Can Alphabet’s Jigsaw Solve Google’s Most Vexing Problems? Taking on ISIS, fake news, and toxic trolls
Can Alphabet’s Jigsaw Solve Google’s Most Vexing Problems?
Jared Cohen, CEO of Google offshoot Jigsaw, is taking on ISIS, fake news, and toxic trolls
BY AUSTIN CARR 10.22.17
Jared Cohen, the CEO of Jigsaw, surveyed the craggy valley from the back of a gray SUV as it wound toward the Khyber Pass, the mountainous roadway connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan that had become a hotbed of Islamic extremism. The arid landscape was beautiful, but Cohen, who is Jewish and was raised in an affluent Connecticut suburb, knew the excursion was risky. This was his fourth visit to Pakistan. Colleagues had told Cohen he was insane for going—his ransom insurance wouldn’t protect him against the frequent roadside bombs in the area—but he’d still decided to take a 12-hour flight to Dubai, where he caught a connection to Lahore and drove to Islamabad and then on to Peshawar, in the north of Pakistan. At the direction of Pakistan’s former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Cohen’s host, they rode in one car, with a security detail following a short distance behind to avoid attracting undo attention.
Around noon, they pulled into a village compound, where Cohen, 35, donned a robe and turban, and for the next four hours immersed himself in Pashtun issues. Through Rabbani Khar’s connections, he was able to meet with tribal leaders, clerics, smugglers, survivors of drone strikes—anyone who could help him better grasp the challenges crippling the region.
A Rhodes Scholar and former State Department policy wonk who worked under Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, Cohen is fluent in Swahili and has journeyed to 103 countries, often amid turmoil. Once, according to Cohen, he snuck into eastern Congo by hiding in a truck under a pile of bananas during the Great War of Africa. He tells me he’s been kicked out of Syria twice, and mentions he can’t go back to Cairo after conspiracy theories arose suggesting that he had a hand in the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
A self-described “investigative anthropological researcher,” Cohen was in Pakistan acting as an attaché for Jigsaw, the Alphabet subsidiary that defines itself as an incubator building “tools to make the world safer.” It evolved out of Google Ideas, an internal think tank Cohen cofounded in 2010 with Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and current Alphabet executive chairman, to address geopolitical challenges with technology. Facebook and Twitter helped spread free expression during the Arab Spring, and yet social media is also being used to disseminate messages of hate, with terrorist attacks coordinated on WhatsApp and beheadings aired on YouTube.
If there’s one core tenet of Cohen’s philosophy, it’s that you can’t solve these problems from behind a MacBook. Google prides itself on data and AI—and Jigsaw does as well—but Cohen’s company also leverages anecdotes and human intelligence to inform its products. Cohen and team have ventured to Iraq to interview ISIS defectors to learn about the group’s online messaging tactics, and to Macedonia to meet with trolls who traffic in social media disinformation.
With Alphabet’s engineering resources, Jigsaw translates this research into internet tools that combat hate speech, detect fake news, and defend against cyberattacks. Cohen’s eight-day visit to Pakistan in December provided firsthand insights into what methods extremists are now using to recruit new members online, which Jigsaw aims to circumvent using targeted advertising to counter terrorist propaganda. The trip also gave him a valuable network of new contacts, who were impressed an American business executive trekked so far despite the safety risks. “You have to be willing to show up,” Cohen tells me one day at a garden near his Manhattan apartment. “To them, I’m no longer some random person in the tech sector—I’m the guy who ate a lamb shank on their blanket five minutes from the AfPak border.”
Although Cohen’s mission sounds philanthropic, Jigsaw operates as a business, no different from any of Alphabet’s moonshots. Yet Cohen says there’s no stress on the group to generate a profit. For now, its value to the enterprise is the ancillary benefits of protecting Google’s myriad other businesses—Android, Gmail, YouTube—from the world’s worst digital threats. And if, in the process, Jigsaw can help address some of the most acute unintended consequences of digital communication, all the better. “I don’t think it’s fair to ask the government to solve all these problems—they don’t have the resources,” says Schmidt. “The tech industry has a responsibility to get this right.”
Jigsaw’s headquarters are located on the second floor of Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, reached by a locked stairwell entrance near a gelato stand. Not even Googlers have key-card access. Inside are the typical trappings of an Alphabet-funded space—plush noise-canceling work pods and fruit-flavored Hint water—but Cohen has subverted the usual playful themes: Conference rooms here are named for oppressive states like North Korea and Belarus.
