The promise of social media as it regards the United States’ foreign policy capabilities is something we have addressed before. But it appears, particularly in Latin America, that policy makers and government officials should be prepared to act and act quickly. This is, at least, according to a new report by Carl Meacham, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer for Latin America and the Caribbean. Meacham wrote the report at the behest of Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member.
There are a number of obstacles in the way of the U.S. government’s ability to fully capitalize on a growing number of Latin American citizens’ access to technology and social media. One of those obstacles is the very same U.S. technology industry that produces the hardware and software that Latin American governments and U.S. officials are eager to leverage.
Meacham quotes an unidentified technology industry “insider” as saying: “We view government as a necessary evil, the way that people look at traffic cops. If you get stopped for speeding, you pay your ticket.” An unfortunate outlook, Meacham writes, considering the critical role social media companies stand to play in expanding access to their products in Latin America while simultaneously furthering the United States’ interests in the region.
“The largest social media companies still view themselves as startups,” writes Meacham. “This viewpoint proves problematic because these social media companies do, in fact, have an international reach similar to that of a large multinational company.”
Meacham goes on to posit that companies are doing their bottom lines few, if any, favors by shying away from government relations. “In fact,” writes Meacham, “good relations with these governments could prove useful to advance business interests.” U.S. technology companies must be physically present in the region, he continues. “The industry cannot afford to exist solely on-line.”
Here’s why. Latin America’s population is adopting new media technology — particularly cell phones — at a rapid rate. For example, data show that, on average, there is currently more than one mobile subscription per person in Honduras, Panama, Argentina and Uruguay. “Such data would seem to imply that mobile or SMS based connectivity initiatives could have particularly large effects in the Latin American region and in these countries in particular,” writes Meacham.
The report also provides country case studies for Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, which have unique barriers to progress, and are at different stages in their adoption of social media. Brazil is home to one of the highest numbers of Internet users in the region but lacks a robust social media strategy. Meanwhile, Mexico’s executive branch is among the early adopters of social media, with the president and full cabinet all possessing Twitter accounts, but the government lacks “specific, funded initiatives to educate citizens about the government’s services through social media.”
The report recommends that, in order for the U.S. to expand social media use in Latin America, it should help allow public or private entities to set up software engineering training programs and establish IT literacy and outreach programs.
The report goes on to recommend that the State Department support local technology developers in creating language translation programs, since only 12 percent of the Web’s content is in Spanish or Portuguese.
The report also recommends that the United States increase the expansion of mobile technologies and make sure content is modified so that it is easily accessible over slower network connections.
And, last but not least, Meachem warns that the benefits of expanded access to social media and online information must be balanced with the potential risks. The more people there are creating and manipulating content online, the more likely one of them will start using the Web for nefarious ends.
“The United States has consistently led the world in both technological innovation and pioneering new communications media,” writes Meacham, concluding that “in the age of digital activism, the United States should continue to generate and promote innovative new technology and ideas so that people all over the world can connect with information, strengthen democracy, increase commerce, demand their freedoms and use social networking to impact their world in the 21st century.”
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