Can we fight terrorism with a Twitter feed? It may not be that simple, but everyone who knows the State Department's Jared Cohen expects that his social-media savvy will transform U.S. foreign policy.
Photo: Andrew Cutraro
By Rick Schmitt
As post-election protests roiled the streets of Tehran in June 2009, Jared Cohen, a 27-year-old State Department employee in Washington, did something that—by the highly scripted standards of traditional diplomacy—was almost revolutionary.
Cohen, '04, who has traveled widely in the Middle East, was tracking developments on the ground by following the English and translated Farsi postings of Iranian dissidents and opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi on Twitter. Their protests about fraud in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, and the violent government crackdown that followed it, were flying to the outside world in 140-character-or-less bursts of comment.
Cohen read that the microblogging service was about to shut down its operations for maintenance. Although the shutdown would be routine and brief (and in the middle of the night in U.S. time zones), the prospect chilled the dissidents' leaders. Because the government was blocking cell phone texting, Twitter had become a lifeline. The protests were reaching a crescendo: What might happen if Twitter went silent in the middle of a turbulent day?
So Cohen emailed his friend Jack Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder and chairman. Dorsey had been part of a Silicon Valley delegation that Cohen had led to the Middle East earlier that spring to explore prospects for rebuilding Iraq. In a series of emails, Cohen asked Dorsey if the company was aware of the suddenly prominent role that it was playing on the international stage.
The rest—more or less—is history. Twitter agreed to postpone its upgrade for a few hours, and the pipeline of free expression continued uninterrupted in Iran. The Iranian government accused the Obama administration of meddling in its internal affairs, but a spokesman said Cohen's call was "completely consistent with our national policy. . . . We are proponents of freedom of expression." By the end of the year, CNN was including Cohen's call to Twitter on a list of the Top 10 Internet moments of the decade, along with the launch of Facebook and the introduction of the iPhone.
Using technology to advance U.S. interests abroad has not always been a big part of the State Department's playbook. But President Barack Obama has asked all federal agencies to find new ways to do business, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has made the strategic use of technology—in what she calls "21st Century Statecraft"—a major priority.
To this end, the State Department has supported nongovernmental organizations that help the 31 percent of the world who have access only to censored Internet get around politically motivated censorship. It encourages activists around the world to use high-tech tools. It is freeing up export rules so social-media firms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can access markets in places that used to be strictly off-limits, including Iran, Cuba and Sudan. Increased communication and collaboration, the thinking goes, will help drive movements that promote human rights and democratic and open government, without the lead foot of direct U.S. involvement.
And at the heart of this new digital diplomacy is Jared Cohen, probably the most wired person in Foggy Bottom.
Cohen was hired during the Bush administration onto the State Department's policy planning staff at age 24, its youngest employee. A former Rhodes scholar and the author of one book about Africa and one about the Middle East, he soon become the department's key link to Silicon Valley. He enjoys personal relationships with top executives in technology, many of whom he has taken abroad to sell American entrepreneurism as a way of effecting social change.
Since executive Dorsey taught him how to open a Twitter account—on a picnic table at the American embassy in Baghdad a year ago—Cohen has become the No. 3 most-followed Twitter microblogger in the U.S. government (behind the President himself and Sen. John McCain, both of whom have a staff of thumbs). No. 4 is Alec Ross, Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, with whom Cohen regularly works. More than 311,000 people follow his tweets @JaredCohen, compared to about 17,000 who follow the State Department's @statedept.
In his office at the State Department, aside from mementos such as a green plush iguana with GUANTANAMO BAY stitched in yellow across its back and a wristwatch with a picture of Saddam Hussein on its face, he has photos with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (a mentor) and Adm. James G. Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (a mentor and squash partner).
He has a circle, too, of nongovernmental celebrity friends, whom he calls on to help with State Department missions. He has served as a juror at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York since its co-founder, producer Jane Rosenthal, recruited him after reading a 2007 article in The New Yorker. He and Whoopi Goldberg became friends while they judged documentary films, and she once moderated an event for him. "Did you talk to Jimmy?" he asked me at one point, meaning Jimmy Buffett, whom he met at a party in the Hamptons. At Cohen's request, the singer-songwriter recorded a plea for post-earthquake aid to Haiti.
