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PJ Crowley at Center for Civic Media: only 75,000 followers fewer than Castro

PJ Crowley is the U.S. Department of State Spokesman and Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs. In other words, as he explains to the audience at “MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, where he stopped by on March 10th for an “informal conversation”, he’s a representative of “the old model of media, the one where I stand in front of a podium and answer questions from around the world.” Crowley, a veteran of the Clinton administration, where he advised the president on national security issues, is an enthusiastic fan of the idea that new media is transforming how the US government communicates, and is wrestling with questions of how to communicate to people in countries like Libya, armed with cellphones but far removed from the media channels the State Department has traditionally tried to use.

Crowley explains that the primary emphasis is his job is communicating with the American people, as distinguished from communicating American policy to international audiences. That distinction was put in place via the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibited the US government from propagandizing the American people. The state department’s Bureau of International Information Programs is responsible for communications to the rest of the world… but Crowley acknowledges that this separation is increasingly irrelevant in a digital age. Sure, State.gov exists for a US audience, warning us that we should never go to North Korea under any circumstances (or we may need to dispatch a former President to rescue you, he quips), but that warning is now visible to anyone online, inside or outside the US, as is America.gov, a global-facing State department website. Controlling the flow of information to a specific audience is no longer possible in a digital age, Crowley explains: “Information flows person to person.”

The changes brought about by new media can be deeply unfamiliar to seasoned diplomats – there’s a much broader audience for what State has to say than in past ages. Crowley explains that the US has been trying to figure out how to deal diplomatically with Libya since Libya’s ambassador to the US has defected. The state department received a fax from Libya stating that the ambassador no longer represented the nation, but no formal note from the ministry of foreign affairs has been received. Under the obligations of the Vienna Convention, the US State department needs to contact the Libyan foreign ministry, but they haven’t been able to get them to answer the phone. Crowley explained this to the press on Thursday and by Friday, had a call from the Libyan foreign minister saying, “I hear you were trying to reach me?” New media and broadcast channels end up becoming diplomatic channels. This can get very awkward. Commenting on a Saudi ruling that public protest contravenes sharia law, Crowley expressed support for Saudi citizens to organize and present grievances to a government… which resulted in the Saudi deputy foreign minister contacting the Secretary as saying, “I guess your spokesman is now an expert on sharia law?”

When he took the job in the State Department, Crowley’s daughter asked him, “Will you tweet?” to which he responded, “Will I what?” But he’s taken to the practice in a serious way. “Two years and 23,000 followers later, I’m only 75,000 followers behind Castro. I’m even further behind Lady Gaga, but the game goes on.” Roughly 15,000 of those followers are in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. This new audience would clearly like him to be closely focused on issues in their part of the world. When Crowley tweeted about attacks on US environmental policy by Republicans, a Libyan reader responded, “We admire your environmental consciousness, but they’re killing us here in Tripoli.”

In explaining his reasons for embracing new media, Crowley describes himself as a disciple of Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton’s special advisor for technology. “We do know there’s power in the availability of information” to people in closed societies, he explains. As such, Crowley’s particularly interested in the influence of technology on countries like China, which aggressively filter the internet. “I posted something the other day to tweak China – Our ambassador is leaving, but China has made him disappear,” a reference to the fact that the US ambassador’s name is blocked from appearing on Chinese webpages. Confronted with web filtering, Crowley believes the State department needs to become a powerful advocate for the open availability of information to empower people.

The State Department is changing how it communicates, he explains, not just from Washington, but through our diplomatic posts. ”
State is a hidebound bureaucracy,” he notes, and it’s not easy convincing staid diplomats that their ability to communicate through new technology is also a requirement to communicate directly with populations, not just with counterparts in governments. State is starting this process, but it will Starting the process, but culturally, it will take a decade or more to convince diplomats to use these tools to greatest possible effect.

A lively dialog with the C4 crew ensued. (I’m new, so I don’t know the names of all my colleagues – apologies that some questions aren’t attached to the questioner.

?: A recent article in a Chinese newspaper accuses the US of neocolonialism through control of information, suggesting that American influence over services like Google represents a new form of political control. How does the State department respond to this sort of accusation?

PJC: We’re currently talking about obtaining a UN security council resolution to permit a no-fly zone over Libya, and we know that China’s vote will the hardest one to get. By policy and by culture, China tends to be strongly opposed to external interventions in internal challenges. That question about information policy seems very consistent with that cultural stance in opposition to external influence.

