Social media and Internet freedom have become an increasingly important part of the State Department’s agenda, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today during an international video Web chat with journalists and bloggers.
Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation at the State Department, said social media has become both an essential communication tool for diplomats as well as an barometer of broader social freedoms across the globe.
Speaking in the latest in a series of online State Department forums entitled “21st Century Statecraft,” Ross raised the specter of concern within the State Department about the potential consequences of a global digital divide between populations that have relatively unrestricted access to the Internet versus societies that don’t.
Ross said the State Department has budgeted as much as $70 million annually to support diplomatic and other initiatives to promote Internet freedoms.
“Societies that are social connected” and which benefit from social media tools enjoy a greater degree of enterpreneurialism, Ross said, pointing to economic progress in Indonesia as an example.
Ross also pointed to the changing landscape in the diplomatic world as societies are being brought together and transformed through ever-cheaper technology.
He noted, for instance, that there are mobile phones in use in Africa than in Europe.
Part of the department’s approach, according to Secretary Clinton in a statement in late 2010, “is to embrace new tools, like using cell phones for mobile banking or to monitor elections. But we’re also reaching to the people behind those tools, the innovators and entrepreneurs themselves.”
The State Department, confronted with a global diplomatic playing field and tighter fiscal constraints, has itself come to embrace social media as practical alternative and consequently, has been seen as an early adopter of social media among federal departments.
Embassy “leaders don’t have to be experts in social media,” he said, but they and their staffs are expected get the training they need to engage in social media use, said Ross.
Ross, a former grade school teacher, acknowledged he barely used email during his college days twenty years ago. Since then, however, he came to be an active user of social media and later joined the Obama-Biden presidential transition team, and served as a convener for Obama for America’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Policy Committee.