Lecture: Twenty-First Century Statecraft

Tonight, I went to a public lecture given by Alec Ross, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation. His lecture was about social media and how it is used to change US foreign policy.

Alec Ross

Here are some interesting points he raised:

If you want to change foreign policy, if you want to fight poverty, then you need to understand informational networks, social networks and technology.¬†Technology can be used for ill or good but what matters is that these new tools are widely disruptive, and “disruptive” has come to take a positive connotation.

Ross took different examples on how social media has been used for the “good”.

Haiti earthquake: 5pm. By the following morning, Hilary Clinton pushed to have a tool in place so that Americans could get involved and donate right after the earthquake. Advisors came up with the idea that people could donate by SMS. Millions of dollars were raised within a matter of days. This was made possible because of informational networks.

Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are not Twitter and Facebook revolutions

Facebook Revolution

Tunisia and Egypt: we can draw some initial conclusions on the impact of technology in these revolutions. Ross emphasized that the recent events in Maghreb were not Twitter/Facebook revolutions. At the roots of these conflicts were a lack of democracy, a lack of economic opportunity, a frustration about widespread corruption, etc. They were people-based revolutions.

What historically could have taken months or years took days and weeks. Social media made the revolution faster. The fact that these networks are open platforms makes it easier for governments to infiltrate, monitor, surveil what happens on the platforms. The will of the people was greater than the will of the government to control those platforms. Citizens themselves were remarkably sophisticated.

Leaderless revolutions

Egypt Manifestation

Connection technologies/social media make weak ties stronger. However, it is unclear whether these ties are bound to last. These revolutions do not have charismatic revolutionary figures: in Tunisia and Egypt, the leadership was distributed and decentralized. There may be some charismatic revolutionary figures in the future, but this time, social media made possible a leaderless revolution which means that there is a leadership and power vacuum to be filled.