Early in 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made news when she formally embraced social media and Internet-based diplomacy in the battle for hearts and minds around the world. The informal policy, known as 21st Century Statecraft, involves helping people living under repressive government gain access to communications tools to help them fight against their repression.
In a speech last October, Clinton noted that the use of social media tools was already making an impact in areas that were difficult to reach in the past.
Earlier this year, in Syria, young students witnessed shocking physical abuse by their teachers. Now, as you know, in Syria, criticism of public officials is not particularly welcome, especially when the critics are children and young people. And a decade earlier, the students would have just suffered those beatings in silence. But these children had two secret weapons: cell phones and the internet. They recorded videos and posted them on Facebook, even though the site is officially banned in Syria. The public backlash against the teachers was so swift and vocal that the government had to remove them from their positions.
So the big question surrounding the upheaval taking place across the Arab world is how successful 21st Century Statecraft has been in pushing the American agenda.
According to Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Businessweek, the idea of helping people organize through the Internet met a major challenge in the Egyptian uprising. “America’s instinctive support for the right to speak and assemble can be hard to square with its need for stability. That’s as true online as it is in the street,” he wrote.
Greeley and others point to the fact that protests conducted through the Internet have little direct effect on the real world, and only the actions of people on the ground – those who attend protests and expose themselves to the potential backlash – have the ability to bring about change.
This is true, of course. The Internet does not bring down governments without people on the ground making their voices heard. After all, as the author Malcolm Gladwell noted, there were revolutions before there was an Internet. But those who dismiss the Internet’s role in the upheaval fail to acknowledge the important role it plays.
Even before people hit the streets, there were Facebook groups with thousands of members in support of repressed Egyptian bloggers and activists. The members came from across the globe, not only from Egypt. How many young people in Egypt hit the streets knowing that there were thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of others who felt the same stirring within them? How many gained confidence in their mission through engagement through the Internet built up though months or years?
The problem with 21st Century Statecraft is not the idea that informs it. As the US squares its policy on the Egyptian revolt, the efforts it has made to empower those who seek freedom and democracy there will pay off well in the future. The freedom of the Internet will always fall in opposition with those who seek to repress and control.