Cohen says that, in a world where the Internet is breaking down barriers and empowering individuals at the expense of governments, connectedness is crucial to getting things done. He sees himself as a kind of venture capitalist whose currency is having a lot of contacts and the ability to bring like-minded people together, "the power of convening and connecting."
"I believe the greater one's network, the more change one can effect," he says. "I have this mentality in life . . . it is amazing what you can get, who you can meet with, if you just ask," he continues. "All my technology industry contacts?—I just picked up the phone."
Two years ago, he got Jason Liebman, the founder and CEO of Howcast Inc., a New York producer of web-based instructional videos, to join the State Department in organizing a nonprofit group that teaches activists how to fight violence and oppression with social media. Until Cohen came along, the firm was perhaps best known for such lifestyle titles as "How to Make a Basic Vinaigrette" and "How to Rock a Strapless Dress."
In January, Cohen co-chaired the State Department task force set up to find ways to use technology to aid relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake. The mobile-phone fund-raising campaign he helped launch raised $34 million in a week. He also focused on helping restore telecommunications so aid agencies could coordinate efforts.
A month later, he was off to Russia, leading a group of high-tech executives and actor/Twitterati Ashton Kutcher to a weeklong series of meetings. The group was to explore how innovation and entrepreneurism might be used for social change there.
John Donahoe, the chief executive of eBay, says he had his doubts before this Russia trip about whether social media had much potential for good. "Frankly . . . I viewed these as things for people who had too much time on their hands."
But then Donahoe, MBA '86, spent a week with Cohen and came back with a new perspective—and a new Twitter account. "My overwhelming takeaway was that guys like Jared are going to change the world."
The pace of this change can be breathtaking. "When I first started in government, nobody was talking about technology," Cohen says, with the perspective of having started in government less than four years ago. "We have sort of gone from not thinking about it at all to . . . thinking about it as part of everything that we do."
That has put him in the middle of some of the most pressing issues of the day. "When you are 28 years old, it is hard to call yourself an expert on anything, but I have worked with people who really are experts on things," Cohen says of the career foreign-service officers and tenured academics whose company he can consult. "What I know is technology and innovation. What I feel very comfortable doing is walking into a context that I am unfamiliar with and looking at it objectively and figuring out what role technology and innovation can play."
"Jared constantly comes up with things that other people have not thought about," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of policy planning, the State Department's internal think tank. "Most foreign-service officers think about the world in terms of sovereign states that intersect in fairly formal ways. Jared has a different frame of analysis. He is an unusual combination of traditional elite credentials and determination to make his own way."
His way involves insatiable curiosity about the world, fearlessness in extreme situations and a cultural anthropologist's aptitude for getting close to his subjects. James Lowell Gibbs, professor of anthropology emeritus at Stanford, says Cohen "establishes rapport very easily. People are drawn to him. They tend to connect with him and his enthusiasm."
State Department colleague Ross remembers going with Cohen to the eastern Congo last fall, with orders from Secretary Clinton to investigate high-tech methods that might help combat sexual violence against women. Traveling in a motorcade under heavy security and meeting with American and British civil society representatives, the men felt they were not getting a true picture of the situation.
At one stop, Cohen abandoned the motorcade, piled into a police car and spent the afternoon interviewing corrupt Congolese cops in Swahili, Ross says. His conversations turned up one reason why women were being so poorly protected: The cops were seldom paid on time or in full and had little incentive to do their jobs. The State Department is exploring with the Congolese a banking platform that could address this problem by delivering salaries via mobile phone.
Prying open the digital toolkit for all isn't without its risks or setbacks. Terrorist groups have become adept at using the Internet and mobile phones to organize and recruit. The planners of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai used email and text messaging to coordinate their killing and destruction. China has pushed back hard against Google and its efforts to skirt the Communist government's censorship of pro-democracy content available to users on the mainland.
But Cohen says the benefits of digital diplomacy far outweigh the costs. Al-Qaida may use chat rooms to recruit, but they have seemed largely unable to use social media to organize a significant following online, whereas tens of thousands of opponents of violent extremism are using social media to plan marches and speak out.
"That is what violent extremists do; they latch on to what society creates and exploit it for their own criminal activities," he wrote in a 2008 article for the Huffington Post. "This doesn't mean we stop advancing, it means we outfox them in how we leverage our own creations."
