Think social media is just teens goofing off? Think again. Jared Cohen, formerly of the State Department and now director of the new think/do tank Google Ideas, sees it tackling the world’s problem.
photograph by William Taufic
One evening last November, the house lights at Fairfield University’s Quick Center auditorium dimmed, and the full-house audience stared up at a 2008 film clip from The Colbert Report political comedy show. Steven Colbert’s guest was Jared Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old expert on the Islamic Middle East then working in the U.S. Department of State. Between the jokes, Cohen had a serious message to deliver: The backward, hate-mongering Middle East on our TV screens was but a sliver of the whole picture. The whole picture, he suggested, was considerably more hopeful than the news reports led us to believe.
Colbert seemed unconvinced. “I hear a lot of chanting of ‘Death to America.’ That seems to be the number one hit over there.”
“Oftentimes when you hear people shouting ‘Death to America’ in the Middle East, they were paid fifty dollars a day to do it,” Cohen explained.
“That’s good money! I’d do it for much less,” Colbert said, but the ramifications of his crack were quite serious. Most of the chanters were young, jobless, and frustrated, and fifty dollars was good money indeed. In truth, Cohen said, Middle Eastern youth generally consider “Death to America” to be an empty slogan and America itself to be a source of endless fascination.
When the clip ended, Cohen himself walked onto the stage—a tall, fair-skinned man with an upright gait, dark wavy hair, and somewhat sleepy blue eyes.
Cohen, the son of Dee and Donald Cohen of Weston, had come to expand on the dual message he has been pushing since Condoleeza Rice invited him to join the State Department in 2006: Youth in repressed societies like Iran and Syria are really not much different from their Western counterparts; and the technology revolution sweeping the globe has handed us a golden opportunity to “connect” with these young people, and thereby win them over.
“I look at the world through the lens of connectivity,” Cohen said, causing some older people in the audience to shift their knees and frown. Perhaps they were envisioning young Americans absorbed in their gadgets, oblivious to live friends or to the sun shining on the last autumn leaves. But Cohen meant something else entirely—the power of cell phones and social media like Facebook and Twitter to create social change, to shed light in dark places. We never would have heard about Neda Agha-Soltan, the beautiful young Iranian shot dead amid post-election protests in 2009, if not for a cell-phone video uploaded to the Internet. While the video could not change the outcome of the election, it did embarrass Iran on the international stage, exposing its brutal tactics for all to see. (Iran shamed itself further by claiming the video was faked.) “The entire world was forced to make a comment on it,” Cohen told his audience, then waited a beat. “That’s a change in policy.”
From his own time as an intrepid solo traveler in the Middle East, in 2004 and 2005, Cohen saw the technological tidal wave just beginning to swell. “In Iran, 67 percent of the country is under the age of thirty,” he told me by phone from his apartment in New York City. “My belief was that the youth in Iran were a de facto opposition, and they didn’t realize their significance as a demographic.” One moment of enlightenment came as Cohen wandered about a Teheran marketplace, watching the young congregate like birds but seeming to purposefully avoid contact with one another. It was an odd sight.
“What are you guys doing?” Cohen asked one young man.
“Oh, we’re using Bluetooth,” he said.
“Where’s your earpiece?”
Here it bears explaining that Bluetooth’s inventors sought to fix a simple problem: how to drive a car and use the phone at the same time. In other words, Bluetooth technology transmits data wirelessly over short distances—such as between your earpiece and the cell phone resting in your cup holder. These kids had discovered that Bluetooth could work not just between a cell phone and its earpiece, but also among all cell phones within a certain range. Cohen was still puzzled. They were texting people standing right in the same cluster? Why not just talk? Soon he had his answer, and his revelation: These young people were strangers to one another, and their messages floated indiscriminately to every cell phone user within their little bubble of space. The texts were creating a sort of invisible, interactive bulletin board: “Any good parties going down tonight?” “Who can tell me of a bass player for my rock band?”
In the free world, only a creep would send anonymous text messages to unsuspecting latte-sippers sitting three tables away at a Starbucks. But in authoritarian regimes like Iran, the psychology is completely different. By putting a modest technology to innovative use, the young could get around monitoring, restrictions, and blockades; they could indulge their antiauthoritarian impulses.
“Aren’t you worried about getting caught?” Cohen asked.
The young man shook his head. “Nobody over thirty knows what Bluetooth is.”
