Senior innovation adviser Ross: Technology and communication have sparked worldwide redistribution of power

By Laura Nelson
Student Writer

The fight for Internet freedom will be a major sticking point in international diplomacy in the next five years, a senior adviser to the secretary of state said Wednesday at USC Annenberg.

During a forum with Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, Alec J. Ross said the development and spread of technology and communication has sparked a worldwide redistribution of power that is creating new challenges for diplomats and policy-makers.

As the senior adviser of innovation for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ross spearheads the State Department's research on technology solutions to global problems. Those efforts include “Internet in a Suitcase” and Civil Society 2.0, a program that trains grass-roots organizations to create websites, blog and build online communities. 

“This is the single biggest deal in policy, period,” Ross told a standing-room-only crowd. “It’s a shift from hierarchical leadership to citizens and social networks.”

Global transparency is on the rise as governments find it increasingly difficult to restrict communication and monitor their citizens’ access to Internet. One example Ross cited was a fatal high-speed rail crash in China. In the five days after the crash, 26 million messages spread across Twitter-like social network Sina Weibo, contradicting the state’s message about what happened in the accident.

The Arab revolutions in 2011 were a prime example of how technology has shifted capabilities that “were historically reserved for institutions, or that took far more time for movements,” Ross said. He also cited the Syrian Electronic Army, whose members flooded U.S. ambassador Robert Stephen Ford’s Facebook blog posts with fake comments to discredit his diplomacy efforts. But then, Ross said, everyday people retaliated with comments that exposed the spammers.

Traditionally, ambassadors maintained close relationships with a small number of power players in society who told them what was going on, Ross said. The development of social media has circumvented those point-people and made it easier for citizens to speak their mind to diplomats.

“Now, if your only interactions as a diplomat are all with generals, CEOs and editors-in-chief, you may have no idea what’s actually going on in a country,” Ross said. The U.S. has begun reaching out to citizens through social media, and Ross said he expects other countries will begin to reach out to Americans in the same way.