that used technology to give people better access to education, employment and healthcare options. During Obama’s election campaign he was convenor of Obama for America Technology, Media and Telecommunications committee. Ross has now been appointed to the newly created position of Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
Ross talks a lot about new forms of e-diplomacy. One aim of the department is to negotiate US positions to other state representatives but more directly to people of other nations – a kind of cold calling diplomacy through social media.
Recently he set up a text messaging donations service after the Haiti earthquake that has so far raised over US $130 million.
But the logical flipside to the positive PR is that if you’re going to open up social media as a form of intelligence gathering – as was the case in Iran – you best expect counter- intelligence and espionage.
Hacker attacks on Google and a series of other US companies in recent times has introduced to the mainstream consciousness the reality of advanced IT espionage from foreign countries.
When asked by The Punch how hacker attacks - which Google has laid squarely at the feet of the Chinese Government - have affected the relationship with China he revealed he recently met with a high level Chinese official about the very issue.
Now a member of the diplomatic corps, Ross isn’t too keen to discus the content of the talks, but it’s also pretty clear he all but accepts the Google analysis that the attacks came out of China.
“The cyber attacks on the United States which Google alleged emanated out of China were of great concern. I did for the first time since the Secretary Clinton’s speech have a meeting with a Chinese Government official. That dialogue was candid and constructive . . . But we have some very different perspective on the appropriate use of the internet.”
However Ross is also quick to point to the fact that this goes further than protecting Google’s interest.
“The State Department is not the foreign policy arm of Google. In point of fact the attack which was alleged to have come out of China was just not directed at Google but was directed at more than 30 American companies.
“So it got our attention, it got my attention and what we want to see is a halt to these attacks.”
Hilary Clinton’s January 21st internet freedom speech was widely interpreted a direct retaliation to the Google attacks, but Robert Duguid claims it was merely a well timed coincidence.
The speech went beyond the Google attacks or the use of a free social media, it went to a fundamental question of protecting internet freedoms like any other form of expression in a democratic society (among suggestions by Clinton UN conventions on freedom of expression on the internet). In Duguid’s opinion a society that holds back this expression ultimately fears its people, and in the case of China Duguid’s point is blunt.
“I don’t know why the Chinese Government should fear its people, but it clearly does.”
Leo Shanahan was a recipient of a grant from the Washington based Foreign Press Center and travelled to the United States as a guest of the State Department to report on Government and social media.
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