“And so I got really interested in this notion of what happens when you throw technology into a repressive society,” Cohen said. “You can’t even begin to imagine how it will be used.”
Last September Cohen left government. His legacy, along with that of other young guns at State, is the fashioning of a new dimension to foreign policy called “twenty-first-century statecraft.” This new statecraft knows that borders once sealed by a Berlin Wall or Big Brother have been rendered porous by digital technology. It knows that this generation is the first in human history equipped to mobilize causes on a massive, even global scale, via digital networking. And it knows that the same technology used to instantly collect millions of relief dollars for Haiti (a Hillary Rodham Clinton initiative) is also used to radicalize Muslim youth. Ours is a world gone viral, and the good and the evil are doing battle in digital space as well as on physical topography.
Cohen did not leave government because he lost interest in technology and its emerging uses, but (a) because it was time, and (b) because he wanted a different avenue of attack. Google offered him that avenue in spades. In October the company best known for its search engine installed Cohen as founding director of a new entity called Google Ideas. What is it, exactly? The thing is still in its formative stage, but Cohen envisions a “think/do” tank that generates innovative solutions to stubborn world problems and then puts them into action. One might think of it as a sort of free-floating state department with private sector efficacy. When one considers Google’s reach (unprecedented) and ambition (“Our goal is to change the world,” says CEO Eric Schmidt), one begins to grasp that Cohen quite suddenly sits at a great nexus of technology and power and influence—and he’s barely twenty-nine years old.
But we are getting ahead of the story.
Cohen is lucky to be alive. Six years ago, at the height of the war in Iraq, this American Jew from Connecticut went bumbling through the Middle East—hanging out with Hezbollah in Beirut, partying with Muslim youth in the back alleys of Teheran, interviewing Palestinian terrorists in the notorious refugee camps of southern Lebanon. At one of these camps, Mia Mia, Cohen asked a gang of Hamas-devoted young men what they would do if a Jewish person walked into their camp. “We would cut his head off,” said a voice from the rear, and the gang erupted in laughter.
Then Cohen went to Iraq. Showing a rare regard for self-preservation, he entered the country through Turkey and planned to stick to Iraqi Kurdistan, way up north, a fair distance from the insurgency tearing apart the rest of the country. After satisfying his curiosity among the Kurds, he hired a taxi to whisk him back up to the Turkish border. Drowsily he reclined in the backseat of the driver’s rusted-out Camry with its cracked windshield and bullet hole in the door. The Camry rattled along the highway and Cohen shut his eyes. When he awoke, the car stood motionless at a busy roadside. The view out his window collided nastily with his expectations: Where were the green hills of Kurdistan, where was the Turkish border? Cohen leaned forward to question the driver, but the man had disappeared. Scrambling out of the car, exhausted and disoriented, Cohen tried to absorb the troubling scene around him: a torched car flipped on its hood, rubble-strewn buildings. “I was in Mosul,” he wrote later, “the most dangerous city in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.”
The August sun beat down; the temperature had risen to a suffocating 130 degrees. It was even hotter inside the Camry, but Cohen felt he had no choice but to hunker down in the seat, out of sight. Curious passersby peered in at him anyway as he pondered the absurdity of his predicament: a lone American Jew in Mosul—a largely Sunni city where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay had sought refuge (and where the U.S. military had found and killed them). At length the driver returned, smiling and bearing two jugs of black-market gasoline. For unknown reasons he had driven not north to Turkey, but west toward Syria, a dangerous route cluttered with Sunni insurgents and their roadside bombs. “I winced every time our car approached garbage on the street, while the driver blithely barreled along,” Cohen wrote. When he reached Syria, U.S. troops manning the border regarded the American wearing baggy Kurdish pants and a Banana Republic T-shirt with disbelief. “What the hell are you doing here?” they asked. “You are in a war zone. This is an insurgency.”
ROAD TO IRAN
Jared Cohen last appeared in the pages of this magazine in September 2004, not long before he left for the Middle East. Though his interests were many—he is a talented athlete and artist—he appeared to be fast-tracking to a distinguished career in foreign policy. Only twenty-two at the time, he had recently graduated from Stanford and written an award-winning examination of the 1994 Rwandan genocide called One Hundred Days of Silence. Fluent in Swahili, he had bounced about Africa on his own, earning a reputation for recklessness alongside his established academic brilliance. (In 2001 he snuck into war-crazed Congo in the back of a truck, under cover of bananas.)
