State Dept’s Digital Diplomacy – Clip & Show the Next Time You Get Slapped by Control Freaks

Jesse Lichtenstein has written for The New Yorker, Slate, The Economist and n + 1; his first article for the NYT magazine is about Foggy Bottom’s Twitterati, “Jared Cohen [TSB’s fave] , the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and Alec Ross, the first senior adviser for innovation to the secretary of state.” Quick excerpts:

About those tele-somethings:

It is fair to say that Ross and Cohen are obsessed with mobile phones; they speak at length about telemedicine, tele-education and something called telejustice (the details of which they haven’t quite worked out yet).

About the fear factor, control freaks and those who no longer understand what’s going on (a lot of that in Foggy Bottom, you think?)

When I asked Cohen whether sites like Wikileaks made the kind of diplomacy he advocates harder, he allowed that they posed a challenge: “All of these tools can be utilized by individuals for everything from Wikileaks to other negative purposes” — at least as the State Department sees it — “but that technology isn’t going anywhere. So we can fear we can’t control it and ignore the space, or we can recognize we can’t control it, but we can influence it.”

Evgeny Morozov, an academic at Georgetown and perhaps the fiercest critic of this brand of diplomacy, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in February, charging that the State Department has been all too willing to sweep the dangers of Twitter diplomacy under the rug. “Facebook and Twitter empower all groups — not just the pro-Western groups that we like,” he wrote, pointing out that the Iranian government was also active online: “Not only did it thwart Internet communications, the government (or its plentiful loyalists) also flooded Iranian Web sites with videos of dubious authenticity . . . that aimed to provoke and splinter the opposition.” (The Iranian government later used Facebook to track Iranian dissidents around the world.)

When I brought up the op-ed, Cohen dismissed Morozov’s complaint. “The problem with his thinking,” he said, “is it neglects the inevitability that this technology is going to spread — so he advocates a very dangerously cautious approach that says it’s dangerous and we shouldn’t play in that space. What the Evgeny Morozovs of the world don’t understand is that whether anybody likes it or not, the private sector is pumping out innovation like crazy.”

In other words, the U.S. gains nothing from shunning the social media everyone else uses. “The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak,” Cohen said. “Which is a quote Alec and I often use when explaining this.”

Yet control — over the message, who delivers it, who originates it — is still a cherished tenet of foreign policy. Morozov no doubt voiced the concerns of many when he wrote: “Diplomacy is, perhaps, one element of the U.S. government that should not be subject to the demands of ‘open government’; whenever it works, it is usually because it is done behind closed doors. But this may be increasingly hard to achieve in the age of Twittering bureaucrats.”

Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who has engaged in an ongoing debate with Morozov, has given similar advice to members of the State Department. “The loss of control you fear is already in the past,” he told me. “You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what’s going on.”

Here, we finally learn how Cohen survived the post-Condi State Department:

As a Bush-era appointee, Cohen had been walking on eggshells. “There were all these haters trying to get this guy shot in the head,” as Ross puts it. “I read what he’d written, and I’m like, This guy’s actually brilliant; he’s going to be my partner.”

There’s one part of the article that is a window to the tug and pull of 21st century statecraft:

Pandith’s deputy [Farah Pandith is the special representative to Muslim communities] sat mostly quiet through the meeting but then voiced a concern that must reverberate throughout the diplomatic ranks. College kids translating diplomatic messages from the State Department? In languages their supervisors can’t read?

“How do you make sure that what they’re posting is vetted?” she asked.

“In the 21st century, the level of control is going to be decreased,” Ross said, reiterating what Clinton told me earlier. “The young woman from Saudi who translates something to Arabic, what she’s translating is language that’s been vetted, but it’s not being handed over to a State Department translator, who’s handing it over to State Department public affairs, who’s approving it. We’re past that.”

We’re past that? Whoops! I fell off my chair!

Oh, holy mother of goat! I misread the new regs on using social media — that part that requires vetting according to 27 related policies. Dudes, clip this one and show this to your boss the next time you get your tweets slapped down by control freaks. Go read it here — a most entertaining read for some, a horrifying read for others, I’m sure. 

John Brown over at Huffington Post writes:

“But what’s happening is not necessarily what’s important. Much of what twitterers say is as significant as that Viagra ad aired on the corporate evening news. “Now” is not “wisdom.” That’s the great limitation of the new social media as an intellectual or even political tool.”