Senior Advisor for Innovation Alec Ross holds webchat on 21st Century Statecraft
January 11. 2012
MS. JENSEN: Hi. Welcome to Live at State, the State Department’s interactive web chat platform for engaging international media across the globe. I’m your host, Holly Jensen. I would like to welcome our guest joining us today on State.gov. Today I’m delighted to welcome Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation and Technology, Alec Ross. He is our first participant in our month-long series on 21st century statecraft. He will answer as many of your questions as he can in the 45 minutes we have.
Before I turn it over to him, I would like to just give a few housekeeping notes. You can start to – you can begin to ask your questions in the lower lefthand portion of your screen titled “Questions for Senior Advisor Ross.” And if you would like to continue this conversation today, you will see a scrolling line of all of our in-language Twitter feeds, including our @StateDept and @alecjross. And if you would like to continue this after this – today’s program, you can do so at @alecjross using the hash tag #innovation. And with that, I would like to turn it over to you. Welcome.
MR. ROSS: Thank you, Holly. It’s great to be here this morning. I think it’s fascinating to see how new technologies are bringing conversations like the one that we’re having here in Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C. to dozens and dozens and dozens of countries around the world.
MS. JENSEN: Great. All right. With that, we’ll get started with our questions. What does it mean to be in charge of innovation at the State Department, and how did your appointment come about?
MR. ROSS: Sure. Well, I think it won’t be a surprise to anybody who’s watching this feed today that Hillary Clinton is a very smart and very muscular Secretary of State. And shortly after Barack Obama was elected President in the fall of 2008, after he asked her to become Secretary of State and she went before the United States Senate for her confirmation hearing, she described to the United States Senate that we lived in a world – to use her words – that is no longer – that – in which the promise and peril of the 21st century is no longer bound by vast distances or national borders. And what she was really talking about was global connectedness and the degree to which technology was connecting commercial markets, people to each other And, frankly, illicit networks, and making the global connectedness for both good and ill, something that would disrupt the conduct of foreign policy.
And so she recruited me to come in and think about how we can harness connection technologies like social media, like mobile, in service of our diplomatic and development goals. And so what I do is I work with our diplomats, from our youngest 20-something-year-old diplomats to our ambassadors, to understand how technology and social media can be applied to solve long-standing foreign policy challenges. Most people think about this just in terms of communications, tweeting something out or having a conversation on Facebook, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s thinking about how we can use our communications networks to do things like reduce sexual violence in the east Congo or fight the drug cartels in northern Mexico.
The United States has its strengths and weaknesses, but one of our undeniable strengths is our ability to innovate and our technologists. And so what Hillary Clinton has charged me and my team to do is to figure out how we can take this quintessentially American strength and put it to work in service of our foreign policy goals.
MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Kosovo Times News Portal: What is the influence of social media in world politics?
MR. ROSS: The influence of social media in world politics – it’s big and growing. A lot of people talk about social media as being a tool, but I actually think it’s a little bit more than that. What I think we’ve seen over the last two to three years is social media, I believe, is changing the entire ecology of geopolitics. I was involved as a volunteer on the Obama campaign and witnessed firsthand just how powerful social media was used to elect Barack Obama president. And what we’ve seen since then is that social media is being used in presidential politics the world around. It is also being used very locally.
And what it does, what social media tends to do, is it redistributes power. It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals. And so we’ve seen this in presidential elections like our own in the United States, but we’ve also seen its impact in citizen-centered movements, like in the Arab Spring in Northern Africa, and in Syria and in elsewhere. So social media is proving to be something of enormous consequence in politics and government the world around.
MS. JENSEN: If you’re having any problems submitting your questions, you can email your questions to Live@state.gov. Our next question comes from the American School of Kosovo: How does social media and technology give advantages to diplomats?
MR. ROSS: Well, I don't know that it gives advantages to diplomats. I think it gives advantages to everyday citizens. So if you think about it, the ability to communicate at grand scale would have once required – as little as ten years ago, it would have required that you had the backing of a big newspaper or a big media company. What we see is that social media puts power in the hands of citizens in ways that weren’t previously possible.
