Changing Reality: Social Networks Power Up Change

When electoral authorities declared Iran’s incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad winner of June 2009 presidential elections the power of technology and social networks became front page news around the world. Six months later the power of these new tools to influence the hearts and minds of users around the world is definitively a mainstream concept – and is attracting attention from policymakers.

 Iran’s opposition politicians and their supporters rallied to oppose the controversial election, using Twitter networks to inform people in and outside Iran of demonstration plans. As authorities blocked an increasing number of websites and prevented most journalists from reporting out of Tehran, protestors and their online supporters set up proxies to help those inside Iran continue using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites to sidestep official censorship.

 It was an organic explosion of growth for a movement that 20 years ago, few outside Iran would have been aware of; a great equalizer that made one single Iranian’s voice potentially as powerful as the most powerful government public relations mechanism; a phenomena that changed the face of social movements forever. (Consider this little gem on Chinese cyber-activists sidestepping censors to support Iranian protesters.)

 Indian Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) writing in Foreign Policy earlier this week makes some interesting comments on how U.S. officials are trying to leverage social media and telecommunication tools to pursue “21st century statecraft.”

 Consider the following from Lugar:

 In the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, U.S. officials are working with radio and cell-phone operators to reach isolated militia fighters with messages from former combatants now urging them to put down their arms and return to civilian life.

In Pakistan, the State Department paid for 24 million text messages as a way to help support a new mobile-phone-based social network, Humari Awaz, or “Our Voice.” The gesture helps increase U.S. government engagement with the Pakistani people, strengthens communities, and can assist small businesses in gaining better market information.

These are just some of the latest examples of what is being called “21st-century statecraft,” using the capabilities of modern communications and social networking technologies to win hearts and minds and improve the American image abroad.

Lugar also talks about what many social network users, activist groups and political dissidents already knew – that these technological advances “can help lend support to existing grassroots movements for freedom and civil rights, connect people to information, and help those in closed societies communicate with the outside world. It also promises to give a strong economic boost to small entrepreneurs and the rural poor.”

The U.S. State Department very publicly jumped into the virtual ring this week with the launch of its “Democracy is…” contest on Twitter, running now through Jan 21. “The goal is to provide a worldwide platform in which people can discuss the meaning of democracy and exchange ideas from diverse perspectives,” State says.

 The power these tools can unleash is awesome, and places responsibility on users, governments and the companies that advance them to play a positive role in the promotion of social responsibility, transparency and human rights. It’s a unique chance to help individuals speak to the world – to express their desires, to push for the changes they want to see in their lives, their communities, their countries.

 And while I’m all for the U.S. government changing the way it does business (cause there’s little doubt it’s in need of a reboot), it does seem just a bit funny to see government agencies attempting to take an organic explosion of expression and turn it into “soft power” wielded to pursue policy goals….. but I guess it was just a matter of time …