Diplomatic Pouch / January 5, 2011
By Larry Luxner
With the WikiLeaks scandal making world headlines nearly every day for more than a month now, the American Jewish Committee couldn’t have picked a more timely topic for its annual diplomatic event than the one it unknowingly chose months ago: “The Intersection Between Technology and Statecraft: Social Media and its Global Impact.”
Yet the three speakers who addressed an audience of 150 people at the AJC’s 10th Annual Young Diplomats Reception, sponsored by Access DC, shied away from directly discussing the controversial revelations made by WikiLeaks (also see “WikiLeaks Scandal Blows Hole in U.S. Diplomacy Worldwide” in the January 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
More than half the audience at the Nov. 30 event consisted of diplomats from 57 countries, which according to the registration list included 15 officials from Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Oman, Tunisia and Turkey.
Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation at the State Department, briefly referenced the growing WikiLeaks fiasco — in which more than 250,000 classified State Department cables from 270 overseas postings were leaked — though he refused to elaborate on it.
“All of you are contending with the implications of our living in an increasingly networked world,” said Ross. “I’m not going to say a single thing about WikiLeaks, but this interconnectedness contributes to both the promise and the peril of our times. The fact we are increasingly networked is the 21st-century version of gravity. It is what it is; get used to it.”
Instead, Ross focused on “the power of our interconnectedness and how to harness it.” The most graphic example of that, he said, was an image of 26-year-old Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, covered in her own blood, taken on a cellphone and uploaded to the Internet, where it went viral.
“Neda was one of hundreds of thousands of people who joined a movement of people expressing themselves,” he said. “All the mainstream media were literally locked in their hotel rooms. The only reporting done at all was by citizens, and largely through their ability to capture information on their cellphones and email it to diaspora networks outside of Iran. “Her murder was captured by five different people and emailed to Iranians living in England, then given to the BBC and CNN. How she became a symbol of global resistance is a testament to tonight’s theme.”
Ross also showed slides of a protest in Syria — in which some kids in a Damascus classroom captured cellphone images of schoolteachers beating children.
“A campaign was built on Facebook — a banned website in Syria — and within a few weeks, thousands of Syrians got behind it and demanded that the Baathists do something. What’s fascinating about this is that it hasn’t gotten any coverage in the Western media, and for the first time in 40 years, there’s a successful citizens’ rights movement in Syria that has forced the hand of the Baathists and produced some change.”
He added: “Those of you who are diplomats know that most of what you do is governed by years, if not decades, of case histories and talking points. But in a world disrupted by technologies like WikiLeaks, we are making up for it now. For good or ill, this disruption is taking place.”
Another speaker, Eleana Gordon, described how her organization, the Center for Liberty in the Middle East (CLIME), uses technology to empower youth and women in dictatorships such as Syria and Iran.
“In Syria, we went completely under the radar. We only trained 20 activists, all of whom knew each other. We worked with them for a year and a half. Every week, they logged in and interacted with a professor from Georgetown University. We put them in touch with activists from the former Soviet Union who taught them about civil disobedience and cyberjournalism,” she said.
“In Iran, we took the completely opposite approach, tapping into the existing vibrant cyber-community to share knowledge as broadly as possible,” said Gordon.
CLIME currently offers an online course to 90 women in Jordan and Egypt.
“It’s exactly the same course GWU teaches grad students,” she explained. “All they need is to speak English and have Internet access. Imagine if we took 90 women and brought them here for eight weeks. It’s just not economically feasible.”
AJC’s third speaker of the evening was Alan Davidson, Google’s director of public policy for the Americas. He noted that while technology has tremendous potential to promote understanding and democracy around the world, “the freedom we’ve come to expect is not an inevitability.”
Even though two billion people have Internet access and more than four billion possess mobile phones, Davidson pointed out that hasn’t stopped authoritarian governments from trying harder than ever to regulate content.
“We had a very well-publicized situation in China about a year ago, but it’s not just about China. You cannot get YouTube right now in Turkey because of some videos that insult Turkishness. And YouTube has also been blocked in Pakistan and Thailand. These are serious issues,” Davidson argued.
Dictatorships aren’t the only ones occasionally offended by what appears online. Some of Google’s loudest critics are Jewish organizations angered at the spread of online anti-Semitism.
“If you type the word ‘Jew’ into Google, you will get a set of results that many people find incredibly offensive,” acknowledged Davidson, whose wife sits on the AJC board of directors. “We try to deal with that not by removing the content — because it’s not unlawful — but by putting a public-service announcement that explains why people are seeing those results.
“Ultimately, the way to deal with unpopular speech is with more speech,” he said. “It’s a huge challenge for all of us, but we believe that on balance, more information is good. The greatest antidote to tyranny is access to ideas.”