Monday, May 27, 2024
Main Menu

US social media programs fail in Cuba

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 publicly disclosed.
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 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.”

Comments are Closed