U.S. Says It Built Digital Programs Abroad With an Eye to Politics
By RON NIXONAPRIL 25, 2014
WASHINGTON — The United States built Twitter-like social media programs
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, like one in Cuba, that were aimed at
encouraging open political discussion, Obama administration officials
said Friday. But like the program in Cuba, which was widely ridiculed
when it became public this month, the services in Pakistan and
Afghanistan shut down after they ran out of money because the
administration could not make them self-sustaining.
In all three cases, American officials appeared to lack a long-term
strategy for the programs beyond providing money to start them.
Administration officials also said Friday that there had been similar
programs in dozens of other countries, including a Yes Youth Can project
in Kenya that was still active. Officials also said they had plans to
start projects in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Some programs operate openly
with the knowledge of foreign governments, but others have not been
The Kenya project, like the Cuba program, is the work of the United
States Agency for International Development. The projects in Afghanistan
and Pakistan were run by the State Department. All such programs have
come under greater scrutiny since the administration acknowledged the
existence of the Twitter-like program in Cuba, which ran from 2008 to
2012, when it abruptly ended, apparently because a $1.3 million contract
to start up the messaging system ran out of money.
The Associated Press, which first published a detailed article about the
Cuba program, reported that it was set up to encourage political dissent
on the island. But administration officials, while acknowledging that
they were discreet about the program when it existed, said it was set up
to provide Cubans with a platform to share ideas and exchange information.
Administration officials provided no information about the purpose and
scope of the Afghan program, which had not been previously disclosed. In
contrast, in 2009, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state,
announced the Pakistani program during a meeting with students in
Lahore, Pakistan. The State Department worked with Pakistani
telecommunications companies to create the network.
Called Humari Awaz or Our Voices, the program was run out of the office
of Richard C. Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan
and Pakistan, who died in 2010. The purpose of the program, according to
people who worked on it, was to provide a platform that used messaging
to help Pakistanis build mobile networks around their shared interests.
At its peak, State Department officials said, the program cost about $1
million and connected more than a million people who sent more than 350
million messages. Users of the service could sign up using their
personal information or remain anonymous.
The service was used by a diverse segment of Pakistani society,
according to people who ran the program. Farmers used it to share market
prices. News organizations used it to reach readers. People used it to
connect and share information such as cricket scores.
State Department officials enlisted the Pakistani government to promote
the social media program, which officials thought at the time might ease
mounting tensions between the two countries. The United States provided
billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan, but officials in both
the Obama and George W. Bush administrations have accused elements of
Pakistan's spy agency of supporting the Taliban. Many in the Pakistani
government have grown weary of American operations within its borders,
including drone strikes and the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Administration officials would not say when the Pakistani program ended
or what it ultimately accomplished.
In Kenya, the Yes Youth Can service started shortly after the disputed
2007 presidential election, which left more than 1,500 people dead after
gangs of unemployed youth linked to losing parties attacked voters.
The service allowed young people to send messages and use other tools to
organize into youth associations that helped them register to vote and
encouraged them to participate in the political process. American
officials credit the project with helping to pave the way for Kenya's
more peaceful 2013 presidential election.
The State Department and the United States Agency for International
Development have actively pushed for the use of social media programs
after seeing their successful use during the uprisings in Egypt and
Tunisia in 2010. Messaging was also used by protesters during the 2009
Iranian presidential election.
The Cuban project, which was called ZunZuneo, attracted 40,000
followers. The idea was to start the system with innocuous messaging,
like soccer scores, and then move on to the promotion of democracy. But
it shut down with no apparent effect on the Cuban government. Senator
Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, called the program "just dumb."
Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of
Government, who has researched the role of social media in public
participation, said tools like the ones used in Pakistan and Kenya could
be valuable to American diplomacy — up to a point.
"Only if it's transparent and if people understand who built the
platform and its purposes," he said. Otherwise, he said, referring to
the Cuban Twitter-like program, "you end up with the U.S.A.I.D. episode."
Source: U.S. Says It Built Digital Programs Abroad With an Eye to
Politics - NYTimes.com -