When I first met Raull Santiago, 23, and Nathalia Menezes, 24, my initial charmed impression was that these were two young people who felt no shame of their penchant for playing on their cell phones. By the time we left our first meeting, they had friended me on Facebook, tweeted about our meeting and ‘checked in’ the time and place of our interview.
What made all of this more than just another day in the life of social-medialite is where the spirited pair live: The community of favelas called the Complexo do Alemão, for years the scene of intense trafficker-police confrontations. Residents long feared the police that forcefully entered “pé na porta” to inspect their homes with a blanket judicial order. Outsiders feared that area was “off limits,” controlled by armed traffickers who famously killed a journalist who went undercover to investigate child sexual abuse in baile funk parties. Now Nathália and Raull were cautiously hopeful. The military had invaded the favela after an intense week of urban mayhem, in which scores of vehicles were robbed and lit on fire across the city, in what the government billed as a proactive response to retake territory key to traffickers.
News watchers across Rio saw the site of dozens of traffickers in boardshorts fleeing with rifles on foot through the jungle and of tanks toppling the iron barricades once mounted to prevent police vehicles from entering.
Last week, the Obama administration organized the White House’s first ever Twitter Town Hall. More than 60,000 questions were tweeted well before the start of the town hall—making it a massive outreach on jobs and the economy. While logistically awkward, the amount of participants in the town hall underscores the unrivaled reach of both Twitter as a medium and the imperative to know and use this tool.
Clearly, this administration recognizes the transformative power of social media. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela gets it too.
As Valenzuela’s tenure comes to a close at the State Department, many observers will assess how he left his mark on U.S. foreign policy and policymaking. Most, if not all, past administrations have made an impact on their Latin American policies with an innovative initiative or style. Examples include John F. Kennedy (Alliance for Progress), George H.W. Bush/Bill Clinton (Free Trade Area of the Americas), and George W. Bush (democracy promotion). What will Valenzuela be known for?
With his digital town hall last November, active Twitter feed and Facebook account—amid the burgeoning Facebook presence of U.S. Embassies in the Americas—Valenzuela’s assertive use and understanding of social media stand out as a chief positive contribution. This proactive social media presence falls in line with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “21st Century Statecraft.”
The situation of widespread violence in our border states stemming from drug cartel wars and the federal government’s attempt to combat them is well known. But I would like to share a story of success that truly symbolizes the strength we can find in social unity when coping with the present state of instability.
The people of Monterrey (located in the northeastern part of Mexico) used to consider the southern part of Texas both their playground and their place for shopping. Even after NAFTA made most consumer products readily available within Mexico, the custom of taking a weekend trip to the Rio Grande Valley or destinations such as San Antonio, Austin or Corpus Christi remained.
That is, until people became too afraid to travel on the Mexican highways near the border. The past couple of years have seen a sharp decline in tourists willing to risk their lives to pass through towns like Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Río Bravo, and Matamoros—all overrun by the cartels. In Monterrey, too, people are less willing to be out on the town after hours. They are afraid of being caught in the middle of a fight between rivaling cartels or criminals and authorities.
However, due to the proliferation of new social media (specifically Twitter) people are now better equipped to cope with their fears. Local anonymous heroes have emerged and created accounts such as @TrackMty, @SPSeguro and @MAGS_SP that are used to warn people about risk zones and specific attacks in real time. Each citizen who follows these users becomes a non-official reporter. And with the widespread popular response to these new accounts, the result is eyes and ears everywhere of people willing to invest a couple of minutes to warn others of danger and lessen the possibilities of innocent people being caught in the crossfire.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed Canadian voters in his first live broadcast on YouTube yesterday, a 40-minute forum where he answered questions ranging from the legalization of marijuana and Quebec sovereignty to troop deployment in Afghanistan and the protection of pensions.
The forum was hosted by Google’s Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Pichette, and more than 5,000 viewers submitted 1,794 questions and cast 169,842 votes. The event provided a platform for people to question the prime minister on the Speech from the Throne address delivered on March 3, 2010. This is equivalent to the State of the Union address in the United States.
This YouTube appearance is in line with Prime Minister Harper’s embrace of social media (he has Facebook and Twitter profiles) and his somewhat more distant approach to traditional media outlets during his term thus far. Upon reaching office in 2006, he selected the journalists who could ask questions in press conferences, a practice that is unusual in Canada. He has also decreased the number of interviews and press conferences with Parliament-accredited journalists and has concentrated on meeting with local media outlets while traveling throughout Canada.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.