Technology was not always his ticket. In high school, Cohen was an all-state soccer player in Connecticut and a devoted artist. In the living room of one of his Stanford teachers hangs a painting of the Rwanda genocide modeled after Picasso's antiwar masterpiece, Guernica.
His father (a family therapist) and his mother (an illustrator of children's books who became a real estate agent) were ardent collectors, and the house he grew up in was a riot of political memorabilia and folk art. "It is a house . . . that makes you develop certain idiosyncrasies," he says. Cohen can still recite the presidents and vice presidents of the United States—in backward order.
He got a thirst for travel from his paternal grandmother, who regaled him with stories about going to Cuba before Castro and to Iran before the revolution. A trip he took to Africa in high school left him so taken with the continent that he had his parents find a tutor in Connecticut to teach him Swahili.
At Stanford, he spent the summer after his freshman year living with two classmates in a dung hut in Kenya, examining the culture and customs of the Masai. After finishing that fieldwork, he went to Rwanda to track gorillas and was struck by accounts of the 1994 slaughter of ethnic Tutsis. After he hopped a ride—hiding in a truckload of bananas—across the closed border to the Congo, he met and interviewed three Hutu perpetrators. The visit inspired a senior thesis about U.S. indifference to the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Africans. He turned the thesis into his 2007 book One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield).
In 2005, during his graduate study at Oxford, Cohen went to Iran, where he hoped to interview the political opposition for a paper he was writing on U.S. relations after 9/11. (At such times, his parents used to remind him of the case of another Jewish-American Stanford grad: Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, '85, who was murdered in Pakistan after 9/11. In his office at the State Department, Cohen has a photo of his mother pointing to a sign that says, "Call Your Mother.") But his focus shifted from the political to something more personal after a chance encounter with some university students.
He observed that youth in the region, far from fitting the stereotypical images of angry, violent and fanatical Muslims, were often hungry for Western culture and felt suffocated by an archaic regime. They embraced the Internet to communicate with the world, and Cohen began to believe that technology could be a vehicle for the U.S. government to find common ground.
His research, chronicled in a second book, Children of Jihad (Gotham Books), shows that at almost every turn he found youth who weren't particularly dogmatic and were willing to ponder Western ideas. People under 30 constitute a majority in the Muslim world, and Cohen believes their use of technology nurtures an identity that flies in the face of radicalism.
The book reads in part like an adventure novel, including alcohol-fueled underground parties in Tehran, fast-food meals with members of Hezbollah in Beirut and chats with military leaders at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. "My guest tonight is a Jewish American who spent the better part of two years traveling throughout Iran, Syria and other parts of the Middle East," Stephen Colbert said, introducing the Children of Jihad author on his Comedy Central television show. "Tonight, as a follow-up, he will jump a pit of flames!"
Without a diplomatic presence in Tehran, Washington welcomed Cohen's insights into Iran; he prepared a report on his experiences for the Bush administration. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice remembers that his was "some of the best reporting I had heard." Rice, whom Cohen first contacted when he was still an undergraduate, hired him for the policy planning staff. He was to focus on finding ways to steer young people away from violence.
Social media soon came to be seen as an enlightened alternative, providing a forum for constructive change without the United States having to be directly involved. "You are not telling people what to do or how wonderful you are," says James Glassman, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Bush administration, who worked with Cohen at the time. "You are linking people together in causes that are beneficial to reaching your overarching strategic goal."
Cohen and Glassman collaborated on what became a nonprofit group called the Alliance for Youth Movements. AYM has become a clearinghouse for more than 40 tech-savvy activist groups around the world. The group was launched at a 2008 conference in New York, attended by 17 organizations from 15 countries.
Its headliner was a 33-year-old unemployed engineer from Colombia named Oscar Morales. Earlier that year, Morales had harnessed international outrage against the terrorism and kidnappings sponsored by the insurgency group FARC. He and thousands of No mas FARC supporters organized a worldwide protest that on a single day sent an estimated 2 million people to the streets in as many as 200 cities. The massive affair was a strictly virtual production—conceived and launched on Facebook and other digital platforms without an office or budget.
Cohen sent a Facebook message to Morales after a senior department official read about the protests in a newspaper report. For his part, Morales vividly remembers when he got a message from the American embassy in Bogotá telling him that someone from Washington wanted to speak with him. "The first thing that came to my mind was, 'Oh my God, what did I do? They are looking for me,'" he recalls. He and Cohen exchanged Facebook messages and eventually met over large quantities of coffee. "At the end, Jared told me, 'I am impressed. I really, really like your story, and I would like to share it with other people. Are you willing to do that?'
