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Egyptian Activists Challenge Facebook-Enabled Diplomacy 2.0

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, December 4 2008

The anonymous Egyptian youth activist with the Shabab 6 April movement at today's Alliance of Youth Movements Summit at Columbia University law school had a bone to pick with Facebook, but reserved his ire for the American government. It's bad enough that Facebook's group restrictions -- limits on how active members can be, restrictions on booting troublemakers out -- make organizing tricky. But he had far harsher words for the United States government's support of the reign of Hosni Mubarak. Why, he asked, was the U.S. so committed to perpetuating a repressive government against the wishes of that country's citizenry?

It wasn't just a rhetorical question. In the audience was James Glassman, U.S. Under Secretary of State, and Washington's self-appointed point person on Public Diplomacy 2.0.

In an earlier session, Glassman had made his case for a diplomacy powered by Facebook and other online social organizing. "You are the best antidote to terrorism, violence, and oppression," the silver-haired diplomat told the some 80 assembled attendees, among the the leaders of Colombia's No Mas FARC movement and the Burma Global Action Network. "You," he said, "are the answer to the savagery of Mumbai."

Glassman gave an extended version of the argument during a session Monday at DC's New America Foundation. Blogger and New America director Steve Clemons said of the discussion: "We should have called this meeting 'Facebook/Twitter Diplomacy.'"

During his Senate confirmation hearing several months ago, Glassman told the crowd, he made the remark that "Al Qaeda is eating our lunch on the Internet." Today, "that is no longer true," he said. "The world Al Qaeda inhabits is 'do this, do that.'" Joe Green, the founder of Facebook's Causes application, challenged Glassman to explain why Al Qaeda can no longer win on the web, prompting Glassman to argue that extremist ideologies are simply too rigid to adapt to social networks.

Glassman made the case that the Obama Administration has shown every sign that they'd be open to growing his unique style of grassroots diplomacy. "Let me put in a pitch," he said, "If they do expand it, I hope they provide the resources to do it."

But the question raised by the challenge of that anonymous Egyptian activist, in my mind, still stands: what happens when this new blend of "public diplomacy 2.0" conflicts with first-generation diplomacy? What happens when America's self-interest runs smack into the will of a nation's people, newly empowered by Facebook?

(Photo credit: madmonk)