When I meet Cohen in his office one morning in early August, he’s wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, hunched over his desk with a life-size wax figure of Theodore Roosevelt looking over his shoulder. Cohen, who has black curly hair and the ever-unshaven look of a harried hedge-fund analyst, is obsessed with American presidential history. He is working on a book about transitions of White House power, and his two-room office is a shrine of POTUS bric-a-brac, along with propaganda posters he’s collected during his travels to Pyongyang and Iran and photos of him with world leaders, including Pope Francis and King Abdullah of Jordan.
It’s increasingly rare to find Cohen at the office. With two young daughters and a life spent juggling global summits and foreign travel, Cohen’s schedule is hectic. Friends describe him as a cross between Tintin and Dos Equis’s Most Interesting Man, who might be found at the gym in Chelsea with his artist-buddy Jeff Koons, or falcon hunting with his wife in the UAE. Dana Perino, the Fox News commentator and former White House press secretary, jokes that he’s the personification of #goals, the millennial hashtag that denotes life aspirations. “He’s climbing in the Grand Tetons one day and by the weekend he’s taking his girls to get a pedicure,” Perino says. Arianna Huffington, another close friend, says, “With Jared, there’s never a moment you run out of things to talk about: He can cover everything from how to put your baby to sleep to how to deal with cyberterrorists.”
Cohen’s jet-setting joie de vivre has helped him build an eclectic Rolodex, but it’s also instrumental to how he learns. “Jared’s never been some tea-sipping diplomat who learns from a leather chair,” says Alec Ross, the Maryland gubernatorial candidate who overlapped with Cohen at the State Department. “He’s happiest landing in conflict zones where half the people around him want to take him for ransom and the other half want him dead.”
Cohen grew up traveling. His artist mother and psychologist father took him on trips to the Middle East and Africa. Once, on a trip to Egypt when he was 10, his parents lost him in a crowded section of Giza and found him moments later atop a stranger’s camel. He was a nerdy kid, with a severe facial twitch that made him self-conscious enough to feel he had to excel at sports in high school in order to avoid getting made fun of (he was an all-state soccer goalie), but travel was his favorite extracurricular, and during high school he spent summers living with host families in Thailand and Tanzania.
By the time he got to Stanford, his twitch had gone away, and his frat brothers mostly remember Cohen as an affable guy, though not without quirks: His TV was set 24/7 to the news, and he painted large murals depicting the Rwandan genocide that decorated the common area of Theta Delta Chi. He always seemed to be planning his next adventure, like the one where he spent part of his freshman-year summer with the Maasai people of Kenya, herding sheep and at times living off a mixture of goat milk and iron-rich dirt. “You have to be a 19-year-old to think that’s a good idea,” Cohen laughs.
In 2003, he won a coveted Rhodes Scholarship and punctuated his two years at Oxford doing research trips to the Middle East. In Iran, he encountered youths using mobile devices and Bluetooth to skirt the society’s rigid rules, his first taste of disruptive technology in an autocratic country. His research (which led to his second book, Children of Jihad) impressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who hired him at 24 to join her staff.
During his four years at the State Department, Cohen earned a reputation for being brash, leading envoys to increasingly hostile areas to talk with unlikely characters—gangsters, prisoners, pirates—even when it went against standard protocol. After discovering how tech-savvy activists were using Facebook to organize protests against the longtime insurgent group FARC, Cohen ventured to Colombia to meet with them—likely the first diplomatic channel established on a social network in U.S. government history, he jokes—and soon found himself opposite President George W. Bush in a two-hour briefing on the global war on terror. When Cohen presented his findings, he recalls, Bush “looked up, then at Condi, then at Cheney, and then back at me and said, ‘That’s awesome.’ ”
Cohen appeared on The Colbert Report at 26 following a New Yorker profile, and some career foreign service officers resented his rising status, viewing his ideas about technology as naive. (Cohen would tell colleagues he was determined to push the State Department to a point where he could mention Twitter in meetings without getting laughed at.) But even his eye-rolling detractors admit he was uncannily smart, and his supporters felt he was empathetic and egoless. “Jared looks at things with new eyes,” says Secretary Rice. “He would come into my office and say, ‘I have an idea, but it might be stupid.’ I remember saying, ‘Jared, don’t start your presentation that way.’ ”
Staying on through the transition to the Obama administration, Cohen continued his work under Secretary Hillary Clinton—until he almost lost his job. In June 2009, as street demonstrations were heating up in reaction to the Iranian presidential election, Cohen caught wind that Twitter would be pausing its service for maintenance. Concerned that the move might quash the viral spread of protests in Tehran, Cohen reached out to Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and urged him to postpone the shutdown. Obama administration officials were livid—Cohen’s action appeared to violate the administration’s policy of non-interference—and, after the story landed in The New York Times, recalls Ross, then a senior adviser to Clinton, President Obama is said to have fumed aloud, “Who is Jared Cohen, and why haven’t we fired him yet?”
