Insight: Social media - a political tool for good or evil?

Wed Sep 28, 2011 11:18am EDT
 

By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After the "Arab Spring" surprised the world with the power of technology to revolutionize political dissent, governments are racing to develop strategies to respond to, and even control, the new player in the political arena -- social media.

Anti-government protesters in Tunisia and Egypt used Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to run rings around attempts at censorship and organize demonstrations that ousted presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.

That served as a wake-up call to those in authority. By allowing millions of citizens to coordinate political action quickly and often without conventional leadership, the new technology is challenging traditional political power structures.

"We are well beyond being able to consider social media a fad," said Alec Ross, one of the creators of the social media campaign that helped propel Barack Obama to the White House and now senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"If you are not open to social media spaces then you are not attuned to the dynamics on the street and you sacrifice both understanding and power."

Being ahead of the game when it comes to embracing social media, Washington hopes, will be key to maintaining its influence in a changing world.

Diplomats at every level are being trained to use it to explain U.S. policy and, more importantly, listen to what is being said and written in the countries in which they operate. Ross says that as an early adopter of the technology, the State Department is now becoming an adviser to other governments on social media.

The United States, too, has seen some modest signs of social media-organized protest, with hundreds of protesters occupying Wall Street for days this month in anger at perceived excesses by its banks. In Europe, activists have used similar tools to coordinate mass street unrest, although few expect U.S. disturbances on that scale.   Continued...