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Why State's New Media Delegation Went to Iraq

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, April 23 2009

(Photo by Scott Heiferman)

You might remember that about a dozen representatives of American new (and newish) media companies -- YouTube, Twitter, Google, Howcast -- recently headed over to Baghdad as part of a State Department delegation. The participants are back in the U.S. and have now done a debrief. In sum, the three-day trip seems to have left them impressed by the Iraqi government, enthusiastic about the prospect of a new and better Iraq, and in awe of the service of the U.S. government employees who are working to help rebuild the country. Below are some choice bits from the briefing.

Jared Cohen, the State Department representative who arranged the trip, explained the thinking behind the "fact-finding mission":

The purpose of this trip, first and foremost, is, you know, again -- these people around here, they're not going to Iraq in their business hat. They're going to Iraq in their expert hat. And it's first and foremost a fact-finding mission. We're just trying to get a sense of what the lay of the land is in terms of the digital environment in Iraq. So right now, it's about identifying what the opportunities are, what the challenges are. You know, at the end of the day, what we're looking to do is, you know, figure out, you know, what the Iraqi Government needs in terms of capacity building, in terms of support for what it's trying to do on the ground in Iraq and see if, you know, staffing the tools and those of the expertise could help them actually achieve that.

Blue State Digital's David Nassar on the potential of new media tools to connect people during war, occupation, and other trying times:

I would just also add that in a country that's in a post-conflict or nearly post-conflict scenario, as you described it, the idea of connectivity and connections with one another is tremendously important. And that's what a lot of these tools offer, and that's what we heard from a lot of people that they used them for, is to connect with each other, particularly in situations in the past where it may have been very difficult to do so in other ways. And so whether it's, you know, through Facebook, online or whether it's through using Yahoo Messenger or some other tool on their phones, which we also heard people do a lot, they're using these tools to connect with one another.

The State Department's Cohen, again, on the worry that new media offers extremist elements the same opportunities to make friends and influence people as it does the rest of us; the first option, he said, is to "fear that you...can't control it":

The second, you know, option is to recognize that you can't control it, but you can influence it. And there's no better way to influence it by, you know, the people that we're bringing on exchanges, you know, injecting these digital platforms into, you know, universities and are embracing critical thinking. You know, people said the same exact thing about the cassette tape in 1979. There was a fear about supporting the cassette tape because it would be used to propagate a communist ideology. The reality was, you know, at the end of the day, it was used for that, but it was also used by Ayatollah Khomeini to, you know, help orchestrate the revolution. In Iran, we were late to the game because we had a fear of this new innovative platform. We don't want to make the same mistake with the internet.

Hunter Walk of YouTube, asked if they found the Iraqi government reluctant to embrace openness:

In fact, we heard quite the opposite. There was a lot of hope for more a transparent government process. In fact, they recognized that they needed to build those bridges and earn the trust of the Iraqi citizenship. We encountered one student who talked about when anything would happen in Baghdad or Iraq, should it go on a service like YouTube to try to see all the different points of view and come up with their own burden of truth. And what we heard from the Iraqi Government was the desire to participate in that conversation as opposed to quell it or pervert it.

Blue State's Nassar again, porting a bit of cyber libertarianism over to Iraq:

I would say my biggest disappointment was that too many people are still too reliant on the government to try to fix things. You know, when you ask people how is this going to get done, the response is the government's going to do it. Or, you know, when you ask people where the jobs are going to come from, the government's going to do it. You know, this is a country that lived under dictatorship for many, many, many years and then has been through a war, and so there isn't a sense yet of that sort of can-do spirit, at least not in a strong way. But you know, Iraqis have a rich history and I'm optimistic and hopeful that that will change. And we think that the power of the internet can be part of that.

AT&T's Rich Robbins on the impression left by U.S. government folks working in Iraq:

A key point, to build in on what Jared said, is that one story that hasn't really come out in the American media is the dedication and selfless of the folks from the State Department, who are all here living in not ideal conditions. And they're just really committed to rebuilding Iraq and finding ways of rebuilding society. And it's just really interesting seeing firsthand what they're doing and the experiences they're having.

Added MeetUp's Scott Heiferman:

Yeah, I – you know, made me cry to pay my taxes last week. (Laughter.) You know, the work these guys do is really, really amazing.

Finally, Cohen again responding to the notion that the delegation's trip was really laying the groundwork for the represented companies to do business in Iraq:

...I just want to underscore that wasn't the purpose of this trip. Remember, you know, each member of our delegation was chosen because of their expertise. What you have here is a microcosm of the industry. You know, the industry is gigantic and, you know, we wanted to bring, you know, individuals that represent, you know, different types of platforms. But again, they came in their expert hat, not in their business hat. So the purpose of this trip was not to make deals, but to, you know, have a conceptual partnership.

So if you're going to talk about any kind of partnership, it really is conceptual at this stage, because again, this is the first of what we hope will be an ongoing engagement and dialogue between the American technology industry and the Government of Iraq, all on the conceptual side to help them think through how to expand and leverage these platforms, so yes, eventually down the line on how they can use these platforms to achieve tangible results on the ground.

Nassar also broke the news that Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih is "pretty committed to starting to build a Twitter page." The full transcript of yesterday's briefing is here.