Clinton protected Cohen, and the incident eventually became a shining example of what her team was beginning to refer to as “21st-century statecraft,” a paradigm shift in diplomacy that encouraged taking advantage of growing digital influences to shape modern geopolitics. By that point, Cohen and Ross had started organizing what they called tech delegations to see what Silicon Valley and Washington could accomplish together overseas. They corralled technology leaders like Dorsey, prominent VC Shervin Pishevar, and Mitchell Baker of Mozilla to visit places ranging from Syria and Mexico to Pakistan and Congo.
What Cohen reveled in most was the business world’s lack of government constraints, as he witnessed on a 2010 trip to Russia with then–eBay CEO John Donahoe. “We were there to discuss corruption and free speech—you can imagine how far that gets diplomat to diplomat,” Cohen says, recalling that Donahoe announced that Russia was too corrupt for eBay to conduct business there. “Suddenly the Russian deputy prime minister wants to follow [Donahoe] all the way to the airport to have another conversation.”
On the very first “techdel,” Cohen brought Eric Schmidt to Iraq, where the two bonded while wearing flak jackets. Cohen was mesmerized by Schmidt’s intellect and ability to suggest ideas unlikely to have occurred to anyone from the State Department. “Eric was asking things like, ‘Why aren’t you laying fiber-optic cables underneath roads when you’re paving them?’ ” Cohen recalls. “ ’Why are you investing in low-orbit satellite when everyone is going to be using mobile phones soon?’ ”
About a year later, during lunch at Dos Caminos in New York, Schmidt convinced Cohen to join Google. Schmidt didn’t exactly know what they would do together, but he knew he wanted to invest in Cohen. Schmidt recalls thinking that Cohen had a “scalable mind,” one that would be of consequence. “People like Jared make things happen,” he says. “You want to work with him, for him—to be in his orbit.” The two soon launched Google Ideas, labeling it a “think/do tank,” a corny name that led early employees to overemphasize the dooooo part loudly, out of fear that it would become just another ivory tower. “I thought this was going to be an arm’s-length academic exercise,” says Yasmin Green, an early Ideas employee, whom Cohen recruited from Google’s business focused on sub-Saharan Africa.
Sources familiar with the group’s evolution say that Google Ideas was a hodgepodge of people brainstorming pie-in-the-sky concepts, and many expected Cohen to start churning out white papers on net neutrality and other hot-button policy issues at any moment to justify the group’s existence. “It was rocky going at first, but he stayed the course,” says New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter, Cohen’s boss at the State Department who originally introduced him to Schmidt.
Cohen was still maturing as a leader and growing accustomed to an even higher-flying life under the wing of Schmidt, and he wasn’t afraid to tell employees in weekly meetings about his struggles as a manager. “So many people [I know] just want to figure out how they can make a billion dollars and run the world, but Jared is not about that at all—he has real values,” says Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, who says Cohen would reach out to ask if he was “screwing up” and would “agonize” when he felt he got something wrong. “Five years ago, Jared was much more like, ‘What do I do? Who do I meet?’ But he’s really grown comfortable in his own skin,” Bremmer says.
Many attribute Cohen’s growing confidence to Schmidt’s tutelage, especially as the two embarked on writing a book together. For research, they traveled to more than 35 countries and developed a close relationship. They’d sit opposite each other on laptops punching out bullet points on Google Docs, detailing their trips to Libya and North Korea. Cohen remembers a time in Pakistan when Schmidt sat down with the Pakistani army’s chain-smoking chief of staff, and the two sized each other up in silence through plumes of smoke before Schmidt deftly maneuvered the conversation forward. “Eric has this diplomatic craft where he will say things like, ‘I apologize for asking this question—please help me understand,’ ” an informal deference that disarms people who might expect condescension, Cohen says. “If I ever go back into government, that’s the kind of diplomat I want to be.” When I ask what the two did for fun, Cohen responds, “Oh, well, when Eric travels, he likes to go see data centers.”
