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Ross on digital tools and the Arab Spring

How the use of E-diplomacy fosters social movements and the pros and cons that come with this use: Green Movement, Arab Spring, Tahrir Square, Muslim Brotherhood. Fmr. Senior Advisor for Innovation of the U.S. Dept. of State in conversation with Charlie Firestone of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Charlie Firestone with the Aspen Institute here with a lacrosse farmer senior advisor for innovation of the u.s. Department of State today we're discussing the toolbox for American diplomacy and specifically digital diplomacy or a diplomacy our 21st century statecraft Alec what are some examples of how diplomacy arose and particularly let's start with the the Arab Spring how did the use of these technologies foster a change in the nature of the society there so I think the first clear example of where traditional diplomats diplomats who had been in the Foreign Service for 30 years really began to understand the importance of digital diplomacy came came from the green movement in Iran in June of 2009 that was sort of the first proof point of the power and importance of these tools if you then fast-forward 18 months to December eighteenth of 2010 protests began in city busey an itty-bitty little city in Tunisia in what became the first protest of the so-called Arab Spring the interesting thing about the protests that began in this little town of City busied and then spread throughout the region is that they were truly enabled by digital tools and with the benefit of retrospection I think we can safely say that these were not Facebook revolutions or Twitter revolutions but what they did do is are three things that are notable first it accelerated movement making processes that historically would have taken decades or years suddenly took weeks or months things that historically would have taken months now take hours or days it became the case that a movement could move much more quickly because of the combination of online video distributed through mobile phones and pan Arab satellite television the second thing I think we can we can assert with the benefit of some retrospection is that it's very hard to have a closed information environment sort of an autocrats information environment in the 21st century or at least beginning in the last five or six years so in the same way in which a dictator of Mubarak a benelli in Tunisia and Assad in Syria could have controlled the information environment and dominated the news and information that people got such a thing only very recently became impossible and this in turn accelerated the Arab Spring the third big lesson from my standpoint is how these tools contributed to leaderless ness and this is both good and bad it's good in that it means that movements propelled using these tools are more citizen centered as opposed to being based on a cult of personality but it's bad in that what happens after a revolution is over and a government's been overthrown you can look at examples from recent history whether it was Nelson Mandela following apartheid in South Africa or vat slob hovel and left Valenza following the collapse of communism that once a change is over once a change has taken place you need unifying figures and you need institutions that can pull a country together so one of the reasons for the failing of the Arab Spring is the lack of institution at the lack of institutions and the lack of universally respected individuals around whom a country can organize itself and the network to nature's of these the network nature of these digital tools facilitates leaderless ness and therefore makes it much more difficult to build a state build a society well in Egypt you had the Muslim Brotherhood as an institution that was on the ground running and you know the election of a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood may not be what the Americans envisioned but it led in one direction would said the point what about the Muslim Brotherhood proves the point if you were inside tough career square what you saw was a wildly diverse coming together of people from across society there were Coptic Christians there were is there were Islamists they were very there were young secular protesters it was incredibly diverse but after Mubarak was overthrown the only group out of all of those that were organized was the Muslim Brotherhood and so the Muslim Brotherhood won a free and fair election now the mistake of course is that the Muslim Brotherhood thought that having won an election it was elected to you know become a successor dictatorship but it proves the point that people can use these tools to tear things down but you'd better be organized if you then want to build something up and the Muslim Brotherhood for at least a while was able to organize itself quite effectively