So the goal really for diplomats is to keep up with that, and that’s what we’re really trying to do here, is – if citizens are being empowered in ways where they can share information and ways that they can communicate, in ways that weren’t previously possible, it’s important for us to keep up. And so I think it can be an advantage for diplomats, so long as our policies are on the right side of history and what have you. But by and large, I think who this really advantages is everyday citizens.
MS. JENSEN: I’d like to welcome all of you joining us from our watch parties at our embassies across the globe. Our next question comes from Anamari Repic: The developments in the Arab world showed us how social media can facilitate an understanding what is going on to such extent that I thought it was kind of a reality spectacle. How has this helped you in creating a foreign policy towards these countries?
MR. ROSS: I think that your expression of a reality spectacle is a really good way of putting it. It’s interesting. Thinking about Tunisia, it was one year ago right now, right at this very moment, that the revolution in Tunisia, which sparked, of course, the Arab – the revolutions throughout the Arab World – it was right now that these were really taking root. And I think that that which you describe in your question is what, in many respects, was at the heart of these revolutions, which is people being able to access information in ways that they weren’t able to previously.
Tunisia used to be one of the closed media environments and closed information environments in the world, but because of social media and because of technology, the Ben Ali government could not choke off access to information in its – to its citizens. And because of that access to information, in part, a revolution took place at grand scale and overthrew a dictator.
For our diplomats, what this means is that we have access to better information than we did previously. When any citizen with a video-enabled cellphone can share an image with the rest of the world, can share a story with the rest of the world, it means we have better information to work with. Our diplomats have always been great at observing and reporting what’s going on in their country, but I think that in a world where more than 2 billion people and growing are on the internet and are able to share what’s happening in their country, all of us are able to make better informed decisions. I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and as our information networks become more universal and more powerful, there’s more of this sunlight to bring to light what’s happening all around the world.
MS. JENSEN: This is a follow-up from Anamari: Do you think that social media brings positive changes in social, political, and cultural life of people living in poor, nondemocratic, and third-world countries?
MR. ROSS: I think it’s mixed. I think that there are some positive, and I think that there are some negative. Before coming into government, I spent eight years – eight years of my life – doing nothing but working to bridge the digital divide, working to help bring technology into poor communities around the world. Got started in a basement; me and three friends started an NGO in a basement, and over the course of eight years we grew it to become a pretty big global organization with programs in 15 countries on four continents.
And the reason why four people with no rich uncles, no money to speak of, were able to build a global organization is because can be used positive and economically. If people from low-income communities have the skills to compete and succeed in our increasingly technology-rich, knowledge-based economy, they can have upward economic mobility faster than was ever previously possible. So I do think that it can play a very positive – I do think it can play a very positive economic role. I also think that it can be positive in helping to encourage democratic movements. In environments where there is not democracy, where citizens are not empowered, I think that these can be powerful tools of empowerment.
I do think that there can be some negative though. If you live in a community and you don’t have access to the internet, if you don’t have basic literacy or the skills to use these tools, in an economy that is increasingly defined by globalization, what that means is that you are more isolated than ever before, and your ability to compete and succeed is diminished, is very diminished. So you’re either a part of our living in a network world and you’re competing economically. But if you’re outside of it, you are really disadvantaged economically. And so there are pluses and minuses to these networks.
MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes IDG News Service, Raffaella Menichini: Can you comment on the recent decision by the Virginia District Court that allows the Justice Department to access records of the Twitter accounts used by WikiLeaks associates? Isn’t that a form of violation of privacy on social media, something that the State Department maintains as a basic value?
MR. ROSS: Yeah. No. There’s – absolutely not. In the United States, we have rules for what we call lawful intercept. If there is reason to believe that somebody is committing a crime, for the last decades there is a legal process, a transparent legal process, through which the Justice Department can get, for example, phone records. The news that’s been made where the Justice Department can do the same thing, for example, with Twitter records is no different than that which happens hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of time a year and has been happening for decades with the phone.
So the only difference is that we’re talking about digital communications versus traditional telephone, but the transparent rule of law and the due process in the United States is the same. So what applies to the telephone applies to social media. And so if you are planning a crime or conducting a crime using the phone, it’s not okay, and if you are planning a crime and conducting a crime using social media, similarly it’s not okay.
The difference in the United States versus other places is that we do this without sacrificing universal rights. So people have freedom of expression. They have the ability to exercise peaceful, political dissent. They have the ability to communicate however they see fit. What these laws for what we call lawful intercept apply to specifically is investigations regarding the conduct of a crime.