Cohen and Schmidt’s book, The New Digital Age, appeared in 2013, with glowing blurbs from Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. It predicts how technology will make the future more utopian in some ways and more dystopian in others. It could easily double as an internal memo that details how many of the search giant’s pervasive products—including YouTube and Gmail—have inevitably become entwined in geopolitical issues, good and bad. “What Lockheed Martin was to the twentieth century, technology and cyber-security companies will be to the twenty-first,” the two wrote. But Lockheed Martin creates products, and to have a true impact Ideas would need to move in that direction—toward what would soon become Jigsaw. “That’s when it became more than just a marketing campaign,” Schmidt says.
Cohen and Schmidt had witnessed the power of internet activism during the Arab Spring, when Wael Ghonim, then Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, used Facebook to help organize rallies against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and became an influential symbol in the protests. “[Google cofounder] Sergey [Brin] was really interested in why it was being referred to as the ‘Facebook Revolution,’ ” recalls Scott Carpenter, Jigsaw’s managing director. If they had created the right products, could it have been the “Google Revolution” instead?
When Cohen and Schmidt wrote in their book that the tech world ought to be ready for the next 5 billion people coming online in developing or oppressed countries, they clearly meant the next 5 billion consumers. What happens if Alphabet (or other American tech companies) don’t prepare? Just look at the strides Shenzhen-based tech giant Huawei has made in the Middle East and Africa, spreading what Cohen and Schmidt call China’s sphere of online influence. “For the countries not connected yet, they’re either going to get built out with Chinese technology,” explains Cohen, “or they’re going to get built out with more democratic technology.” That is, tech from Google—or one of its Western competitors.
Case in point: Cuba. In June 2014, Cohen and Schmidt traveled to meet with Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez. With coordination and encouragement from White House officials, they arrived in Havana to promote internet freedom, but Cohen says he also brought a list of Google products that weren’t available because of sanctions. “Within four months, we got Earth, Picasa, Chrome, and Google Analytics available in Cuba,” says Cohen, who insists he wasn’t aware of the Obama administration’s ambitions to end the embargo, but the timing of their visit left Google in a good place to reap the benefits. “When the announcement came, we had many more open doors of people in Cuba who were interested in talking to us, because they remembered that we showed up when it was unpopular.”
Some see Jigsaw’s efforts to effect geopolitical change as a libertarian fantasy, a privatized version of the State Department with unprecedented power. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange went so far as to suggest that Cohen is Google’s “director of regime change” who builds power in “endless soirees for the cross-fertilization of influence between elites and their vassals, under the pious rubric of ‘civil society.’ ” Google has a long history of government involvement—the National Science Foundation helped fund Brin and cofounder Larry Page’s earliest research on organizing the world’s information while they were still students at Stanford—and the company has reportedly served as a contractor for government agencies since blossoming into a multinational corporation.
But there’s been an evolution in the relationship between Silicon Valley and Washington. “There was this rocky period where the government was waking up to the Valley’s importance but still had this attitude of bossing it around, like, ‘You have to do this! And take down this terrorist content! And XYZ!’ ” says the World Economic Forum’s Zvika Krieger, who established the State Department’s first office in Silicon Valley. “Then it became, ‘No, [tech companies] don’t. We don’t work for you.’ And so it quickly evolved from a head-butting, adversarial relationship to a recognition that government doesn’t have a monopoly on impact.”
Edward Snowden also signaled a major turning point in this power dynamic. Snowden’s leaks of sweeping U.S. spy activities revealed the extent to which firms such as Google had been vulnerable to NSA hacking. These revelations, Carpenter says, built “mistrust” between the tech community and Washington, adding that Alphabet doesn’t want to be seen as an AT&T or MCI, the telecom giants that had a longtime relationship with the NSA and proved key to the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping initiatives. “After Snowden,” Carpenter says, “[Alphabet] does not think of itself all the time as an American company, but a global company.”
The company’s relationship with the White House has only worsened under President Trump—Jigsaw doesn’t have many connections within Rex Tillerson’s stripped-down State Department, which has curtailed its Silicon Valley operations, according to two knowledgeable sources. Although Cohen says Jigsaw is still willing to work with the White House on areas where their values align, he stresses that Jigsaw “isn’t doing the bidding of governments. We’re not doing these things because somebody in a dark suit and dark sunglasses told us to.”
