Government Techonomy Events

Jared Cohen of Google Ideas on How a Mobile Video Changed American Foreign Policy

In this session from Techonomy 2011 in Tuscon, Ariz., Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, talks about how the video of Neda Soltan’s murder, captured on a mobile phone, changed American foreign policy in a matter of hours. Without empowerment technology, he says, the seriousness and immediacy of what was happening during the Iranian uprising in 2009 would likely have gone unnoticed by foreign leaders.

Cohen: The Green Revolution in Iran—the government rigged the election, the population stormed into the streets in the largest demonstration since the revolution in 1979. The government shut down SMS; they shut down the Internet, and remember that Bluetooth story that I told you? That was one of the only ways that young people were actually able to share as long as they were within certain proximity of one another—because remember, peer-to-peer, as long as you’re within certain distance, doesn’t have to go through the actual servers.

Now, how many of you recognize this video here, by show of hands? For those of you that don’t, there was a young girl during the Green Revolution named Neda Soltan who was brutally killed by the Basij forces. It was captured on video, uploaded to YouTube, and it essentially became a huge viral video that sparked a lot of commentary around the world. Now the reason I show this video is because I don’t know who took it; I don’t know if they were male, female, politically active or just walking by; I don’t know if they were rich or poor; I don’t know what ethnicity or religion they were. What I do know is they were standing close enough to this young girl being murdered and able to capture it on their phone, disseminate it using Bluetooth technology eventually to somebody who had access to an ISP that could actually get the content out of the country, and within two or three hours that video had not only been uploaded to YouTube, but that video was on the desk of some of the most powerful and least accessible people on the planet—presidents, prime ministers, heads of state.

Now, prior to this President Obama said there would be no meddling in Iran; there was no commentary on Iran—the US was sort of staying out of this because there were peripheral conversations going on around the nuclear negotiations. But what this video did is it essentially through people power, and through what technology can do, allowed some anonymous person in Iran to get a virtual meeting with President Obama and force him to watch this video, such that when he did a press conference in the White House Press Room and was asked had he seem it, the video had spread so virally that he couldn’t credibly say he had not seen it, and he couldn’t credibly comment on the human rights situation in Iran. So some virtual person inside Iran, who happened to also be a real person, was able to fundamentally change the policy of the United Stated government in a matter of hours. Now take mobile devices out of the equation, take YouTube out of the equation, take technology out of the equation and ask yourself if someone standing five feet from Neda Soltan would have in a matter of hours been able to change American foreign policy. Probably not.

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