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NYT Magazine: Digital Diplomacy

Author: Jesse Lichtenstein
July 12, 2010


It was a Wednesday night in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood, and Jared Cohen, the youngest member of the State Department's policy planning staff, and Alec Ross, the first senior adviser for innovation to the secretary of state, were taking their tweeting very seriously. Cohen had spent the day in transit from D.C.; Ross hadn't eaten anything besides a morning muffin. Yet they were in the mood to share, and dinner could wait. It wasn't every day they got to tweet about visiting the headquarters of Twitter.

“Exactly 140 characters,” Cohen said.

“What a ninja you are,” Ross said.

They looked at each other, thumbs poised above their BlackBerries.

“Whenever we do this, we get called out on it,” Cohen said. They did it anyway, in unison. “Three . . . two . . . one. . . .” Tweet. Upward of 500,000 people instantly learned that the Twitterers had been to Twitter.

On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn't happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen's style of engagement — perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana — reflects the hybrid nature of this approach. Two of Cohen's recent posts were, in order: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958” and “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!” This offhand mix of pop and politics has on occasion raised eyebrows and a few hackles (writing about a frappucino during a rare diplomatic mission to Syria; a trip with Ashton Kutcher to Russia in February), yet, together, Ross and Cohen have formed an unlikely and unprecedented team in the State Department. They are the public face of a cause with an important-sounding name: 21st-century statecraft.

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