The Aspen Institute
Course: The Aspen Institute > Unit 5Lesson 4: Alec Ross, former senior advisor for innovation of the U.S. Department of State
Ross on digital tools and Joseph Kony
How the media changes the public’s perception of an issue and the world of 21st century statecraft: Invisible Children Campaign, Joseph Kony, NGOs, June 2009 Iran Elections, American social media around the world. Fmr. Senior Advisor for Innovation of the U.S. Dept. of State in conversation with Charlie Firestone of The Aspen Institute.
let's move to a second example of how the media are changing the public's perception of an issue and essentially the world of 21st century statecraft or Street craft and that is the case of Joseph Kony then Uganda Africa tell us about the Invisible Children campaign so the Invisible Children campaign the purpose of that was to refocus the world's attention on the existence and the continued brutality of Joseph Kony and a relatively small but quite brutal group of thugs that terrorized much of Central Africa they developed a video which I believe was 25 minutes in length and it had over a hundred million views in the months that followed and so it was extremely effective in proving that a relatively low-cost production distributed solely online can get a massive audience and so the notion that you can only create snapchat sized or Twitter size content to take root on the internet was disproven by the fact that you know hey here's something that's focused on foreign policy in central Africa it's 25 minutes long and more than a hundred million people viewed it so it was great in terms of elevating awareness but going back to my earlier point about one of the shortcomings of this being less than expert people oftentimes engaging in the citizen diplomacy some of the great failings of this video is that it got a lot of its assertions just wrong they misidentified where Kony was operating they literally got the country wrong and the take action component so you watched this video 100 million people or whatever watch the video what are you then supposed to do and so the take action component developed by invisible children was in my opinion a real failure so they did a brilliant job of elevating awareness of the issue but the two problems were they didn't pay close enough attention the hard facts behind it and then after you got people wound up for 25 minutes it didn't give them a very good outlet for what to do and so I think that the learning from my standpoint is that effective online video effective online content has to do three things it has to inform it has to inspire and it has to incite to action there has to be a specific take action component if part of what you are working toward is advocacy now that video went viral and that's what everybody who makes a video or has a message or a meme or whatever wants to do is there a secret sauce in making something viral if there were secret sauce and making something viral I would build a company around it and I'd become very rich there's really not a secret sauce into making something viral in part because the technology changes so quickly and what people get wound up about will change so quickly what I do believe is that in a world that is increasingly algorithm based and data-driven today more so than ever I think there is a value that has to be placed on art and creativity you can't come up with an algorithm that will determine whether something is going to be viral or not I think it's interesting that as much as we talk about the technology the bits and the bites the devices and the networks what ultimately proves to be special what ultimately allows things to become viral is the creative aspect of things i think it's the the left brain aspect of all of this and so when I advise people today about how to develop content that's really going to take off online it's not just about hire the right engineers it's not just about get on the right platform but it's be sure to bring creative thinkers and artists to the process as well so Alec you talked about the rise of the invisible children video how did State Department learn of this and at what point did they get involved and what did they do so we we learned about the video almost immediately because it got very hot very fast and we did absolutely nothing because there was nothing to be done the President had already decided to send a hundred special forces his trainers and strategists to the Central African Republic which by the way was not the country where invisible children had identified the presence of cunning there was no take action component so while many of us watched the video as sad as it is to say we already knew who Joseph Kony was we were already trying to kill the guy so the question then was sort of so what and so it alters and I think was almost I think was viewed almost with sadness by a lot of people in government because I think that something very productive could have been done with the attention of tens of millions of people who had invested over 20 minutes to watch a video but they really messed up to take action component and what should that have been what should invisible children asked of their viewers the thing that they should have asked to their viewers is support for any of the NGOs that are actually working to help people on the ground in the affected areas in the Congo and Uganda in the Central African Republic the Lord's Resistance Army which is Kony's organization had ruined the lives of tens of thousands of people the level of sexual violence the number of atrocities are just awful and there are NGOs who are providing services there for people that that exists almost entirely hand to mouth if every viewer of this video had given five cents after watching the video just five cents then it would have been an enormous economic boon to the organizations that are actually working on the ground to mitigate the effects of the LRA I also think that from an advocacy standpoint they needed the invisible children needed to educate themselves a little bit more about what was actually happening and so if they wanted 500 instead of a hundred special forces to go in and try to dial down the impact of the lra then they should have specified that so the problem is is that the people in government sort of washed it said okay this has nothing to do with me we've already taken action on this and the citizens who watched it didn't have much to do in a situation like