Twitter's soft power

Social Media Tree

Public-facing social media tools give leaders from small countries the ability to magnify their power and influence, according to Alec Ross, who served as senior advisor for innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Ross said, has been one of the 10 or 11 most powerful envoys over the last 10 years, able to extend his influence outside the boundaries of his country and of Europe, "in no small measure because of Twitter." Toomas Ilves, Estonia's president, "has established himself as one of the most important voices against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and one of the most trusted voices unpacking what has happened with the invasion of Ukraine," Ross said at a panel discussion on diplomacy in the electronic age, hosted by Politico.

President Barack Obama's meeting with Ilves last month was driven in large part, Ross argued, by the Estonian leader's social media influence. Without that influence, Ross suggested, Obama would likely have delivered his message about Russian aggression in Berlin, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ilves has "largely done that through Twitter," said Ross.

The flip side of the coin is that U.S. diplomats haven't been able to leverage these platforms as effectively, Ross said, because of the press.

"What I've seen over the last five or six years is that when people do open up on social media, if anything gets close to the line, they just get whacked by the press," Ross said. "People inside government are more cautious than perhaps they should be ... because if they ever try to engage a little more authentically, they put themselves at risk for getting crushed in the press, and therefore by their bosses," he said.

Ross also said there are sound reasons to let organizations like the jihadist group ISIS to continue to operate on social media platforms, even as they disseminate ghastly footage of executions.

First, Ross said it's an "open question" as to whether the videos make effective recruitment tools. Perhaps more importantly, the use of these tools gives U.S. forces a window into their social networks, their technology, and their location.

"Go ahead -- tweet your heart out. Give us the opportunity to capture IP addresses and all of these other sorts of things," Ross said. "Use these tools that lend themselves to openness -- let us know who was standing around when you cut somebody's head off. It'll make it easier to kill you."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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