MS. JENSEN: I just want to make a quick correction. The last question came from the Repubblica. Our next question comes from News Agency Andes: Do social media improve? If so, how is the communication between the government and the people?
MR. ROSS: So I think social media is constantly – is becoming increasingly efficient and effective. And what it does do is it connects the governing to the governed. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to communicate with your government, you probably had to write a letter, then you hope somebody would open that letter, read the letter, and write back to you. Today, because of social media, the connectedness between the governing and the governed is closer than ever before. So when I get to work in the morning, I don’t look at a stack of mail that’s sitting on my desk and think about what I’m going to read and what I’m not. I go to Facebook, I go to Twitter, and I hear from dozens and occasionally hundreds of people, and I’m able to hear from them directly in a way that just wasn’t possible 20 years ago.
So I think that the distance between people who are in government and people who are represented by that government has been made smaller by virtue of social media. And there’s a program in the Obama Administration where we’re trying to make it even smaller, which is an Open Government Partnership, which we co-chair with the Government of Brazil, where to date more than 40 governments have signed up, where what we are trying to do is take what is – what I would call the default setting for government information and where that historically would have been closed, we now want to make it open, and we want to use technology to take government information and make it more accessible to our citizens.
MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Guyana: How do you work with your diplomats who might not be social media savvy?
MR. ROSS: Yeah. So social media intimidates a lot of people that just aren’t used to it. I’m 40 years old, which makes me 12, 15 years older than digital natives, than people who grew up with the internet. I didn’t send or receive a single email when I was at university. I didn’t own my first mobile phone until I was in my late 20s. So I’ve had to learn this just like everybody else has.
What I tell our diplomats is that you don’t have to be a social media expert, but if you are working at our embassies, and certainly if you’re an Ambassador and leading one of our embassies, you don’t have to do it yourself, but you better find somebody in your embassy or on your team who does understand it. And then part of what we’re trying to do as a practical matter is train our diplomats – everybody from the 22 year-olds who are new diplomats, who, to be honest with you, don’t need the training because I’ve yet to meet a 22 year old, at least in the United States, who doesn’t understand social media – to train everybody from our most junior diplomats to our ambassadors.
So I personally train everybody who is a rising Ambassador. We have this thing at the State Department called the Foreign Service Institute. And you literally take classes to be an Ambassador. You go through what’s called an Ambassadorial seminar. And when you are in your Ambassadorial seminar, you get a class from Alec Ross about how to use social media. And what I tell them is you don’t have to use it, but if you don’t, you need to empower somebody at your embassy who does.
And it’s not about talking. This isn’t about pushing out a message. What I tell our ambassadors is remember you only have one mouth, but two ears. So even if you aren’t using these tools to communicate out to people, at a bare minimum, you need to use them to listen to people, because this is how people are talking to you in the 21st century.
MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from IDG News Service: What do you think of the European Union’s plans to distribute new software to help human rights activists and descendants in authoritarian regimes circumvent censorship?
MR. ROSS: I think it’s great. One of the things that Hillary Clinton has done since becoming Secretary of State is she has been unabashedly and very proudly supportive of our supporting activists who are seeking to exercise their universal rights. In particular, we have spent, since she’s become Secretary of State, right around $70 million to provide training and to develop technologies to allow people to exercise their universal rights on the internet. So for the European Union to now be taking similar steps, I think that this is very positive.
And let me be blunt. A lot of the people don’t trust the United States, and a lot of people don’t – a lot of people might be nervous using software that we develop or going to trainings that we convene, and that’s okay. Not everybody has to be comfortable working with the United States in this space. So for the European Union to join the United States in recognizing the importance of internet freedom and providing support for activists and citizens, this is a good thing. So even those out there who might be worried about working with the United States, they might be willing to work with the Dutch, they might be willing to work with the Belgians or the Spanish or other countries who are getting involved in this. So this is a good thing. What this means is that internet freedom is not just an American priority; it’s increasingly a global priority.
MS. JENSEN: Steven Norris from memeburn.com wants to know: What concerns does the U.S. Government have that its use of social media or the advantages of social media are only available to the privileged in societies such as South Africa, where only 10 percent of the people have internet access, and 17 percent have access to smart phones?