Establishing a clear Alphabet doctrine—the goals, the limits, the moral groundwork for the global company—is now at the heart of Cohen’s post. Cohen’s supporters argue that, with his unique pedigree, he’s the best person to lead the charge, especially if other tech companies follow suit. “[Silicon Valley] has immense power, in many ways unchecked,” says Admiral James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme allied commander and current dean of Tufts’s graduate school of international affairs, who is a mentor to Cohen. “But that’s why you need responsible people like Jared, who understand how to stand on the right side of the line and not take a private effort too far.”
Schmidt says that “there are limits to what we can do—we’re not a country, though we certainly have influence. We’re trying to promote what we consider to be the values of the internet.” Of course, Schmidt is downplaying the ultimate effect of these kinds of efforts. In a 2014 public discussion with Cohen at Stanford, Schmidt talked about the importance of bringing the internet to repressed places like Pyongyang, which he thought would lead the populace to question the autocracy. “All we have to do is get a little doubt in, and that country will fall over,” he said of North Korea.
Days after visiting Cohen in his office, I squeeze into a product meeting down the hall, in a tiny nook with two rows of shelf seating. A team leader clicks through slides on the screen at the front of the room detailing a Jigsaw group’s recent Nairobi trip, which coincided with the Kenyan presidential election and involved excursions into Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums, to investigate how residents were utilizing technology and dealing with online censorship and fake news. The group references how they bumped into a Facebook team in Nairobi—a sign that Jigsaw isn’t alone in its interest in these spaces—and attendees hurl out questions throughout the discussion, asking about the impact of products like YouTube, Google Maps, WhatsApp, and Twitter, and posing questions such as “What’s the UX of going to vote in Kenya?”
Jigsaw’s employees are a mix of engineers and researchers, who have built out a portfolio of more than a dozen products. Since Alphabet spun out Ideas and rebranded it Jigsaw, in February 2016, Cohen has narrowed the company’s focus to geopolitical issues that present both a complex engineering challenge as well as a direct security threat. Montage, for example, is a tool that crowdsources analysis of YouTube footage from conflict zones to identify evidence of war crimes. Another, Perspective, which launched earlier this year, employs machine learning to filter out toxic language online and is now utilized by The New York Times.
The company is under no pressure to charge for these products yet—the team says they’d like to get to breakeven—but they’re already delivering value for other Google properties, whether by cleaning up content on YouTube or making popular Android apps (like that of The New York Times) more usable. Another product that Jigsaw developed, to help activists and journalists in autocratic countries thwart phishing attacks, led to improved security measures on Gmail and Chrome. “I can’t think of a single thing we’re working on where there is not some part of Google that we’re either learning from or sharing our knowledge with,” Cohen says.
And therein lies Jigsaw’s true ROI. If virulent toxicity and cybersecurity problems continue to infect tech’s biggest platforms, they could represent an existential threat to Silicon Valley’s bottom line. “A lot of these issues are driving at [tech’s] core business interests,” says the WEF’s Krieger. “If Facebook and Google become havens for extremist speech, bullying, terrorist content, fake news, videos of beheadings—then they become platforms nobody wants to spend time on.”
In many ways, this new reality has already arrived. The Jigsaw team didn’t have to travel to Kenya to find chaos. Around the time I joined their meeting, Trump threatened nuclear war with Kim Jong-un via Twitter, and the U.S. was still reeling from the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, fueled by white supremacists who used Facebook and YouTube to foment anger. And a Google employee named James Damore tested the company’s appetite for free expression, writing a memo that parroted gender stereotypes, which went viral and got him fired. Soon, right-wing organizations were promoting protests against the so-called Goolag.
Cohen is careful not to talk about Trump or explain how the U.S. presidential election has changed Jigsaw’s approach. Yasmin Green, who was born in Iran and is one of many living in the U.S. who stand to be affected by proposed travel bans, explains that it doesn’t do Jigsaw any favors to talk about politics. Strategically, it makes more sense for the company to focus on the problem behind the problem—that is, state-sponsored networked propaganda—rather than, say, Trump. “If you become consumed with the politics or the actor, you’re really missing the opportunity,” she says.