that sometimes catapult an organization who now has a constituency if it's just viewers into the halls of power and in other words could invisible children have gone into the State Department said look we have all these people out there they've been watching our videos we'd like to talk to you about what you're doing and try to have a kind of diplomacy get into the diplomatic realm themselves I think that in NGO or even just a loosely network of individuals who are passionate about a cause who can galvanize networks of people online in significant numbers now have power that would have been very difficult to acquire in years past so if you think about for example the nonprofit organizations that are the think tanks that have been powerful for decades they can be quickly supplanted by networks of individuals who can become quickly influential by virtue of what they're able to do online I've seen this for example in Iran where there were sort of DIY diplomats and hackers who built really interesting collectives that got the attention of diplomats throughout Europe in the United States because they were able to use the internet effectively and reach inside Iran to degree that some of the more traditional nonprofits and think tanks did not so the State Department at times through its Twitter accounts and other social media gets involved in internal operations of a country for example how did it happen in Iran with their election the last election in June of 2009 all of the traditional media were literally and figure Billy locked in their hotels so the ability to get to both report on and get information out about what was happening on the streets in tif ron was largely limited to what was being produced through social media and principally through twitter twitter had maintenance scheduled at the height of some of the protests that were taking place we had a neuron watcher in Dubai flagged this for us and a member of the policy planning staff Jared Cohen took note of it contacted the chairman of Twitter to alert him to this fact and asked him to not take Twitter down this became viewed perhaps fairly by Iran and by much of the outside world as interference in the internal affairs of Iran look the United States has got hundreds of years of history interfering in the internal affairs of other states in the same way in which the Chinese and the Russians and a great many other nation-states do sometimes more openly than others the difference then the difference in june of two thousand nine versus most other examples prior was it involved engaging with a technology company specifically so what it means is that these technology platform companies companies like Facebook Twitter Google and others suddenly often unwillingly our foreign policy actors so the way in which people are exercising their universal rights whether it's the freedom of speech the freedom of association in assembly a free press increasingly flows through these big American technology platform companies and so what this does is it conflates them into affairs of state and so a lot of them have been criticized for their interactions with the United States government as we have conflated them into a variety of different things that have unfolded over the years so you've mentioned that these technology companies several the major technology companies affecting social media around the world or American companies they were started in America at least that a factor that other countries take into account and want to counterbalance they look at these companies as instruments of the American government at all many of the countries do view social media companies and American technology platform companies as instruments of the United States government doesn't actually have the virtue of being true but certainly the perception is hardly is held in a number of places and there have been a couple big byproducts of this I'll point to 31 in China China has basically disallowed American social media in China for this various reason and the rise of Chinese social media whether it's the way Bose renren we chat and everything else is in part a byproduct of that number to Russia Russia had a relatively open social media environment that blended both American and Russian social media companies what the Russians have effectively done is they've made life terrible for the American social media companies and they've effectively taken over the Russian social media companies like fuckin talk DIA and it basically said if you don't play by our rules and if you do not act as engines of russia's foreign policy interests we're going to throw you in jail and then the third byproduct of this has been what i think is a completely unjustifiable punishing of these american companies by european states who believe that there was complicity between these companies and various arms of the united states government brought to public by the Snowden revelations and as such the EU and various of its member states have used this as an opportunity to basically treat these platform companies like a pinata on cinco de mayo and so i think that there have been responses from foes like russia frenemies like China and friends like the Europeans let's talk about the Chinese social media for a second they've got a very robust social media environment they like the United States are the producers of the major platforms around the world you know when you look at the numbers of people who are on their their platforms first of all because they have such a large population internally what do you think American reaction should be to the use of let's just say we chat I've we chat on my phone you probably do too maybe not but we chat sounds like an American company it happens to be Chinese Alibaba these platforms that are Chinese is that is should we be suspicious or worried about that any more than other countries should be worried about American companies using American companies that are platforms for social media I think that there should be mutuality I think that Chinese social media companies should be allowed in the United States in Europe and I think that American and European social media company should be allowed in China so when I have a beef with China with the Chinese social media companies it's really about the lack of mutuality that China needs to be open to the Facebook's the Twitter's and the others from around the world so the problem i have with all of this is the lack of mutuality