Chris Csikzentmihalyi: A recent article in the London Review of Books talked about former State Department technology specialists Jared Cohen and Katie Stanton making moves from government service into working for new media companies (Google and Twitter, respectively.) Is there a new back door from the State Department into the new media industry?

PJC: The Gates Foundation is transforming the world of development assistance, a space where there used to be a public monopoly on those services. It’s not a bad thing that we’re seeing some of these government functions move into partnerships with private industry, and the relationship between State and Silicon Valley is very important. Jared Cohen was the guy who called up Twitter and asked them to reschedule their maintenance window as the tool was being used by Iranian protesters. It’s very helpful that we have someone who can jump the wall between State and private industry and interpret our concerns to the business world.

Csik: So, no caveats then? No concerns about conflicts of interest?

PJC: Our policy to to promote technology useful for access to information. Open information is already a threat to certain governments – they don’t need a Google to make them aware of the risk of open access to information to their citizens. As for the question about going back and forth between government and the private sector, I ask students to consider a lifetime of doing good by moving between the public and private sectors.

Ian Condry: You referenced the hidebound culture of state – what has to change? In the old model of communication, as you describe it, there was a website and an assumption that people will find it. In the new model, there’s information and we bring it to people. Isn’t that still the old model – the idea that there’s information and it needs spreading? Wouldn’t a new model center on relationships of trust, building communities of interest? Aren’t we seeing something new going on in the communities that took over Tahrir Square?

PJC: In Tahrir, we saw a Google executive, Wael Ghonim, emerge as a major figure in transforming Egyptian society. In Libya, we’re trying to figure out who’s emerging as people we can talk to and work with. We know a few of the players, but we don’t know if they’re the right players. “I have to be careful how I say this – we do pay attention to what’s going on in social media, learning how to interpret it, and how to compare it to other sources of intelligence.” The CIA’s Open Source Center used to specialize in reading newspapers from around the globe (btw, see World News Connection to look at what that model looks like) – now it tracks how tweets move around the world.

Chris Peterson: How have states and public policy practitioners responded to the idea that you can get information from the ground, from lots of people? How does this shift change how they operate?

PJC: Judith McHale (undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs) showed me a map (probably this one) of social networks talking about Egypt – it’s a vast universe and I’m a tiny spot three galaxies from the center. I suspect Langley is greatly advancing in learning how to monitor these universes. “In a white world” – i.e., outside the intelligence community, in the world of diplomacy – we’re learning how to engage with the influencers in these networks in a transparent, open way.

? (Jim Paradis, perhaps): How do you structure your information groups? How do you stay abreast of what’s happening technologically? And what sort of assistance do you expect from the universities?

PJC: I primarily monitor conventional media, and get feedback day to day about whether my messages have been well received. This gives me a limited picture and it’s very labor intensive. And it certainly doesn’t always tell me what’s next, or what should be done. But the most important thing I do every day is read the New York Times – it’s the national paper of record. If Bill Keller decides to print something, that has meaning and impact. Judith McHale comes from Discovery Communication (she’s the former CEO of the company behind the Discovery Channel) – she’s experienced in looking for data and trends about what people think. While it’s important to know what people think, it doesn’t always tell us what to do. We know the US is down to a 5% popularity rating, but we don’t know what to do to reverse that trend.

?: All organizations have forms of institutional resistance. How is that resistance manifesting within the State Department?

PJC: We were receiving explicit demands from protesters in Tahrir – get off the fence and support us! How do we balance that impetus with a thirty year relationship with a leader, who’s had strong positives and negatives. The force of popular protest toppled a brittle regime – we had to be open to possibilities in either direction. Knowing and having understanding of what the group in Tahrir represents and having some insight into the pressures that created on the government we had relations with informed our policies. In more restrictive nations, we’ve got the additional challenge that engaging with the opposition tends to impact the formal dialog. We’re inherently a conservative organization – we tend to side with what we know rather than with uncertainty. But I think you can see some of the future of engagement by watching the Secretary, one of the most famous women on earth. She uses that celebrity to engage a broad cross-section of people in the countries she visits. We’re trying to take that model and bring it to scale.

Charlie deTar: There’s an elephant in the room during this discussion: Wikileaks. The US government is torturing a whistleblower in prison right now. How do we resolve a conversation about the future of new media in diplomacy with the government’s actions regarding Wikileaks?