"I couldn't believe my ears."
With his trip to Russia earlier this year, Cohen was sort of reinventing the trade mission. Its purpose was less to promote business than to find ways for the United States and Russia to collaborate on social issues, including health and education reform and combating human trafficking and corruption. Bringing technology executives to the table, he felt, would spur more innovative solutions than if just civil servants were there.
He also hoped their presence would stir interest in homegrown entrepreneurism. Russia produces lots of software engineers and technologists, but many leave the country to work elsewhere. A big question is how to create a culture where people want to stick around.
When the group gathers at the Washington airport, and eBay executive Donahoe, for one, who has agreed to go on the trip without meeting Cohen in person, is in for a surprise. "I think, 'Holy cow, this person I have been dealing with on email and on the phone is three years older than my oldest son.'"
A Twitter hash tag #RusTechDel is set up so an international public can track how the mission is going. Members of the delegation tweet their individual insights, which include their takes on local color. Cohen is challenged to a vodka-drinking contest. The group is offered access to Russian military ringtones for their cell phones. Kutcher tweets: "I just saw something I could never imagine. A man in Siberia who has me tattooed on his arm."
Much of the action takes place in Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city and a hub of innovation in southwest Siberia, where a gleaming new technology park is in the works. The group meets the head of an Internet search firm that has an enviable 60 percent market share, and the 17-year-old Web designer who has created a sensation with a service that randomly pairs live webcam users from around the world. They hear that the average Internet user in Russia spends six hours a day on social networks—the most active social-networking population in the world.
B. with Rwanda president Paul Kagame
C. retained at State Department by Hillary Clinton
D. with Colombia president Álvaro Uribe
E. with Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai
F. judged films with Whoopi Goldberg
G. briefing with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
H. with Prince Charles
I. with King Abdullah II of Jordan
J. with Iraq president Jalal Talabani
K. interviewed Mullah Akbar Aghi in Afghan prison
But the group finds that people in general are reluctant to capitalize and to risk their money on anything new. "Twenty years ago, the only consumer of scientists and engineers in Russia was the government," says Twitter's Dorsey. With the government out of the picture, he says, thousands of researchers are wondering, "What do I do? How do I start?" Local nonprofit groups are frustrated and say they have no power. They seem disorganized.
The executives meet with university students in Novosibirsk, and it becomes apparent that the questions were scripted in advance. The meeting is threatening to bog down and end without the frank exchange that the Americans had wanted.
Sitting in the front row, observing the scene, Cohen sends a message to Donahoe and the other panelists: "The questions are planted. Shake it up a little bit." Donahoe remembers that Kutcher challenged the crowd: "My sense is, you guys talk more freely when government people aren't in the room."
The students loosen up, but the official moderator is getting uncomfortable and after about 45 minutes tries to wrap things up. The doors to the auditorium are opened, and the media start pouring in. Cohen leaps to his feet and, without consulting his contingent, tells the moderator that the group has agreed to stay an additional 45 minutes because it has enjoyed the interaction so much.
"The kids burst out in applause. The insurgent Jared has taken control," Donahoe says. "He clears the cameramen out of the room like he is in charge.
"We got them talking about what their dreams and aspirations were," he continues. "That was Jared's whole purpose . . . exposing these people to these tools."
To be sure, the delegation did not solve the problems of the world. But steps were taken, and some minds changed. The group came up with 21 specific actions that they would collaborate on in the future.
Plans were made to wire orphanages to connect children with mentors from around the world. There was a pledge to set up anonymous mobile message boards to report suspected cases of human trafficking. Russian leaders agreed to consider ways of making government data more available on the Internet. Silicon Valley internships for aspiring engineers were put in place, as were plans to fund idea incubators in select regions that would stir the entrepreneurial pot.
In the end, about 15 million people followed the trip via #RusTechDel and other digital means. In his parting tweet, Donahoe wrote: "The story for my last week is 'I went to Siberia and came back 10 years younger.'"
And when Cohen's plane touched down in D.C., he sent this to his followers: "Just landed, slept 10hrs, still tired, but energized by success of #RusTechDel . . . 21 deliverables driven by private sector . . ."
RICK SCHMITT, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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Data is from the past two weeks.