September 13, 2018
Ambassador Pyatt: Good afternoon, everybody. First of all, let me say how thrilled I am that you’re doing this event, that I’m able to join a little bit of the conversation.
We have got a lot going on in Thessaloniki this week. I was just with Governor Tzitzikostas who made the judgment that this was probably the biggest Thessaloniki International Fair that has ever happened, and a genuinely historic week for the U.S.-Greece relationship.
But I’m really glad that we’ve been able to cooperate with the Digital Communication Network, all of our partners here in Greece as well, to put on this event with all the digital influencers.
When I first heard about this I was like what’s that? And it’s well, It’s YouTube stars and people who have a lot of social media following. But as I’ve looked at the program, what’s impressed me is you’re asking a lot of the key questions that I grapple with every day as a professional diplomat. How to manage this firehose of information that we all have to deal with. How to employ technology to make our democracies work better. And one of the things that I’m really proud of about the American business presence at the Thessaloniki International Fair, if you haven’t done it, please walk a couple of hundred yards to the American Pavilion and look at the kind of presentations that we have there, from Google and Facebook and Microsoft and Cisco and all of the big U.S. technology companies that have built the world that we live in, but also what they’re proposing to do in terms of working with Greek partners.
So first, thinking about how, what the technology means, but then also thinking about what it means for our democracies. Issues like media literacy, issues like how to grapple with the manipulation and the fungibility of information. And speaking of YouTube, of how scary is it that we’re very close to an era where you’re going to be able to manipulate video images of politicians or public figures just the way you can photoshop a still photo today. What does that mean for how the information system works globally.
So this is a really, really important event for us. I was not here for the first part of the discussion because I was just at an event with Google that illustrates a lot of what we’re trying to do with American technology. For instance, Google has just launched a partnership with the City of Thessaloniki, working with small and medium sized tourism businesses to help lift their platforms and to help them do a better job of marketing and reaching audiences, using all these digital tools that you guys are talking about.
And I think that goes to this big question, are you a technology optimist or a technology pessimist? I’m certain an optimist. I grew up in California. People ask me — and I’ve been a diplomat for about three decades at this point, and people often ask me what’s changed about the diplomacy business since you started. And by far, the most important thing that’s changed is in all of our pockets, it’s the smart phone. It’s the instantaneous global access to information and what that means for how our economies work, how our politics work, how nations relate with each other, and I think the exiting part of it is we’re really just in the early stages of that process.
I think all of you are going to be about building this new architecture of international relationships, this architecture of politics which rides on the back of global networks, global connectivity, and remembering that, especially when you look at Asia in particular, the big markets in India and China, where I can remember I was living in India in the early 2000’s when everybody was really excited because the millionth cell phone line had been sold. Now the growth is happening so fast, and it’s changing our societies in a fundamental way.
So part of this is a question of how to use this power for good, and that’s where issues like digital literacy, media literacy come into play.
I hope you all get to see the Microsoft presentation on this in their Defending Democracy project which is incredibly important and goes to the challenge of using these information technologies in a way that supports our democracies and our democratic values.
I saw this firsthand, I lived through it in Ukraine as some of you know. I saw how important Facebook and email and instantaneous personal communication was to the revolution, to the Maidan and to the rejection of the corruption and the anti-democratic, anti-European attitudes of the Yanukovych government. But then I also saw how the same tools could be used inappropriately as Russia tried to create a false narrative about what had just happened in Ukraine and all of the stories that you saw with the fake news, and the stories about the shoot-down of the Malaysian jetliner, the stories about the little green men in the invasion of Crimea. And I know that will be a big part of the discussion tomorrow. Adam and some of the team from RFERL and others will be sharing a little bit there. I see, just to make it easy, I see that there’s a new iteration of that today with Russia today and the story that’s now being told about the two Russian GRU agents who were involved in the poisonings in Salisbury and the attack on Skripal.
So this is something that we have to contend with.
Then there’s the positive side of it. I come back to the Google example. I’ve seen here in Greece the positive power of this technology in terms of empowerment, in terms of building a new economy.
The first pavilion you should go to after the American Pavilion at the TIF is the one across the street, the Startup Pavilion sponsored by the Greek government. Dozens and dozens of new entrepreneurial Greek companies there. Started by young people. Using technology in new and creative ways to add value, to improve lives, and to grow their businesses. It’s very exciting to see that and I’m convinced that in the future relationship between the United States and Greece this element of technology and entrepreneurship is going to be very important.
