A few months ago while in Washington, D.C. for consultations with colleagues at the State Department and other agencies, I met with our new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine. Having held senior positions in both communications and government, the Under Secretary is well-suited to her current role. Among other highlights, she reported for ABC World News Tonight, was editorial producer of ABC News’ Nightline, and won 10 News Emmy Awards for her work.
The Under Secretary and I had a long chat about a variety of topics, including our program celebrating Samoa’s 50th Independence Day, the innovative social media work being done at Embassy Wellington, our development of new events such as The Project: [R]evolution Conference, and of course our need for certain kinds of support here in the field. I pitched the Under Secretary re our plan to build a digital/video studio at the Embassy to create more engaging content for our expanding social media and education platforms.
While trawling Twitter a week ago I discovered that Under Secretary Sonenshine recently delivered remarks in my hometown of Los Angeles at a Pacific Council on International Policy luncheon. Her address touched on a variety of interesting current topics, in the nature of an update on how Secretary Clinton’s vision of 21st Century Statecraft continues to play out in a kinetic world. Below is a transcript of what she said.
* * *
REMARKS BY TARA SONENSHINE
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Pacific Council on International Policy
Los Angeles, CA
UNDER SECRETARY TARA SONENSHINE: Until three weeks ago, I was going to talk to you about social media. The subtitle to that was “The Arab Spring and Beyond.” But developments since then have conspired to make us all expand our understandings of the post-Arab Spring.
I mention this to show you how quickly things can change around the world – in large part because of social media. In fact, I would go so far as to say, social media has evolved into the most powerful, galvanizing catalyst of our time – for better and for worse. It is arguably as significant an event in our shared human history as the industrial revolution.
Let’s be clear: Social media is a neutral entity. It is the human use of it that matters. It was humans interacting with – or responding to – social media, that contributed significantly to the Arab Spring, and also to the violent protests we saw across the region in the past weeks.
To be sure there were other factors: rampant unemployment among young people; autocratic regimes exploiting their citizens and depriving them of any political voice; religious animosity; and so forth. But social media was certainly a leveraging force.
In the first instance, we saw social media as a catalyst for largely positive change. In Tunisia, a fruit seller immolated himself to protest the loss of his dignity. Thanks to social media that desperate act led to a revolution that galvanized the region – and set course for a long and bumpy road towards democratization.
In the second instance, in the past weeks, we’ve seen violence in many countries – from Khartoum to Cairo, Tunis, and Benghazi – directed at our diplomatic Missions and personnel. Many protestors were outraged by a reprehensible video uploaded here in America. As you know, the United States Government had nothing to do with the video, and soundly condemned its message and content.
Many in the region did not understand the freedom of expression that we have here, and responded with outrage. But, I should note, many more did not take to the streets. Relatively small crowds in a handful of countries drew the headlines, rather than the “silent majorities” who stayed home.
Since we are in LA, let me use a movie metaphor – and I don’t think it’s so off base. Social media is like the Force in “Star Wars.” At almost every point of the way, the prospect of good or bad looms large. It all depends on the humans using it. In the case of the Arab Spring, social media was – largely – a force of good. In the latter case, it went to the dark side.
Today, I want to talk about why it’s so important to use it as a force for good – and what the State Department is doing to make that happen.
First, let me share a few facts about social media. Every second, one hour of video is uploaded to YouTube. Every two hours, that total becomes nine months’ worth. By the end of every single day, the equivalent of a decade is uploaded every day. Now listen to this: Every 10 days, a whole century is uploaded.
I am going to quote from an article written by James K. Glassman – one of my predecessors as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. In the past four years, the number of Facebook accounts worldwide has increased sevenfold – and there has been significant growth in countries critical to U.S. security.
In Egypt, there were 800,000 Facebook accounts in mid-2008; today, there are 12 million. In Pakistan, the increase has gone from 250,000 to 7 million; in Turkey, from 3 million to 31 million. Twitter, which barely existed in 2008, is growing even faster.
These quantum leaps in connection technologies are changing, literally, everything. People are consuming and producing information in profoundly different ways. Political and cultural movements have become transnational. In short, power is decentralizing. More people are playing a role in international relations than ever.
Secretary Clinton has called upon all of us to adopt and institutionalize 21st Century Statecraft, so we can remain at the forefront of the world’s most vibrant conversations. By listening and responding through social media, we can create a vibrant two-way dialogue with the world in ways we never have before.
But there are challenges. As we have seen, the effect of social media on human nature – and vice versa – has serious consequences.
In these Internet-influenced times, we are in the business of fighting for attention – and responding ever more quickly. In the case of Twitter, we have to do it all in the space of 140 characters [or less.] Imagine how many things can go wrong with up to seven billion global citizens – all thumb-texting from the hip. It boggles the mind.