By the time we visited him at his parents’ house in Weston, he had shifted his focus from Africa to the Middle East, was learning to speak Arabic and Farsi, and was about to pursue his new passion as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. “Nobody’s really looking at modern relations with Iran. I see it as the next hot spot in the Middle East,” he said then, presciently. Cohen had no intention of sitting cozily behind Oxford’s rain-spattered windows, perusing the latest scholarly literature about Iran. Instead, he planned to go to Iran himself, that very December, to chat up both the theocracy’s leaders and their restless adversaries.
Of course, Iran would never let him do that. The plan fell apart one night when the Revolutionary Guard rousted him out of a sound sleep. “They brought me to a room. They did this really weird thing where I’d be sitting there, and they’d come in and start screaming at me: ‘Have you ever seen the inside of an Iranian prison? You’re in big trouble! You’re never getting out of here.’ They’d slam the door shut. Then the same guy would come back twenty-five minutes later with tea and brochures and say, ‘We’re so excited you’re here in Iran, we hope you like our country. Can I get you any more tea?’ And they’d do these mind games with me.”
Unable to pursue his intended research, Cohen wandered the country, looking for friends his own age, intelligence agents “escorting” him much of the time. Eventually it dawned on him he had come to study the wrong opposition. The important opposition were not political players, but the impressionable, reachable young—the great majority of whom despises the ruling theocracy. Cohen realized this one day in the town of Esfahan, after his weary escort retired to the hotel. Unfettered, Cohen aimed his camera at a bit of police state propaganda: “Down With the USA” stenciled in big black letters across the façade of an apartment building. A young man stepped forward, urging him not to take the picture. “This does not represent the Iranian people!” he protested. “We love the USA. If you look around and you talk to people, you will not see that we hate America. You will see the opposite.”
In time subterranean Iran opened up for Cohen. He saw illegal satellite dishes (often smuggled through Kurdistan by donkey) planted on rooftops everywhere, enabling Iranians to tune in to the BBC, CNN, and that decadent teen drama, The OC. He attended late-night parties (minus his escort) where the young drank, played cards, and danced to hip-hop music, and girls shed their hijabs in favor of slinkier Western attire. “For Iranians,” Cohen wrote, “this was their democracy after dark.” Even what wasn’t secret was sometimes shocking. Cohen learned that in Iran there about 25,000 Jews, twenty-seven synagogues, and even a Jewish member of parliament. Strange for a country whose president would like to see Israel pushed into the sea.
The Middle East carried all sorts of expectation bafflers. Wild beach parties in Lebanon? Gay raves in Syria? Iranians who wept for us on 9/11? These sorts of things were not exceptional, Cohen found, but rather part of an identity concealed from authority figures: a youth identity. Even young militants—Cohen calls them “broken souls with dangerous toys”—have such an identity, and one can summon it by talking about universal subjects like dating and music. Remarkably, as Cohen bade goodbye to the impoverished young men of Mia Mia, the ones who had joked about cutting off the heads of Jews, he exchanged hugs and handshakes. Perhaps there was hope yet. On the other hand: “You go to southern Lebanon, and you ask people why they like Hezbollah. It’s because Hezbollah pays their water bill, their electricity bill, it pays for their school fees, it buys them their cell phones.” No amount of sensible, moderate rhetoric can break that sort of allegiance.
OF U.S. INTEREST
Not long after surviving his travels to Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, Cohen emerged as an intellectual of particular intrigue. In 2007 he published Children of Jihad, an eye-opening book about Middle Eastern youth that overthrows many an American preconception. Meanwhile, Condoleeza Rice tapped him to work on her policy planning staff, the State Department’s “idea shop.” Such staffers usually labor in obscurity, but Cohen kept popping up in the news (including a write-up in the New Yorker), largely because of his precocity: at twenty-four, he had written two well-regarded books, acquired mind-blowing experience at great personal risk, and was advising the secretary of state on the most complex foreign policy issues of the day. “He had insights into Iran that frankly we didn’t have in the government,” Rice told The New York Times. “He was so articulate about it, I asked him to write up a memo that I could send to the President.”
After Obama’s election Hillary Rodham Clinton took the unusual step of keeping Cohen on. Cohen (who once told me he is liberal on most domestic issues) doesn’t see foreign policy as necessarily Republican or Democratic; but in partisan Washington his Bush provenance was suspect. “I’d had such good relationships in the [Bush] administration,” he said. “And then one day I come to work and everybody’s gone. That’s such a weird feeling. It was rebooting to day one, and I had to prove myself all over again. There were plenty of people who disliked me.”
