On Thursday night, a protester at Tahrir Square scrawled a joke on a placard, imagining a reunion among Mubarak, Nasser and Sadat in heaven. When the two deceased rulers met Mubarak, the joke went, they asked him: "Was in poison, or did it happen on a stage?" Neither, Mubarak responded. "Facebook."
And there we have an assumption that wields enormous influence over contemporary U.S. public diplomacy -- or 21st century statecraft or PD 2.0 or PD with new media or whatever you want to call it. The revolution may not be televised, but can it be tweeted?
On the one side of the equation, we have people like Jared Cohen, Clay Shirky, Alec Ross, James Glassman and Hillary Clinton, who (as James Harkin notes) argue that social media are inherent democratic, anti-authoritarian and conducive to facilitating leaderless social coordination. They cite examples like the Colombian Facebook movement to oppose the guerrilla organization FARC and the use of Twitter in the Iranian revolution--often hedging their bets by noting that social media can be used by both sides and is more a platform than a panacea.
On the other side of the equation, we have people like James Harkin, Evgeny Morozov and John Brown (diplomat and blogger extraordinaire, who was kind enough to address our class last week), who express extreme skepticism about the power of new media to effect real and meaningful change. To say nothing of Jon Stewart, who recently asked: "If two speeches and a social media site is all we needed to spread democracy ... why did we invade Iraq? Why didn't we just, I don't know, poke them?"
It's a question I've asked before, in this and my own blog, and I'm still trying to come up with an answer that makes me sound outrageously clever and authoritative, but I'm not confident that I will. I certainly haven't yet. And if I'm even unfortunate enough to run for office, my opponents will find plenty of evidence of waffling in the back-and-forth musings I've posted. I agree with Shirky that the new media can facilitate coordination, and I agree with Ross and Glassman and Clinton that new media has been involved in some impressive pro-freedom and pro-democracy movements. But I'm going to hedge my bets here and say that I think they're helpful, but not essential. That's right, I'm siding with Team Local Conditions.
New technology, as Kelton Rhoads says about culture, is one of many important variables in the pursuit of influence.