PJC: “I spent 26 years in the air force. What is happening to Manning is ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid, and I don’t know why the DoD is doing it. Nevertheless, Manning is in the right place.” There are leaks everywhere in Washington – it’s a town that can’t keep a secret. But the scale is different. It was a colossal failure by the DoD to allow this mass of documents to be transported outside the network. Historically, someone has picked up a file of papers and passed it around – the information exposed is on one country or one subject. But this is a scale we’ve never seen before. If Julian Assange is right and we’re in an era where there are no secrets, do we expect that people will release Google’s search engine algorithms? The formula for Coca Cola? Some things are best kept secret. If we’re negotiating between the Israelis and the Palestinians, there will be compromises that are hard for each side to sell to their people – there’s a need for secrets.

Chris Csikzentmihayli – Is there a need for whistleblowers?

PJC: From a State Department perspective, we’re not really embarrassed by what came out. A British colleague observed that his opinion of US diplomacy went up as a result of reading the cables. But it’s an embarrassment and a risk for people who’ve spoken to us. We’ve moved a small number – and I don’t want to exaggerate, it’s a small number – of people from countries where we thought they could be jailed or killed. If you have a cable from Beijing with a date, time and name, even if the name is redacted, we assume the Chinese government can identify the person who spoke to us based on following people who come into our embassy. We’re likely to have to move a few ambassadors because governments will no longer work with them. It’s not clear to me what’s the societal benefit of this release of data – the New York Times now has a searchable database where people can see how many cables mentioned Boeing. Should it be a surprise that the US State Department is promoting an American company abroad? That’s what we do.

Jing Wang: As new media technology becomes more important, how does it affect human rights policy? Is it State’s perception that information access is a basic human right? If so, isn’t that a significant change in how we think through human rights?

PJC: It’s useful to refer to Secretary Clinton’s two speeches on internet freedom. We do see the internet through a human rights frame. There’s an interesting debate over “freedom to connect”, a phrase used in both speeches. It’s one thing to say that people should have access to a free flow of information, and we acknowledge that technology is critical in having access to this information. Whether or not we have a right of access to that technology is a debate that’s still undergoing.

Jing Wang: Is that debate confined within the US, or is it including the rest of the world?

PJC: That’s a very good question. You can think of it in terms of our national industrial policy – i.e., do we emphasize access to high speed internet within the US. But we understand that authoritarian regimes sometimes intrude and prevent access. Is it about access to information or to the technology that can help you reach that information? No one within State disputes the right and need for access to the free flow of information.

? Do you write your own tweets?
PJC: Yes, I do. And while it’s often hard to translate policy into 140 characters, I sometimes realize they’ve got more impact than I might have though. Mubarak ordered a cabinet shift in response to protest, but hadn’t yet left office. I tweeted something like “President Mubarak can’t just reshuffle the deck – he has to take action to meet the needs of his people.” That tweet might have had greater impact than high level officials thought was prudent – it certainly was a tweet heard round the world.

my question: Is it possible that State’s enthusiastic embrace of new media might lead towards tools like Facebook and Twitter being viewed with increasing suspicion from governments that are on the fence about blocking them? Could the Internet Freedom agenda have the unintended consequence of making it harder for citizens around the world to access these tools?

PJC: I’m confident about the dispersal of technology despite the best efforts of authoritarian regimes. In North Korea, they’ve done everything within their power to prevent the advance of technology – they distribute radios that can only be tuned into certain frequencies. But gradually, cellphones are getting smuggled in. Information can even leak in via official channels. When South Korea had some sort of industrial disaster, newspapers in North Korea prominently featured the destruction. But citizens were looking at the buildings in the background, which helped indicate just how much more advanced the standards of living are in South Korea. Even with North Korea’s level of xenophobia, citizens are getting access to information. They’re not yet acting on this information – that might take 10 to 15 years. But the technology cannot be completely controlled. It will eventually create a fissure that will force North Korea to change. It doesn’t dictate how the state will change – it might fragment into warlordism, which would be very scary as the country has nuclear weapons. But if knowledge can penetrate the last Stalinist regime on earth, if it can threaten the ability of the Kim family to control and dominate its population, the days for that regime are numbered and technology can contribute to that regime’s downfall.

20 thoughts on “PJ Crowley at Center for Civic Media: only 75,000 followers fewer than Castro”

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  3. “…questions of how to communicate to people in countries like Libya, armed with cellphones but far removed from the media channels the State Department has traditionally tried to use.”

    Communication at the State Department level should not be overly concerned with communicating with cellular phone users, in my opinion. However, if it was necessary, the obvious solution is social media. In order for it to be effective, the policy (or at least the message) must have crowd appeal, and that is not too reliable or accurate.

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