MR. ROSS: Yes. So this is a big concern of mine personally. As I said earlier in this discussion, I spent eight years of my life – so how much is that? I spent 20 – I spent a significant percentage of my life – 40 percent of my life working to help bring technology to poor people. And so this is a concern for me. But if you look at the actual numbers, the numbers are pretty good and are getting better. There are now more mobile phones in Africa than there are in Europe. The number of people on the internet is over two billion and growing fast.
Now, the way that people in developing countries are accessing the internet tends not to be on a laptop or on a desktop computer, but tends to be on a cell phone. And what we see is that the penetration of mobile phones, and smart phones specifically, is shooting up. And so I think that the choice that we made to engage so aggressively in this space, I think we were right to do it when we did rather than waiting for all seven billion people on planet Earth to get access to these tools. I think it was important for us to engage early, recognizing that because of the marketplace, more and more people are going to grow connected.
But as I described earlier, there are positives and negatives to all this technology. And not being a part of it, as I described earlier, does disadvantage you. So I do think we need to continue to focus on bridging the digital divide and ensuring universal access to the internet as it increasingly defines society.
MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Mina Al-Oraibi: How can you find a balance between open access to internet and information with your concerns about cyber-terrorism? And what do you think about the attempts to shut down al-Shaabab of Somalia’s use of Twitter?
MR. ROSS: Yeah. So I think that we have to be very mindful of cyber-security in so much of what we do. We – there are very well documented examples that become public of the United States Government and our corporations being absolutely constant targets of cyber attacks. Not a day goes by that we aren’t either cyber attacked or somebody isn’t planning to cyber attack us. So obviously we’re taking it seriously. We’re investing – and we’re investing significantly in this area.
But let me say something about this, which is that we cannot allow cyber security to compromise the open nature of the internet. There are a lot of people out there, and frankly, a lot of technology companies trying to sell gear to government, who would love for us to just clamp down and make the internet less open, for us to make the internet a more fortress-like space. And I think that that’s wrong. I think that even if something were to happen, I think that even if there were a successful cyber attack, what we can’t do is undermine the essentially open nature of the internet.
In terms of your question about al-Shabaab, I have absolutely no sympathy for al-Shabaab or for any terrorist organization. And so for me to think about whether they should have the right to use Twitter or not, I go to a more fundamental question, which is: Do they have the right to exist or not? So we can sit here and debate freedom of expression as it exists to terrorist – about terrorist organizations. But my question about terrorist organizations is far more fundamental. Should they exist? And my answer to that is no. They should be dismantled; they should be destroyed. And so in terms of al-Shabaab and other institutions that are purveyors of terror, they’re going to get absolutely no sympathy from me, and they certainly aren’t going to see me advocate for their rights.
MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Eurocentrique.com in Brussels: What would say will be the result of a shift from broadcast mediums bringing us news to an immediate and 24-hour timeline that is present now, thanks to social media? Where are we to go from here? And how does politics become affected by this, increased transparency or increased moderation of public data?
MR. ROSS: So I think we’re already seeing the effects of this. I think that – it’s hard to think about a single segment of – a single sector that hasn’t been disrupted by the internet. The sector that probably has been most disrupted is media. And so when I think about our going from an information environment where people got all their news from the newspaper that they read in the morning and then the news broadcast they watched at night to a continual 24 stream of information, what it means is that these traditional broadcast and these 20th century media organizations either adapt to a digital reality or they die a slow death.
We are already seeing this in the United States, where a lot of our what were once big and powerful media organizations, once of our – once – where many of our great newspapers have become diminished, but we also have seen media organizations change and keep the integrity of their journalism but also publish in the traditional ways but also publish online and find business lines that – and business models that allow them to continue to maybe not thrive the way that they once did but at a minimum make a profit and continue.
In terms of the politics of this, as I said earlier, global geopolitics – the entire ecology of geopolitics is being shifted by this. And the 24/7 media environment is having a big impact on this. It used to be the case that everybody would report on the White House based on the questions that were asked in the James Brady newsroom. And the people that asked the questions would get the answers and the whole rest of the world would report based on the handful of questions that were answered in that room. We’re in an environment right now where anybody can be a journalist and anybody can be a commentator. And so this is an environment that’s been wildly disrupted, and I honestly don’t know if I could predict what’s coming next.
