21st Century Statecraft

I know I said that the use of social media in constructing a strong public sphere would not be my sole focus, but second post in and here I go… In my defense though, it’s “21st Century Statecraft” month, and well… that just begged for comment, so here it is…

First off, if you’re wondering what 21st Century Statecraft month is, it’s the State Department’s new, hip way of meeting “diplomatic and development challenges” by making “full use of digital networks and social technologies to more quickly and directly engage audiences around the world.” Sounds exciting, right? Good, because it sort of is! It’s so exciting in fact, that the US wants all of its friends to join the effort. And it’s not just because social media is a blast, it’s because governments (or at least the US) are beginning to realize that these new technologies are “proving to be something of enormous consequence in politics and government the world around.”

According to Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation to Secretary Clinton, social media “redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation state to individuals and networks of individuals.” This redistribution of power essentially means that governments have a harder time controlling the free flow of information, which is something that might interest a government that is trying to keep its population under control. Unfortunately for those governments, Ross explained, “the 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak,” so don’t bother just embrace it! But not entirely…

When asked directly during an online press conference, Ross acknowledged that there will be some bad that comes through with unbridled freedom of speech. But according to Ross, it’s not the technology itself–which is value neutral–but the intentions of the user, naturally. But rather than censoring or regulating this content, Ross proposes controlling the environment through participation. Essentially, Ross is advocating for something akin to “peace media,” in which the marketplace of ideas is somewhat tempered by neutral or positive messages. This practice has been successful in a number of conflict and post-conflict situations, but there are generally no presuppositions about the purpose of this exercise, unlike the one put forth by Ross.

Ultimately, what Ross seems to be suggesting is a campaign to open the internet worldwide, such that even though there will be bad things out there, the US and like-minded allies, will be able to be “aggressive in getting out there and pushing out the truth.” In other words, open your internet so we can help shape this public sphere. The only problem with this is that you cannot have it both ways, especially this far removed. While the internet has turned the world into a “global cafe,” or whatever the term may be, it’s no substitution for local communication and perspectives.

If you want to expand upon the internet as a way to create an international public sphere of sorts, then that’s great. Create a forum where people can connect over shared interests, beliefs, and values regardless of physical limitations. But once you begin to infringe upon this space in some capacity, or try and manipulate for foreign causes, you take away from it’s value. The point of this forum is for citizens, individuals, and networks of individuals to come together and engage, not for governments to monitor and dictate directly to new audiences.

[image via State Dept.]

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