What does Twitter mean for foreign policy?

Experts say new media poses great opportunities for activists and some questions for governments

Defiant protests in the wake of Iran’s disputed presidential election in June showed how tweets could help challenge the grip of authoritarian governments. However, the Iranian protesters’ ability to harness social media also poses some sticky foreign policy questions for Washington.

Diplomats, democracy advocates and policy-makers must grapple with questions about how far the the U.S. government, universities and nongovernmental organizations should go to help activists in closed societies get access to online technologies. At the same time, authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly adept at exploiting social media to track dissenters and spread their official messages.

The explosion of online media gives democracy activists living in countries such as Iran powerful tools, according to experts and observers who were part of a panel for a recent U.S. Helsinki Commission briefing in Washington. The commission oversees U.S. adoption of a wide-ranging international rights agreement signed in 1975.

“As you approach the 20th anniversary of the breaking of the Berlin Wall, we must gather our strength and commit ourselves to tearing down the new walls of the 21st century — cyber walls, electronic censorship technology,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), ranking minority member of the commission, said during the briefing Oct. 22. “If information is power, then it is time to help bring the power to the people.”

Online media did appear to empower Iranians, who made use of Twitter and Facebook after the election this past summer to organize opposition rallies and broadcast images of the government’s violent crackdown to the world.

However, although technologies have helped democratic development and have transformational potential, the tools shouldn’t be seen as a panacea or a goal in and of themselves, said Chris Spence, chief technology officer at the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Democratic Institute, which promotes democratic institutions around the world.

“The key is not only to employ effective technologies but to pair the technologies with strategies and approaches that are developed for the political environment in which the technologies are being used,” he said.

But so far, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has maintained his grip on the Iranian presidency, and the tools that helped enable Iranian protesters this summer have now been targeted by Iranian authorities as they prosecute dissenters.

“I think we see now, looking at the trials happening in Tehran, that the authorities do perceive the information technology as a threat,” said Evgeny Morozov, Yahoo Fellow at Georgetown University’s E.A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. “Whether it is actually a threat or not doesn’t even matter.”

Tech-savvy authoritarian governments around the world are also starting to use new media for their own purposes, experts say. “It’s a mistake to believe that these governments wouldn’t be able to manipulate these new public spaces with their own propaganda,” Morozov added.

In some countries, the risks that activists face when using new media for their causes extend to friends and family, said Nathan Freitas, adjunct professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecom Program and a developer of technology for protests.

“As a friend of mine said, ‘You cannot Twitter your way out of a bludgeoning by security goons,' ” Freitas said.

More time needs to be spent on protecting activists, he added. However, he also said outsiders shouldn’t presume what activists are — or are not — willing to do for their own freedom and democracy.

During the protests in Iran, a State Department official asked Twitter to delay a planned upgrade to the microblogging service so as not to interrupt its availability. A department spokesman said the request, which Twitter granted, didn't amount to interfering with Iranian affairs.

“That call occurred three days after the election, so it’s hard to see that this can be construed as interference,” said P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of State for public affairs, during a press briefing June 17. “It isn’t about just one group or another. In fact, there are reports, I think, in the media that the government itself uses Twitter.”

Meanwhile, Morozov said even the perception of interference is a problem, and the U.S. government should do whatever it can to minimize that view. In that regard, State's move didn't help, he added.

Freitas said software developers, independent activist groups, technologists and universities can all help activists access new media without government involvement. However, he said State involvement in that process raises further questions.

“In terms of the State Department asking Twitter to not service [or] turn their servers off, that’s a very interesting position.... Where does it end? Do they keep asking more?” he said.

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