Public Diplomacy Full Circle: From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Powerful words today in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post:

This is the bottom line . . . you cannot attack your young and get away with it.” The authors lauded the Arab Spring, but they were not from Syria or Egypt. They are Americans, warning of a coming American Spring.

My thoughts immediately wondered back to U.S. public diplomacy 2.0 and the 2008 “Howcast” event. Then, like now, is anyone beside the youth connecting the dots?

My first reaction when I saw the U.S. State Department promotion of the youthmovements.howcast in December 2008 was amazement at the naivety of global interconnectivity. “Wow, this is a how-to-guide for destabilizing or even overthrowing a government. I wonder how long before it comes full circle back to the U.S.”

This is public diplomacy full circle.

The online Howcast was part of an offline summit of the Alliance of Youth Movements held at Columbia University on December 3-5, 2008. Alliance of Youth Movements (now is an interesting online search, especially given the Google and U.S. State Department connection.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James K. Glassman and Jared Cohen from the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff announced the summit as “a really exciting and innovative program” during a November 24, 2008 briefing. Cohen has since gone on to head Google Ideas.

Glassman was one of the opening speakers of the summit. Glassman focused on the U.S. main concern, terrorism. The thinking was that terrorism was linked to non-democratic authoritarian regimes.  If the youth could be empowered to overthrown their undemocratic regimes, then they could play a role in combating terrorism.

The Summit’s agenda, in hindsight, seems like a play book for the Egyptian revolution.  The first main speaker was Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, who talked about Facebook as a tool for social and political change. Later in that morning, there was a discussion on Egypt’s pro-democracy youth movements and the importance of moving the youth movement to “the online space in Egypt.” Egyptian activists were in attendance. The next day’s sessions included:

  • How to Begin: Taking It to the Streets
  • Break-out Sessions: Building New Movements Online
  • How to Get Media Attention: Engaging and Inspiring the Media
  • Utilizing Digital Media for Social Change

There were also screenings of Howcast videos on “How to be an effective dissident,” “How to circumvent an Internet proxy,” and “How to smart mob.”


But social media, like other communication tools, are just that – tools. Similarly, networks in public diplomacy cuts both ways. As Manual Castells remarked, “Networks can kiss or kill. Nothing personal.” U.S. public diplomacy seemed to be focused on the positive side of empowering youth to go against regimes of other countries.

Today’s piece by Kalle Lasn and Micah White, editor in chief and senior editor, respectively, of does connect the dots – clearly and directly – from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. Many link the Occupy Wall Street movement to Adbusters. Adbusters however, links it back to the Arab Spring.

“The [Occupy] movement’s true origins, however, go back to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. That was when the world witnessed how intransigent regimes can be toppled by leaderless democratic crowds, brought together by social media, that stand firm and courageously refuse to go home until their demands for change are met. Our shared epiphany was that America, too, needs its Tahrir Square moment and its own kind of regime change.Perhaps not the hard regime change of Tunisia and Egypt, but certainly a soft one.”

In an interconnected world it pays to connect the dots.  One of the promised tactics of the coming American Spring are smart mobs. For the uninitiated, it maybe good to take another look at the how to smart mob …


Kalle Lasn and Micah White, “Why Occupy Wall Street Will Keep Up the Fight,” Washington Post, November 20, 2011.

Briefing, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James K. Glassman and Jared Cohen from the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff, Washington, D.C. , November 24, 2008. Archive:

photo of Egyptian and American protesters from Adbuster gallery!/search/%23OWS/slideshow/photos?


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