A Senate report released in October 2011 urging the US government to expand the use of social media as a foreign policy tool in Latin America offers another warning for activists seduced by the idea of technology and social media as an indispensable tool for social change.
In this past year as the world witnessed uprisings from Santiago to Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square , social media has been lauded as a weapon of mass mobilization. Paul Mason, a BBC correspondent, wrote in his new book published this month Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions , (excerpted in the Guardian ) that this new communications technology was a "crucial" contributing factor to these revolutionary times. Nobel peace laureate and Burmese human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out in a lecture in June that this "communications revolution...not only enabled [Tunisians] to better organize and co-ordinate their movements, it kept the attention of the whole world firmly focused on them." CNN even ran an article comparing Facebook to "democracy in action", while Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was imprisoned in Egypt for starting a Facebook page told Wolf Blitzer that the revolution in Egypt "started on Facebook" and that he wanted to "meet Mark Zuckerberg some day and thank him personally."
While the positive contributions of technology to social movements and uprisings have been amply noted, if not overstated, more attention needs to be paid to the intrinsic dangers looming in the co-optation of this technology-driven networking, specifically by Washington, but by other repressive governments as well.
Clay Shirkey, professor of New Media at New York University, wrote in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs that "the state is gaining increasingly sophisticated means of monitoring, interdicting, or co-opting these tools."
The Dangers of Digital Diplomacy
The Senate report, " Latin American Governments Need to 'Friend' Social Media and Technology " was written at the request of U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) in order to assess the U.S. Department of State's use of digital diplomacy.
"Despite Latin America's broad social and economic progress, many countries in the region still face challenges to democracy similar to those recently seen in the Middle East," wrote Lugar in the introduction to the report. "In the extreme cases, countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua are led by authoritarian leaders who curtail civil and political freedoms."
The report urges improving internet infrastructure in the region, along with expanding the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter as essential in order to advance Washington's foreign policy interests. This is also identified as a way to reassert Washington's influence in a part of the world where it has been perceived to be waning since the Bush Administration and the subsequent rise of center-left governments in the region.
"In particular, the characteristics of Latin American social media use and engagement of connectivity resources...indicate that this area could be primed for substantial positive change in a manner similar in nature, if not in process, to that recently observed in the Middle East," the report states.
The right-leaning journal Americas Quarterly praises this "smart idea" calling it "an innovative strategy to advance U.S. goals", one of them being the need to "ramp up our data collection and research on the impact of social media and technology on fostering democracy in the region, particularly Venezuela."
This all falls under what has been dubbed 21st Century Statecraft , the brainchild of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"Traditional forms of diplomacy still dominate, but 21st-century statecraft is not mere corporate re-branding--swapping tweets for broadcasts. It represents a shift in form and in strategy--a way to amplify traditional diplomatic efforts, develop tech-based policy solutions and encourage cyberactivism," explains the New York Times in a July 2010 article.
Described as a "marriage of Silicon Valley and the State Department," Washington has turned to "Software engineers, entrepreneurs and tech C.E.O.'s...to think of unconventional ways to shore up democracy and spur development" abroad.
"On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does," said Clinton in a speech on internet freedom in January 2010.
In August 2011 the Washington Post reported findings by the Lowy Institute for International Policy which show that U.S. State Department officials now operate some 230 Facebook accounts, 80 Twitter feeds, 55 YouTube channels and 40 pages on Flickr.
But Judith McHale, former under secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, gave a more honest assessment in March 2011 of what's driving the State Department's new initiative, stripped of the flowery and misleading language of freedom and democracy.