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Politics & Current Affairs

Forming Democracy, One Social Medium at a Time

Alec Ross is changing diplomacy. The Senior Advisor on Innovation to Secretary Clinton studies the distribution of power from government to the people. And he’s noticed something about the relationship between the Web and traditional channels of power.

Equating the Web’s democratizing influence over print to the Guttenberg press at last week’s Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan, Ross believes that for the first time governments can speak directly to people and people can speak directly to governments.

Through mass mobilization, everyday citizens “don’t need a special key to unlock political power, organize and drive the behaviors of government,” as Ross put it.

Ross cites examples in Moldova’s Twitter Revolution and the No Mas FARC movement in Columbia as examples of the way social media are transforming social movements.

In Columbia, millions marched in February of last year in response to an online campaign started on Facebook. Ross argues the protest caused more damage to FARC than 10 years of military action. 

While social movements used to necessitate a charismatic figurehead, Ross believes that this is no longer necessary. Today, the wheels of social change are powered by an anonymous network of everyone. 

“If Paul Revere was a modern-day character he wouldn’t have ridden down main street,” said Ross. “He would use Twitter and we wouldn’t know his name.”

Ross is using these ideas to advance diplomatic agendas by democratizing President Obama’s message onto various social media platforms. The State Department has realized they can talk directly to people; instead of limiting diplomacy to a discussion behind closed doors, Obama films videos directly to the citizens of Iran, for instance. 

Ross’ mission is to integrate technology into public diplomacy work in order to have a democratic discussion among nations. Ideally, Ross argues, foreign policy should be a balance between diplomacy, development and defense. 

However, upon reflecting, “over the past eight years, defense has been the far too dominant way in which we engage with the world,” said Ross. “One of the most important things to do from the outset is reaffirm this notion of diplomacy and development and not lead with defense.”


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