As a government and, frankly, as everyday citizens – we have to fight rumor with facts, meet tyrannical outbursts with calm arguments about freedom, and in general, speak to the best in all people. But in the 21st century, no one is waiting for us to play catch up. We have to respond in real time, with frequency, at speed – and get it right.
In the case of Libya and its aftermath, we are working to do just that. We are engaging audiences everywhere about our staunch belief in freedom of expression – and our unbreakable position on religious tolerance. In fact, Secretary Clinton just released an important video on Youtube expressing those ideas. And if I can, I’d like to share the with everyone:
As President Obama says on that video: in the United States, we see no contradiction between our strong religious beliefs and our defense of those who would utter the worst blasphemies against them.
The point is: we need to be out there at the reactive end – presenting our counter argument to the false, the hateful and the cynical. We do that through our Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, where we actively engage online with targeted groups where not only jihadists – but the more persuadable audiences are present. When we enter that digital space and challenge their messages, we force the uncommitted to pay attention to a different point of view.
We engage proactively, with audiences of young people, women and girls, and other underserved communities to reinforce their most positive aspirations. We also work to redirect them from voices that would convert their frustrations as well as hopes and dreams for negative, extremist purposes.
Recently, I wrote a blog posting on our State Department website. I spoke about the great social media toolbox that we use in so many ways to reach out.
U.S. Ambassadors are introducing themselves to citizens through video messages broadcast online and via local media. They are holding web chats with the public. And it has become practically unthinkable for them not to have a Twitter account. In fact Ambassador Roos’ Twitter feeds during the earthquake disaster in Japan became one of the most widely used information resources during that period.
And in Madagascar, when rumors were mounting that the former President had hidden himself in our embassy after he was deposed, our Embassy’s Twitter feed helped to quash them – and reduce tensions. We are even connecting with foreign publics in non-permissive environments, such as Cuba or Iran, through our virtual embassies and SMS text campaigns
The traditional State Department briefing podium is not gone. In fact, it matters more than ever – and we are giving it new amplification power. Our State Department social media accounts and those of our embassies disseminate press briefings, speeches, media notes, videos, and online materials everywhere. We are conducting virtual press conferences with journalists on every continent through our “Live At State” program. We have U.S. International Media Hubs working across the world to communicate our messages and help explain U.S. policy.
Beyond the podium, we recognize that speaking with people, and listening to them, is an integral part of the policy process. That is the essence of public diplomacy. Just three months ago, we had 10 million followers on our various Facebook pages. We now have 15 million, including the Our Planet page – and pages in Arabic, Persian, Russian, Spanish, and French. Our Embassy in Pakistan has over 500,000 Facebook fans, and the Mission uses this platform as part of its outreach strategy to amplify messages.
So you can see how fast we are growing. We reach out to hundreds of thousands of people every single day through exchange programs, roundtables, and outreach to religious scholars and NGO leaders, businesspeople and entrepreneurs, students and educational advisors.
Many people do not realize this, but we have more than 800 “American Spaces” around the world. These spaces – whether they are corners in libraries or rooms at binational centers – give foreign citizens the chance to learn English. They can meet and interact with American subject-matter experts. They can find information on study abroad opportunities in the U.S. All of this can be particularly effective in countries where Internet access is limited or restricted.
And here in the United States, we hold discussions with students across the United States through our Foreign Policy Classrooms program.
The result of these efforts is a more informed, more engaged, and global citizenry, which is vital to the long-terms interests of the United States from the vantage point of economic prosperity and security.
In short, public diplomacy goes on, despite all the vicissitudes of global events. We are communicating and engaging every second of every day. As the pioneer of public diplomacy Edward R. Murrow, once said, we are working to close that crucial link: the last three feet.
In that spirit – a two-way conversation – I am anxious to hear from you. So let me sum up what I have said. Social media is a neutral tool. It is a challenge and an opportunity. If left to irresponsible and cynical voices, it can create divisions. If used in positive ways, it can bring people together. We know which side of that divide we stand on – and we are working every day to make sure we push that positive agenda.
Let me also say this: government is not the only agent in this. Far from it. It is people like you: students, global citizens, people of conscience, who can share positive information and create positive networks. By working together and using social media as a tool of positive communication, we can win the battle for the best in humanity.
Right now, and in the near future, I look forward to hearing from all of you about the ways we can continue to do that. Thank you.
* * *
That’s an excellent summary of the view from Washington, and I very much look forward to continuing to work with the Under Secretary as we implement the President and Secretary’s 21st Century Statecraft vision in the field. It’s an interesting and exciting time to be a diplomat.