MS. JENSEN: Shameer Ali , an internet broadcaster for Guyana, wants to know: The same way you use social media to bring positive change, there are also organizations using it to be negative. How do you deal or control that?
MR. ROSS: Yeah. So Hillary Clinton put this well, where she said our information networks are like nuclear power. They can be used to fuel a city or destroy it. I think it’s important to remember that things like technology and social media are really value-neutral. They take on the values and the intentions of the users. So there’s nothing about technology or social media that is automatically positive. People who intend to use it for negative purposes will do so.
For example, if you visit internet cafes in the suburbs of South Beirut, you will be able to see how Hezbollah is modifying internet games so that instead of shooting monsters, you’re shooting Israeli soldiers. I see organizations all the time building tools, the purpose of which is to influence young people to engage in acts of terror or to radicalize them. So you’re absolutely right in the premise of your question, that these tools can be used for bad purposes as well as good purposes.
I don’t think, though, that you can quote/unquote “control” them. The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak. And so instead of regulating this environment, we’re seeking to control the environment. I think what’s important is that we engage in it. So if organizations are putting out terrorist propaganda on the internet, I think that the best response is for citizens and for countries like the United States to get their own messages out there. We can try to control the space, but I’m very skeptical about the degree to which we can or should control the internet. I think that it’s a losing proposition. The far better thing to do is to understand that everybody’s going to have a voice, that good points of view and bad points of view are going to be conveyed there, and what we need to do is be aggressive in getting out there and pushing out the truth.
MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Umar Weswala . In what ways is social media complementary to U.S. democracy?
MR. ROSS: Yeah. I think that social media really helps strengthen our democracy. So at the core of democracy is citizen participation. Our democracy is only as strong as its – as our citizens’ participation and engagement with it. So the more our citizens are using social media for the purpose of electioneering, for the purpose of communicating with government, for the purposes of engaging, what that does is it makes our democracy more robust.
I think about the debates that have been taking place lately for the Republican nomination for president. And what I’ve seen is that today, instead of what was the case maybe 12 or 16 or 20 years ago, instead of just watching a debate on TV and then maybe discussing at work, what we see now is, as the debates are taking place and in the hours and days thereafter, people are having robust discussions about them on social media. And as I’ve thought about it in the context of this and the previous elections, what I see is that social media creates space for dialogue in democratic participation that simply didn’t exist when I was in college 20 years ago.
MS. JENSEN: Next question comes from Craig Wilson from TechCentral: How important is it to monitor government’s use of social media, particularly those who aren’t digital natives, to ensure the information disseminated is in keeping with the government’s policy and doesn’t compromise the government’s message and agenda?
MR. ROSS: So let me see if I understand that question correctly. So how important is it to monitor government’s use of social media? Well, one of the things that social media does is it makes everything hyper-transparent. What I will say, though, is if hundreds of people at – let’s say hundreds of people at the State Department – if hundreds of people are using social media and one person goes a little bit off message, I don’t think that person should be shot in the head. I think that they should be corrected. But part of the – part of getting people involved in using social media means that you’re giving up a little bit of control.
The traditional way in which the State Department got its message out was standing behind a podium and our spokesperson communicating the policy of the United States Department of State. We still do that and it’s the right thing to do. But part of what Hillary Clinton has empowered our diplomats to do is to have literally hundreds of other people out there communicating and having conversations, and I think that this is a good thing. Of course we all have to operate and communicate within the parameters of U.S. policy, but one of the things that we know is because of the hyper-transparency that comes with all of this social media, if anybody steps out of it for a minute, we hear about it.
But I think that that actually happens far less often than one would think. And I think that now that we’ve been doing this for three years, I think that what we can see is that, by and large, our diplomats get this right. By and large, they understand our policies. By and large, they represent us well on social media. So I think we should be doing more of this rather than less.
QUESTION: Luna Radio, Republic of Indonesia, wants to know: What do you think the advantage of social media for a developing country like Indonesia, especially for improving the economic sector?
