Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

US Seeking Stronger Connections in Region Through Technology

As the United States works to promote its strategic and national security interests by modernizing diplomacy for a digital age, the U.S. State Department is fostering new methods of engaging directly with Latin American citizens, a top official of the department said Tuesday. "We are shifting the spirit of public diplomacy from one-way messaging to two-way engagement," in Latin America and beyond, said Judith McHale, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

On the heels of President Barack Obama's trip to the region, McHale spoke about the State Department's efforts to use social media to engage directly with new and broader audiences in Latin America at a forum co-hosted by Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and the NDN and New Policy Institute think tanks.

Citing this year's upheaval in the Middle East, McHale emphasized that new media are transforming social movements and the world. Because the Internet has opened unprecedented spaces for opinion and dialogue, it is impossible to control "how and when and through what medium people form their impressions" of the United States, she said. Thus, McHale echoed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for "21st Century Statecraft," or the practice of reaching beyond government-to-government communication and connecting directly with citizens around the globe.

"Latin America and the Caribbean provide us with a natural testing ground for broad-based diplomacy-the population is young, connected and hungry for education and information," said McHale, citing a host of mobile and Web-based technologies that the State Department has been utilizing in the region.

In addition to fostering relationships through Facebook and Twitter, the State Department has organized "tech dels" (short for technology delegations) and tech camps to bring together technology experts and community leaders with the goal of creating "citizen-level solutions to state-level challenges." Examples of these types of efforts include using text messaging tools to aid first responders in Haiti and developing an application to help Mexicans anonymously report crimes near the border.

Using mobile technology is a critical element of the State Department's efforts in the region, said McHale, who added that while only 6.4 percent, on average, of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean has broadband access, 89 percent has a mobile phone. "SMS programs and mobile apps allow us to communicate with broad segments of the population, many of whom we have few other ways of reaching and what makes mobile a powerful resource to promote our regional agenda," she said.

McHale added that social media is an important element of supporting the Obama administration's regional objectives of promoting security, economic opportunity and social inclusion, clean energy and transparent, democratic governance.

McHale's remarks were broadcast live over the Internet and many of the attendees tweeted about its contents. At least some found the State Department's policies lacking. "Quite disappointed with the State Department's view of the role of social media in Latin America: superficial, trite, U.S.-centric," said user diegobeas.

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