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Think Tank

State Dept.'s Jared Cohen Connects With the World 140 Characters at a Time

A story in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine focuses largely on Jared Cohen, who at 28 is the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff. He and Alec Ross, the first senior adviser for innovation to the secretary of state, have become key players in a campaign to use social media to relay information from the State Department to the digital world:

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.

When Big Think interviewed Cohen in early 2008, he spoke about democracy, the Middle East, and his book, "Children of Jihad." At the time, Cohen said he had been brought into the State Department to figure out ways to address "the huge swath of the world’s population that’s under the age of 30."

"Nobody understands the youth better than youth understand themselves. Right?" Cohen said. "And similar to the kids in the Middle East being digital natives, I’m also a digital native in the United States, so youth can work to one’s advantage." He said that his role in the State department was to be a kind of internal think tank, generating ideas for how to engage and empower young people all around the world, and build connectivity with social media.

Cohen also asserted that social media companies like Facebook and MySpace were "doing a tremendous amount to promote democracy and counter violent extremism, and they’re doing it just by virtue of trying to make money and get into new markets, because they’re creating alternatives for young people.  They’re creating outlets for expression.  They’re creating opportunities for interaction.  They’re breaking down national divides, socio-economic divides, religious divides.  They’re bringing people together."
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