MS. JENSEN: So let me say, first of all, about Indonesia, Indonesia is a fascinating country. If you think about the transition from Suharto to present day, that’s not a lot of time. We’re talking about fewer than 25 years. And yet there have been such fascinating – such a fascinating level of growth and productivity in Indonesia. And when I was there recently, I witnessed this firsthand. And what I think about developing countries generally, but Indonesia specifically, is that the more connected its population is, particularly its young population, that really lends itself to entrepreneurship. And entrepreneurship then leads to economic growth.
I’ll never forget this dinner that I had in Jakarta. The Embassy put together a dinner for me with – it was maybe nine or ten Indonesian entrepreneurs, all young people. And since I’m 40 now, I think that everybody under 40’s young. And it was fascinating to listen to them. These are people who are 25, 28, 30 years old, some of whom had university education, some of whom did not, and they all had big companies. One was running an online gaming company, one was running a software company, one was selling Indonesian arts and crafts on the internet and selling it to markets that you weren’t able to access historically.
So I think that the more connected a society is, the more entrepreneurship there will be. The more entrepreneurship there will be, the more economic growth there will be. And I think that Indonesia, which had, I think, more than 8 percent annualized growth in 2009 and 2010, is a perfect proof point for this.
MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Haris Alisic : Do you think that SOPA will affect usage of social media and inhibit on internet freedoms that you just spoke about?
MR. ROSS: So the question about SOPA – will it infringe on internet freedoms – I mean, that’s a hypothetical based on a theoretical. People – some people are talking about SOPA like it’s law. It’s not. It’s something that there’s one version of an intellectual property bill on the House, there’s another version of an intellectual property bill in the Senate. And as anybody in the United States knows who’s watched this little thing called Schoolhouse Rock, the way that a bill becomes a law in the United States is something has to pass in the House of Representatives, it has to pass in the United States Senate, the House and the Senate then need to agree on a bill. The President needs to then sign that bill into law before it actually does anything.
None of those things have actually happened, so concerns that people outside of the United States may have about what SOPA is doing or will do, before it does anything, it has to pass the House, it has to pass the Senate, the House and Senate have to agree, the President then has to agree with the bill and sign it. And so as of now, it’s doing nothing because it is just one of thousands of bills that are being considered in the United States Congress.
MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Senegal: What is the strategy adopted by the United States on social networks?
MR. ROSS: That’s – what is the strategy adopted by the United States on social networks? It’s constantly evolving, in part because social networks are evolving. The thing that Hillary Clinton did, which I think is of greatest consequence in this space, is twofold. Number one, she created a human rights and an economic agenda called internet freedom. So the first thing she said is that as it relates to social media, but also more broadly to the internet at whole, we are going to make internet freedom a foreign policy priority.
The second thing she did is she said, “All right, American diplomats. I may not be native to blogs or to social media, but I understand that a majority of the 7 billion people on earth are under 30, and those people under 30 are increasingly using social media as their way of communicating and sharing information and publishing media. We’ve got to get into these spaces.” And so what the Secretary has really pushed us to do is to engage. And what I mean by engaging is by sharing information but also by actively listening.
And I should make a point here that it would be a mistake for us to think about social media as a new way to produce propaganda. I just don’t think it’ll work. It used to be the case 30, 40, 50 years ago that people might have just gotten their news from the newspaper that they read in the morning and the news broadcasts they watched at night. Today, people get their information from dozens and dozens of sources, sometimes hundreds of sources. In an environment, even in a poor community, even with somebody who has relatively limited literacy, if that person is getting information from 20 or 30 sources, they’re not going to be very prone to propaganda.
And so I think it’s important to point out here that we do not view these as tools of propaganda, because if we did, it just wouldn’t work. They’re spaces that are great for dialogue, to connect people with our leaders who otherwise might not get to see them or talk to them, and it’s a good way to publish news and information-share. But I’ll use this opportunity to just say, because some people think that it’s a space for propaganda, I just don’t think propaganda works in social media at all.
MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Qimei Luo : For countries like the People’s Republic of China, although Twitter and Facebook are blocked, their domestically launched social media has successfully filled the vacuum. Does your department pay attention to these platforms that are similar to Twitter and Facebook to see if the U.S. Government can have a presence on these platforms?
MR. ROSS: Yes. The Chinese social media platforms are extremely strong, and our Embassy uses them. So we are on Renren. We are on the other Chinese social media sites. And from my standpoint, I think it’s great when there’s an opportunity to use social media platforms that aren’t American. In Japan, I encourage our diplomats to use Mixi. In Jordan, I encourage our diplomats to use Maqtoob. In Russia, I encourage our diplomats to use Vkontakte.