Finally, I’ll say I think the media will continue to play an important role in this. Obviously media in Greece just like media in the United States is going through a transitional period. Video, online, [inaudible] air broadcast, it’s all mixed up now. We tried to be helpful to that with the programs of the U.S. Department of State, our Education and Cultural Bureau, and I know you’ll have Assistant Secretary Marie Royce with you tomorrow. But I think it’s a very important part of what we do, working with our Foreign Press Center, working with U.S. journalists, working with Greek journalists, to help uphold the values of the free press that are so fundamental to our democracies and make our societies work.
So the big takeaway message, what you all are doing today is critically important to the future of our societies, of our democracies. It’s an area where the U.S. embassy, where the U.S. government wants to be helpful. But it’s also an area where I’ve seen over the past 30 years, government is always going to lag behind what’s happening at the grassroots level. So it’s very exciting to have you all here in the room. I look forward to hearing the results of your conversations. And if you want, I’m happy to take a question or two, until my guys tell me I have to go on to something else. I think I’m going on to a Greek submarine next. I’m very excited about it.
But any questions?
Question: Mr. Ambassador, how do you manage to measure the diplomacy and digital diplomacy in Greece here now?
Ambassador Pyatt: A really good question. I probably spend too much time on Twitter, but I like it for two reasons. One of the things that I’ve learned about being a diplomat, an American diplomat is, if you’re not listening, you’re not doing your job. And the great thing about Twitter, and this is a double-edged sword, is you get instantaneous feedback on what people think about what you’re saying.
It’s always seemed weird to me, and there are lots of Russian trolls and other things that I had to deal with when I was in Ukraine especially and I always thought to myself, this is an amazing tool. It allows any Joe anywhere in the world, or Jane, to have direct contact with pretty much anybody. So why would you screw that up by putting all this hate out there?
That’s the thing that sort of bums me out about some of these tools is all of the negativity and the hating, because again, I am a technology optimist. I’ve seen how much goodness these technology tools have brought.
I think we’re going through a really fundamental period in terms of figuring out how to manage the tools, and you can see that in the U.S. congressional hearings about Google and Facebook and all the rest, and all the stories about election interference and the terrible, terrible stuff that happened on Facebook to try to exacerbate social divisions in the United States, which was driven by Russian entities who said hey, this is the soft underbelly of American democracy, so let’s go after it. I’m absolutely certain that the same things are happening here in Greece and across Europe, and we have to be, our shared democratic defense systems have to be developed.
I think as a tool, the greatest value of these digital tools as a diplomatic tool is, and they play to the strength of the United States, which is that we tend to be, we Americans, what you see is what you get. And on my Twitter account, if you see something, it’s me. It’s not a propaganda machine.
One of the things that I learned very early in this Twitter stuff, which I began when I was in Ukraine, is it doesn’t work if it’s driven by a bureaucracy. People, I think I heard somebody saying authenticity is your friend. That’s what people are looking for.
In terms of the diplomacy, you have to be authentic, you have to be responsive, you have to be, you have to figure out what the balance is between personal and professional. I’m a diplomat, and everybody, people ask me sometimes what’s your personal opinion? The bad news is once you become an American Ambassador, you don’t get to have personal opinions anymore because everything you say is the policy of the United States of America. And if you start to just mouth off with whatever you think, you’re not going to be Ambassador very long.
You’ve got to find the right balance on that.
One of the things I love about my Twitter platform is that, in Greece, is that I get to tell part of the story of this country and Greece has such a compelling story. It has 2,500 years of history. It has, as I like to say, the world’s most famous building, the Acropolis. It has fantastic landscapes. It has an incredibly generous people. It has amazing heritage, food.
My kids keep telling me you have to be on Instagram, and if I did that, all I would put up is pictures of food all the time, because Greek food is so fantastic.
But it’s a way for me to help build bridges between Greece and the United States. And that’s part of my job as well.
Again, you’ve got to get the balance right.
I always say there are basically three, the U.S.-Greece relationship is a stool that sits on three pillars. One pillar is our business and economic ties. That’s a lot of what we’re doing at the Thessaloniki Fair this week. Another pillar is our defense, security, law enforcement, counterterrorism ties. That’s the USS Mount Whitney, and I hope everybody saw the ship out there, and if you didn’t see it, go on my Twitter and there’s this awesome picture of the Mount Whitney with Mount Olympus in the background as the sun set on Monday when it first came in. But we have a thriving and very important defense and security relationship between our two countries. And the third pillar is people to people, education and culture. The Diaspora, the media, what you all do.
And I think as Ambassador, I work the most on the first two, but the third is the one that acts as the long-term stabilizer. And if you look at American international relations around the world, our most enduring and strong relationships are those which have a strong foundation on that people to people pillar.
So again, everything that you all do becomes very important in that regard. A good question, thank you.
Okay. Good. Thank you very much, everybody. Have a great conference.
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