Alec Ross, who worked on the Obama campaign and is now senior advisor for innovation to the Secretary of State, proved a critical ally. “There were all these haters trying to get this guy shot in the head,” Ross told an interviewer last summer. “I read what he’d written, and I’m like, ‘This guy’s actually brilliant; he’s going to be my partner.’ ”
Cohen had another champion in Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning and a former Princeton dean. “I mean, her whole recent academic work was about a networked world,” Cohen said. “We saw the world in very similar ways.”
As for Hillary Clinton? She’s made connectivity such a hallmark of her stewardship that Cohen calls her the “godmother of twenty-first-century statecraft.” (Last January she delivered a major speech on Internet freedom, the first of its kind.) Yet when the New York Times Magazine wrote about the new “digital diplomacy,” in July 2010, it focused on Cohen and Ross, and photographed them with their mobile devices drawn like six-shooters. Cohen offered accidental proof of digital power by becoming the third most followed government employee on Twitter, behind Barack Obama and John McCain.
ONE FOR THE MASSES
Cohen has not escaped criticism. In fact, he’s somewhat controversial. During the Iranian street protests of June 2009, it happened that Twitter planned an hours-long shutdown in order to upgrade its website. The State Department (meaning Cohen) thought the timing unfortunate: Much news of Iran reached the West through Twitter, which can broadcast, as it were, to millions of people at a time and to virtually any device with a screen. Twitter going down at such a crucial moment, Cohen said, “could remove a critical information bridge.” What Cohen did next became the talk of foreign policy circles. He e-mailed his friend Jack Dorsey, founder and chairman of Twitter, and provided “situational awareness.” By the end of the day, Twitter decided to postpone its shutdown.
Cohen had proceeded on his own initiative, and stood to receive a drubbing if his actions were judged to be roguish. “I’ve always been a big believer, in a moment of crisis, in doing something and asking for forgiveness later,” Cohen told me. And when the Times broke the story (on page one), tricky questions emerged. The Obama administration’s stated policy is not to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs. Had Cohen meddled? Iran certainly thought so. And had Cohen meddled as well with a private company? “It’s an interesting precedent,” Cohen remarked. “It raised all these questions that nobody knew the answer to…My feeling is, it doesn’t constitute meddling if you’re not physically meddling in Iran. And it doesn’t constitute meddling with a private sector company if you’re not issuing an injunction. They could have said no.” And the administration backed him up.
A much broader debate, now accelerating, pits digital optimists (Cohen is often said to be one) against digital pessimists. The former claim that events like the Iran protests highlight digital tools’ ability to give voice to masses of the voiceless, and thereby influence events; the latter (including the writer Malcolm Gladwell) argue that digital activism is pretty weak tea and gives the possibly harmful illusion of accomplishing good when nothing much changes. Cohen insists the debate is pointless because it’s settled. “In the last ten years, cell-phone growth has risen from 907 million to 5 billion. Internet access has grown from 361 million to 2 billion. So it’s not that I’m an optimist, it’s that I don’t see the point of debating whether technology matters when those are the kinds of trends you’re working with.”
Digital technology is not inherently good or bad—no more than a knife is. It depends on who’s wielding it, and to what purpose. Google? Its unofficial motto is “do no evil.” But the unofficial motto of Cohen’s division, Google Ideas, might be more along the lines of “do good,” since, rather than simply providing a search or an e-mail service, it actually aims to solve complex social, security, economic, and political problems. Here Cohen is decidedly an optimist. He has seen what even one nonexpert can achieve with a single computer. At Fairfield University, he showed a slide of downtown Bogotá, Colombia, so crammed with people. “Anybody know what this is?” he asked. No one did, so Cohen told the story.
Oscar Morales, an unemployed civil engineer in Barranquilla started a Facebook page called “A Million Voices Against FARC” (the drug-financed, vaguely Marxist guerilla army infamous for its kidnappings and murders). On February 4, 2008, Cohen arrived at work to the startling news that, the previous day, 12 million people in 190 cities around the world had marched against FARC—the largest anti-terrorism demonstration in history. And it all began with a Facebook page. “We considered it game-changing,” Cohen said. He went to Colombia and met with FARC guerrillas who had demobilized as a result of the demonstration. “All those years,” they told him, “we thought we were winning.”