I think that when people think about social media a lot of the time, they constantly think about Facebook and Twitter, Twitter and Facebook, Facebook and Twitter, Twitter and Facebook. But there’s far more out there, and I think that the appropriate role for an American diplomat is to not just focus on using American platforms, but to find out what people themselves are using in a given country and meet people where they are. So in the case of China, if that means Chinese social media platforms, all the better.
MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from SAPO, Portugal: Do you think social media can have a bad effect in the long term in a way that people socialize?
MR. ROSS: So let me say the one thing that worries about – that I really worry about in terms of how people socialize and the role of social media is everything – pictures, images, words – live forever. So when I was in university, for example, there was no Facebook, so there was no documentation about what I did day in, day out. But people who are 18, 19, 20 years old today are going to have to live with the images that are put on Facebook, they’re going to have to – a 38-year-old is going to have to live with the words published 20 years ago by an 18-year-old. Now, I’m a father of three young children, and I can’t help but think as a father that my kids are going to grow up in a world where mistakes are not forgotten, where the things that they say that a 16-year-old might say can become something that’s regretted by that same person when they’re 26, 10 years later. So I do think that this is going to have an impact on socialization, and I do have a – I do think that it’s going to have an impact on culture. I personally am glad that I don’t have to live through those changes.
Now, the response to this can be to curl up in the fetal position and say this is bad and we can’t go on it, or to accept that this is a part of the fabric of life and it’s part of the fabric of life for young people, and to say okay, if there is going to be all of this transparency and if the words of an 18-year-old are going to live with that 18-year-old for decades forward, I think that people need to become more literate and more aware of the implications of what they share and what they say on social media.
So I really appreciate your asking that question, because I do think that over the long term, how we socialize might be impacted by these social networks, and not always necessarily in a good way.
MS. JENSEN: We have time for one more question, and it comes from Radio Slovakia: Do you think that people will be losing their ability to action to go out into the streets and will become passive social media users only?
MR. ROSS: Yeah. That’s a really good question. And fortunately, what we have in this case is actual data. We’re able to see whether online activism translates into offline in-the-street activism. Just because you’re on Facebook and you click that you “like”something, that doesn’t make you an activist.
One thing that we’ve been able to see, though, in the last couple years in the research and with the data is that online activism actually increases the amount of on-the-street activism and increases the amount of community participation. I think that this blurring between the online and the real world is only going to increasingly be the case.
And with that, let me just say how pleased I’ve been able to take questions from all of you today. At the United States Department of State, we, like the rest of the world, are learning and adapting to a world that’s becoming increasingly disrupted by social media. This disruption can be good, it can be bad, but we live in a world of constant change. And what we’re seeking to do, even though we are historically a pretty conservative organization, part of what our boss, Hillary Clinton, has said is that we’ve got to keep pace, we’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn, we’ve got to experiment. And so even things like this session today, this LiveAtState session today, I think is very important and very positive. Part of what we want to do is take diplomats like myself sitting here in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and bring them to countries around the world where you might otherwise not be able to speak with us and ask questions of us. So we want to do more of this.
If you have questions, if you want to stay connected with me, you can do so on Facebook. So you can subscribe to me on Facebook at Facebook.com/Alec.Ross1 and on Twitter at @AlecJRoss. So I’ve been sitting here for the last going on an hour now talking about social media and talking about how it can create increased connections between the governing and the governed, and what I’ll try to do is actually live up to my own words and use these tools myself.
Thank you for your participation today. Good morning, afternoon, or evening, wherever you are in the world. Thanks so much.
MS. JENSEN: Great. That’s all the time we have for today. I would like to thank you all for all of your great questions. I know there were plenty more questions we didn’t get to, and I’m sorry we couldn’t get to all of them. I’d like to thank you, Alec, for joining us in the studio today. And just a reminder, there will be a full audio and video version of today’s webchat available shortly after the conclusion of the program. If you’d like to get the latest information from the State Department, you can follow us on Twitter using the handle @StateDept, or any of the in-language Twitter feeds you’ve been seeing today scrolling across the bottom of your screen.
Thank you for joining us, and have a great day.