A Senate report released in October 2011 urging the US government to expand the use of social media as a foreign policy tool in Latin America offers another warning for activists seduced by the idea of technology and social media as an indispensable tool for social change.
In this past year as the world witnessed uprisings from Santiago to Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square, social media has been lauded as a weapon of mass mobilization. Paul Mason, a BBC correspondent, wrote in his new book published this month Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, (excerpted in the Guardian) that this new communications technology was a “crucial” contributing factor to these revolutionary times. Nobel peace laureate and Burmese human rights campaigner, Aung San Suu Kyi, pointed out in a lecture in June that this “communications revolution…not only enabled [Tunisians] to better organize and co-ordinate their movements, it kept the attention of the whole world firmly focused on them.” CNN even ran an article comparing Facebook to “democracy in action”, while Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was imprisoned in Egypt for starting a Facebook page told Wolf Blitzer that the revolution in Egypt “started on Facebook” and that he wanted to “meet Mark Zuckerberg some day and thank him personally.”
While the positive contributions of technology to social movements and uprisings have been been amply noted, if not overstated, more attention needs to be paid to the intrinsic dangers looming in the co-optation of this technology-driven networking, specifically by Washington, but by other repressive governments as well.
Clay Shirkey, professor of New Media at New York University, wrote in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs that “the state is gaining increasingly sophisticated means of monitoring, interdicting, or co-opting these tools.”
The Dangers of Digital Diplomacy
The Senate report, “Latin American Governments Need to ‘Friend’ Social Media and Technology” was written at the request of U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) in order to assess the U.S. Department of State’s use of digital diplomacy.
“Despite Latin America’s broad social and economic progress, many countries in the region still face challenges to democracy similar to those recently seen in the Middle East,” wrote Lugar in the introduction to the report. “In the extreme cases, countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua are led by authoritarian leaders who curtail civil and political freedoms.”
The report urges improving internet infrastructure in the region, along with expanding the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter as essential in order to advance Washington’s foreign policy interests. This is also identified as a way to reassert Washington’s influence in a part of the world where it has been perceived to be waning since the Bush Administration and the subsequent rise of center-left governments in the region.
“In particular, the characteristics of Latin American social media use and engagement of connectivity resources…indicate that this area could be primed for substantial positive change in a manner similar in nature, if not in process, to that recently observed in the Middle East,” the report states.
The right-leaning journal Americas Quarterly praises this “smart idea” calling it “an innovative strategy to advance U.S. goals”, one of them being the need to “ramp up our data collection and research on the impact of social media and technology on fostering democracy in the region, particularly Venezuela.”
This all falls under what has been dubbed 21st Century Statecraft, the brainchild of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Traditional forms of diplomacy still dominate, but 21st-century statecraft is not mere corporate re-branding—swapping tweets for broadcasts. It represents a shift in form and in strategy—a way to amplify traditional diplomatic efforts, develop tech-based policy solutions and encourage cyberactivism,” explains the New York Times in a July 2010 article.
Described as a “marriage of Silicon Valley and the State Department,” Washington has turned to “Software engineers, entrepreneurs and tech C.E.O.’s…to think of unconventional ways to shore up democracy and spur development” abroad.
“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does,” said Clinton in a speech on internet freedom in January 2010.
In August 2011 the Washington Post reported findings by the Lowy Institute for International Policy which show that U.S. State Department officials now operate some 230 Facebook accounts, 80 Twitter feeds, 55 YouTube channels and 40 pages on Flickr.
But Judith McHale, former under secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, gave a more honest assessment in March 2011 of what’s driving the State Department’s new initiative, stripped of the flowery and misleading language of freedom and democracy.
“New media and connective technologies enhance our ability to listen…Social media provides new ways for us to keep our ear to the ground,” said McHale. “Of course, we are not interested in developing social media platforms for the sake of having them. We are interested in applying social media to promote our strategic objectives in the Americas.”
But as history has shown, Washington’s strategic interests are often antithetical to freedom and human rights. And it is naïve to think that the State Department would be conducting this form of diplomacy in “a principled and regime-neutral fashion,” as intellectual apologists like Anne-Marie Slaughter may profess. And in Latin America, ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) countries are undoubtedly in Washington’s cross-hairs.
During a June 30, 2011 Senate hearing,“The State of Democracy in the Americas”, Senator Lugar asked Roberta Jacobson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of the Western Hemisphere at the time, to name programs specifically targeting ALBA countries. Jackson noted in her answer that the “Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has programs that support media training in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador; these programs address the use and impact of social media, along with traditional topics such as independent journalism, investigative reporting, and overcoming self-censorship.”
All of these countries have democratically-elected governments, and while they all are struggling in varying ways to build stronger democratic institutions and to translate democratic rhetoric into functioning policy, Washington’s meddling in internal affairs through 21st Century Statecraft is dangerous for social movements and democratic activists.
The Social Networking Counterinsurgency
On February 3, 2011 the Senate held a hearing examining US intelligence agencies’ alleged lack of anticipation of the uprisings in Egypt. Afterwards, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said “she was particularly concerned that the CIA and other agencies had ignored open-source intelligence on the protests, a reference to posts on Facebook and other publicly accessible Web sites used by organizers of the protests against the Mubarak government,” the Washington Post reported. The CIA has an Open Source Center, where analysts based in a headquarters in an undisclosed location in Virginia, along with analysts in working in U.S. Embassies (“to get a step closer to their subjects”) throughout the world monitor as many as millions of tweets per day, along with Facebook updates and other open source media outlets.
Wired Magazine reported in July that the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) unveiled its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. Wired’s Adam Rawnsley points out:
It’s an attempt to get better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media. SMISC has two goals. First, the program needs to help the military better understand what’s going on in social media in real time — particularly in areas where troops are deployed. Second, Darpa wants SMISC to help the military play the social media propaganda game itself…SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on social media, figure out who’s behind it and what.
Furthermore, the military solicited contracts for the development of software to create fake Facebook personas, to be “replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent,” the Raw Story reported in February. Private security contractor HB Gary has already been exposed for doing such a thing on behalf of the US Chamber of Commerce as a way to “infiltrate left-leaning groups” in the country, as ThinkProgress revealed last year courtesy of 75,000 private company emails provided by the hactivst group Anonymous.
These strategies are particularly cynical given the following passage from Lugar’s Senate report:
Collaborators of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela recently hacked the Twitter accounts of opposition activists. Staff strongly believes that this example indicates how policy needs to take into consideration the extent repressive governments will take to silence democratic voices using this technology.
What officials seem to be saying is: never-mind what happens in this country. The fact that the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring “social media sites, blogs, and forums throughout the world” isn’t important. And while US corporations are selling surveillance systems to repressive regimes, that’s just the free-market supply and demand economics at work.
And even if, “What elevated the [Occupy Wall Street] activism to a national and global movement, though, was the sophisticated and widespread use of social media,” as Betty Yu, national organizer at the Center for Media Justice, wrote last month, these same tools can, and are, being used to monitor, undermine and co-opt these and similar movements.
So if Washington approaches Latin American governments with aid for internet infrastructure and training, citizens and governments should approach this as a very loaded Trojan Horse.