During the turmoil that followed Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election, thousands of opposition supporters and other protesters communicated and organized through Twitter. So important was this social networking site to supporting the pro-democracy "green movement" that the U.S. State Department contacted corporate representatives of Twitter to ask them to delay a routine maintenance shutdown of the microblogging site.
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. It represents an important leap forward from traditional U.S. outreach efforts, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
The adroit use of social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, coupled with text messages and increasingly widespread mobile-phone technology, 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 World Bank estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the number of mobile-phone users in a developing country, there is nearly a 1 percent increase in its economic output.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has championed the use of communications technology in diplomacy and development. In November in Morocco, she announced the "Civil Society 2.0" initiative, which will offer training and advice to local nongovernmental organizations around the world on how to use the Internet and other digital media to organize, communicate, and be more effective.