Twitter vs. Terror

How the U.S. State Department should enable and encourage social-networking sites in the global fight for freedom.


During the turmoil that followed Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, thousands of opposition supporters and other protesters communicated and organized through Twitter. So important was this social networking site to supporting the pro-democracy "green movement" that the U.S. State Department contacted corporate representatives of Twitter to ask them to delay a routine maintenance shutdown of the microblogging site.

In the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, U.S. officials are working with radio and cell-phone operators to reach isolated militia fighters with messages from former combatants now urging them to put down their arms and return to civilian life.

In Pakistan, the State Department paid for 24 million text messages as a way to help support a new mobile-phone-based social network, Humari Awaz, or "Our Voice." The gesture helps increase U.S. government engagement with the Pakistani people, strengthens communities, and can assist small businesses in gaining better market information.

These are just some of the latest examples of what is being called "21st-century statecraft," using the capabilities of modern communications and social networking technologies to win hearts and minds and improve the American image abroad. It represents an important leap forward from traditional U.S. outreach efforts, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

The adroit use of social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, coupled with text messages and increasingly widespread mobile-phone technology, can help lend support to existing grassroots movements for freedom and civil rights, connect people to information, and help those in closed societies communicate with the outside world. It also promises to give a strong economic boost to small entrepreneurs and the rural poor. The World Bank estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the number of mobile-phone users in a developing country, there is nearly a 1 percent increase in its economic output.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has championed the use of communications technology in diplomacy and development. In November in Morocco, she announced the "Civil Society 2.0" initiative, which will offer training and advice to local nongovernmental organizations around the world on how to use the Internet and other digital media to organize, communicate, and be more effective.


She has also appointed a special advisor for innovation, Alec Ross, to examine ways to employ communications technology to enhance traditional diplomatic and development activities. In a recent speech, he said that the State Department is using "these new connection technologies to engage and empower our interlocutors in new and different ways that are consistent with our foreign policy goals."

The applications vary widely. In Mexico, for instance, where drug-related crime and violence is at crisis level, the United States is helping set up a mobile-phone-based system so citizens can report crimes and tips anonymously. In Afghanistan, the State Department and the Pentagon are working with the private sector to expand mobile-phone banking, an innovation that has been successful in Africa. The hope is to improve the finances of people in rural conflict areas. When violence displaced up to 2 million people from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the State Department quickly set up a mobile texting system so concerned Americans could make $5 donations for refugee relief with just a few keystrokes.

Technology offers new ways to perform the traditional task of spreading the American message. During President Barack Obama’s major Africa speech in Ghana last year, for instance, the government offered SMS texts of his remarks in English and French to cell-phone users across Africa and enabled them to post questions and comments.

But social networking technologies are more often used to enable individuals across a country, or across the globe, to interact, engage, and become empowered. Although this means that our government will not be able to control the message as well as it might with conventional public diplomacy tools, I believe it is a risk worth taking. Terrorists and other anti-American propagandists have for some time been using the Internet and other techniques to communicate and recruit. America needs to beat them at their own game, especially since we invented most of the technology.

I would encourage the administration and our diplomats to be nimble, flexible, and innovative as they pursue a wide range of foreign-policy initiatives that use these new communication and connection techniques. Diplomacy and development are our best means of winning the global war of ideas, and we must come to the battle armed with the most modern tools at our disposal.

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