But sources close to Cohen say Trump has obviously changed the Jigsaw calculus. Even Schmidt acknowledges that the two made a significant error in not grasping sooner “the extent to which governments—essentially what the Russians did—would use hacking to control the information space,” adding that Jigsaw is now “looking at the technology behind information warfare. I worry that the Russians in 2020 will have a lot more powerful tools.”
Jigsaw’s current political position is somewhat precarious since the Breitbart crowd may regard Jigsaw’s core mission as a direct affront to Trump, whose ascent benefited from the kind of misinformation and distortion campaigns Jigsaw stands to challenge. Eurasia Group’s Bremmer says that Trump’s election “makes Alphabet more vulnerable” to criticism and scrutiny from the White House. “Alphabet and Jigsaw want to make it impossible to allow people to manipulate search, to manipulate news, to manipulate facts,” Bremmer explains. “And that is deeply problematic to Trump.”
As if the political landscape weren’t tricky enough, Jigsaw also faces challenges navigating the minefield of Alphabet’s own shareholder interests. This past summer, New America CEO Slaughter fired a scholar at the think tank not long after he praised the EU for leveling a $2.7 billion antitrust fine against Google. Schmidt, who has provided significant funding to New America and served as its chair until 2016, had expressed displeasure about the scholar to Slaughter, the type of corporate strong-arming that appears to conflict with Jigsaw’s ideals about the free flow of information and its moonshot goal of ending online censorship. Schmidt and Cohen avoid directly responding to the controversy. When I ask about the connotations of a powerful corporation influencing these types of issues, Schmidt interrupts, “I don’t agree with you, with your choice of words. I want to be clear: We’re not trying to influence outcomes with Jigsaw.”
The common concern about Alphabet is that it has grown too powerful, and that Jigsaw, by extension, represents a potential new digital form of imperialism. Yet throughout my reporting, the chief criticism I heard is that Jigsaw’s accomplishments are thin and that the jury is still out on the efficacy of its products. It’s hard to reconcile that Jigsaw is supposedly tackling the world’s nastiest problems yet has just around 60 employees. If Alphabet truly believes in Cohen’s mission, shouldn’t it be investing more resources into Jigsaw than it has in its efforts in virtual reality or TV streaming? Unless it does, Jigsaw could prove nothing more than a form of digital tourism, with Cohen as the chief tour guide.
Cohen is used to this criticism. He’s faced cynicism throughout his career that his work melding diplomacy and technology is superficial. “Jared has always had a knack for being in the right place at the time, riding one zeitgeist to the next,” says one of his harsher critics. But the problems Jigsaw is going after are real, and so too are the consequences if it doesn’t. “[In the coming years,] there will be a lot more pressure—a moral sense of obligation—on Silicon Valley to [solve] these problems,” Secretary Rice says. “I hope they’re willing to fix them, because the worst thing that can happen is that the government just starts regulating things it doesn’t understand.”
It’s true Cohen sometimes seems as if he’s a character in a Salman Rushdie novel, appearing at pivotal points in a country’s history—in Tunisia right after the revolution, in Libya after Muammar el-Qaddafi’s death, in Tanzania right before the embassies were bombed. But his face lights up with a genuine elation when he talks about the people he’s met in his travels—about what he’s learned and the positive influence he hopes to have on them, from the women he’s interviewed who have escaped the clutches of the Taliban to endangered activists in Syria who have become his close friends. “In the rawest sense, I feel like I was put on earth to do these things,” he says. “It’s how I understand the world’s problems.”
On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea, Cohen visited with the people of Chimbu, a remote and mountainous province where the indigenous tribesmen coat themselves from head to toe in skeleton war paint. The macabre makeup was originally meant to scare off rival tribes—now it’s more for show—and Cohen couldn’t resist asking to join in their ritual skeleton dance. Stripping down to a grass belt, the natives used their fingers to smear charcoal on his body and face, shrouding his eyes in orbs of black, and rubbed white dye made from clay on him in the shape of bones and teeth. Cohen, of course, looked ridiculous, but it didn’t matter. It helped him see through their eyes. Cohen’s guide told him he was likely the first American to participate in their tradition, which the locals apparently appreciated. Even after the ceremony was over, Cohen kept the mask on. As he drove back to the nearest town, local boys and girls would run alongside his car, pointing and laughing hysterically at the scary-looking foreigner. Cohen just smiled back and kept on moving.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine.