Washington says it's listening, not just via snail mail, email and Twitter, but via Facebook, Quora, and several other
social media sites too. Diplomats
are Tweeting with activists and journalists in faraway countries. Bureaucrats are friending citizens on
The numbers don't lie.
Between Facebook and Twitter, the White House has over 4 million
fans. Down the street, Speaker
John Boehner has a respectable 400,000 social media followers. NASA, DARPA, the EPA and the
Department of Education have a combined following of 2.7 million.
It all adds up to one of the most networked governments in
the history of democracy. But what
is D.C. doing with all that information
Not much, according to IDG News. While countries like China,
India and even insurgent groups like Al-Shabaab have a social media wing, the
U.S. government is being held back by an old Washington foe--red tape.
Speaking at the Suits and Spooks conference in Arlington
Virginia, Dr. Rand Waltzman, a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Administration (DARPA), pulled no punches when he talked about
Washington's inability to adopt a coherent social media strategy—especially for spies.
"Any time you want to go to the bathroom, you need
Presidential approval," Waltzman said, describing the Byzantine
bureaucracy of intelligence gathering in the city famous for producing Aldrich
Ames, Robert Hansen and many other notorious resident spooks.
To illustrate his point, Waltzman described a raid in Iraq
in 2009. Special Forces troops
stormed a safe-house where 16 insurgents were hiding, killed them and
confiscated a large stash of weapons. As soon as the team left, insurgents
snuck in and staged bodies, making it look like innocent civilians were killed
Photos of the staged attack were Tweeted and Facebooked all
across Iraq and the Muslim world, but because of security reasons, the Special
Forces troops couldn't respond. It
took 72 hours for them to get approval from the Pentagon to post their videos
of the incident. By that time, according to Waltzman, the public relations
damage was already done.
In response, Waltzman proposes an all hands-on deck approach
to social media engagement, encompassing outreach, public relations, and yes,
spying. With the DHS and FBI's
social media intelligence gathering operations, D.C. has 1 out of 3. But it's far from a true strategy.
As Waltzman tells it, when he brought up his idea with a DOD
official, the bureaucrat hemmed and hawed. To implement it in the States, the unnamed Official said
there would have to be impact assessments, committee hearings, reviews, and on
and on and on. The process would
take several years.
"To do what he's suggesting would take forever,"
Waltzman said of the official’s response.
To counter the gridlock, Waltzman envisions something more
proactive that is a lot like how the Chinese employ citizens to patrol their
country's Internet, steering conversations away from corruption, human rights
and towards more positive things like the glory of the Chinese Communist Party.
The unofficial minders even have a nickname: the 50 Cent
Party, but it’s not because they can rap.
The 50 Cent Party's duties even extend to flooding China's
Internet with content praising the party. Members even get paid a small amount to post, an
amount equivalent to thirty US dollars in some districts.
The McCain campaign tried a similar idea during the 2008
presidential race, offering free rides on the campaign's tour bus to bloggers
who aggressively promoted the campaign's talking points.
"While we have our hands tied, our adversaries, which
include nation states, terrorist organizations, criminal organizations, and any
kind of nut case you want have completely free hands--and they're going full
speed ahead," said Waltzman.