Ever since young activists around the world started using Twitter and Facebook last year to organize massively successful pro-democracy protests against their governments—unemployed engineer Oscar Morales’ 30-day Facebook campaign that turned out 14 million against FARC in Colombia was the first such mass-scale effort—the U.S. State Department has been sitting up, taking notice, and reaching out to join the party.
In the days after last fall’s presidential election, President Obama’s social media team began organizing a nonprofit coalition of these cause-wired, global youth activists, inviting the most powerful to Columbia University last December for a conference cosponsored by Facebook, Google, MTV, and Howcast Media. The conference ended with the birth of the nonprofit Alliance for Youth Movements, and last March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans for a second AYM conference, which was held a few weeks ago in Mexico City and focused on sustaining and strengthening the youth coalition as a focal point for the State Department’s new 21st Century Statecraft initiative. The agency¹s goal is twofold: engage with existing youth leaders using social media to wield “citizen power” in conflict zones around the world, and help nurture new online pro-democracy groups where none currently exist. In effect, it’s the State Department’s effort to create its own nonprofit youth presence as a way of extending its work worldwide.
“You come from different cultures and countries and speak different languages,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a welcome video to the young activists attending the Mexico City event October 14-16, “but you all share a common commitment to engaging with the world, to using every tool at your disposal to bring people together to solve problems. And that makes you the kind of leaders we need as we work to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century.” Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey, who also attended the event, told conferees that he’s not working for the government but believes in helping citizen activists to use the social media technology he conceived in new ways.
AYM coordinator and State Department policy planning staff member Jared Cohen says the AYM initiative—aided last month by business cosponsors including Google, PepsiCo, Causecast.org, Facebook, MySpace, Univision Interactive Media, WordPress.com, YouTube, and others— is just getting started. “When we launched AYM last December,” Cohen said, “it was during the transition between the Obama and Bush presidencies. Now you have AYM continuing on with a President who was elected largely because of technology and a Secretary of State who appreciates the potential of technology to organize. AYM has become an illustrative example of 21st century statecraft, with the U.S. government acting as a convener, a facilitator, and a conceptual partner. We believe that AYM captures what civil society looks like in the 21st century. It’s no longer people sitting in office buildings working a bureaucracy. It’s people who emerge as leaders from the bottom up because they have access to these technologies and a government that wants to help them to be successful.”
Among the more than 40 youth leaders attending AYM 2009 were:
- Natalia Morari, 25, who used Twitter, email and text messages to help organize some 15,000 Moldovans to rally in the streets after the Communist Party in that country rigged a victory in Moldova’s April 6, 2009 national election. “When the results were announced the day after the election, with the Communist Party as the winners, so many of my friends said they wanted to leave Modolva; the country was in mourning,” she told AYM conferees. “A few of us met up at a café to talk about what we might be able to do and we decided to do a flash mob that night [in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital city].” Morari’s team used SMS to send the following message to their friends and family members, which got passed on: “If you believe your vote was stolen, if you did not vote for the Communists, come to the center of the city.” The protest succeeded over the course of the next few days and the protesters eventually succeeded in upsetting the Communist Party’s majority in parliament. Morari now leads ThinkMoldova, a platform to help young people in that country to have a voice in Moldova’s future.
- Veronica Nur Valdez and Felice Gorondo, ages 25 and 26, respectively, who are promoting the use of the Mobile Internet among Cuban youth. The two are cofounders of Raices de Esperanza [Roots of Hope], a U.S-based organization that works to empower Cuban young people, to organize for social change using social media. One initiative is called Cell Phones for Cuba, which collects used cellphones from the U.S. and donates them to Cuba. The group also is teaching youth how to evade Cuba’s Internet firewall and circumvent censorship. It also is supporting efforts by youth empowerment activists to write blogs that will reach people outside the country. “Technology has, without a doubt, helped us to reach a much broader span of people,” Gorondo says. “When we started, we were simply making phone calls to people that we knew, and relying on them to spread the word. Now, through social networks, we can spread the word through many different outlets.”
- Shubham Kanodia, a 14-year-old student in Mumbai, who launched and manages a Facebook group of more than 25,000 people to commemorate those who died in last November’s Mumbai terrorist attacks. The teenager launched his Facebook group on the day after the first attacks began, upon seeing that most of his Facebook friends were safe but were openly condemning the violence. He created his group to help the victims and the group continues as a rallying point for anti-violence initiatives in Mumbai.
- Janessa Goldbeck, director of membership at the nonprofit Genocide Intervention Network, who is using social networking to build the group’s student membership. Its GI-NET initiative, a social network launched last year, has been used to expand the organization’s reach to more than 40,000 people, including 1,000 chapters at high schools, colleges, and universities across the United States and in 25 other countries. The group began during protests against genocide in Darfur but has since expanded to create a student network that “seeks to unite students around the world in a permanent, anti-genocide constituency,” Goldbeck says.
- Deborah Loh, a Malaysian journalist who last year founded The Nut Graph, a news and analysis Web site that is playing a critical role in her country’s pro-democracy movement by covering pro-democracy demonstrations outside the government’s official purview. The site gave coverage to leaders of Malaysia’s grassroots Democratic Action Party, who on May 7 of this year used Twitter, SMS, and email to organize a national campaign and sit-in to protest the removal of pro-democracy members from the regional government assembly of Perak, Malaysia’s second-largest state. The Twitter campaign led to arrests of people who attended rallies in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, but the protesters were later released. The sitting government remains in power but commentators say its credibility has been compromised, in part due to media coverage.
- Elias Kuri, a cofounder of Iluminemos Mexico, who organized an anti-violence march on August 30 of last year that was joined by 2 million people in 88 cities across Mexico and in six other countries. Kuri said he organized the march at a time when many Mexicans were horrified by what was then the recent kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Fernando Martí, the son of a businessman. “Does a march work to make change?” Kuri asked his fellow panelists. “We think yes because when people are angry they want to do something…The important thing was that we didn’t use traditional media to protest. We used the Internet, Facebook, emails, and people just went to the march. The authorities were sure we were going to fail. They didn’t believe the Internet could have so much power.”
The AYM conference, timed to roughly coincide to 20th anniversary celebrations globally of the fall of the Berlin Wall, triggered speculation in Mexico City and the blogosphere over how much difference the Cold War might have been were social media in use back then. At the conference, New York Times Mexico City reporter Elizabeth Malkin asked Moldovan Twitter activist Natalia Morari whether she thought Twitter would have helped to empower anti-Communist protesters — or, perhaps, been used instead by Communist dictators as an added tool of oppression. Modovan activist Morari responded: “It probably wouldn’t have taken everyone so long to fight back.” She cited The Berlin Twitter Wall, the city of Berlin’s new Web site that asks people around the world to digitally commemorate the fall of the Wall. Since posting the site, hundreds of people have posted Tweets – hashtag #fotw—about pro-democracy and anti-democracy actions around the world. [Chinese authorities blocked the Web site just days after its launch October 20, but not before some 2,000 Chinese had used the digital wall to protest China’s censorship of free speech].
The Obama Administration’s statecraft initiative also has been introduced at other high-profile forums in recent weeks. Clinton’s Social Media Advisor, Alex Ross, told the recent PopTech conference on social innovation that he is launching a new social media initiative with Mexico-based NGOs and Mexican drug-trafficking authorities that aims to engage citizens in their war on drugs. “If you think of the last eight years of American foreign policy, it was about overpowering others in the world,” Ross told PopTech conferees. “[We want] to go beyond engaging government-to-government and to connect with people more directly.”
Ross then added: “…If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn’t make a ride; he would have just Tweeted and the lantern-hangers would’ve re-Tweeted.”
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.