“WE use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” This was what an Egyptian said during the early, heady days of the Arab Spring. While it would be going too far to say that social media caused the Arab Spring, it did certainly facilitate it. In countries where information was strictly controlled by the state, the un-moderated and uncensored content and communication provided by social media was, and is, a game changer.
This wasn’t the first time communications technology has led to regime change. In the late 1990s, Indonesian dictator Suharto was brought low in large part thanks to the quick and unmonitored communication that newly established email services allowed his political opponents. A process that may have taken longer and been much trickier was thus speeded up. The same could be said for the Arab Spring.
Earlier this month, AP published an exposé on how USAID, backed by the State Department, funded an effort to create a version of Twitter for Cuba, which was “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government”. This now defunct platform, ZunZeo, would operate through mobile phones and, according to documents obtained by AP, would start with non-political messaging and then later introduce political content.
There were even references to using the network to organise “smart mobs” at short notice to help create a ‘Cuban Spring’ or, as a USAID document put it, help “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society”. Naturally, after the publication of the report there was a quick clarification from USAID, alleging inaccuracies in the AP report. Funnily enough, one of the corrections is that ZunZeo attracted 69,000, and not 40,000 users, as claimed by AP.
While USAID says there was nothing covert about it, a 2010 memo on the issue states: “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement.” All told, it was probably less costly than the Bay of Pigs, and less ‘Dr Evil’ than the plan to poison Castro’s cigars.
There’s now a Senate committee probing the issue, with one senator calling it “dumb, dumb, dumb” and another pointing out that this “is not what USAID should be doing”. At this point I’d like to mutter something about carrying out covert operations under the cover of vaccination programmes, but let’s leave that for another column.
The idea of controlling communications and information is one that makes just about every state, deep or otherwise, salivate. That many are unable to do so mainly depends on a lack of capability, or out of fear of the kind of pressure their relatively vibrant societies, and independent judiciaries, will subject them to.
Pulling the plug entirely, like North Korea has done, is not viable, and the Chinese model — or literally creating one’s own social media systems — is unaffordable for most. The Chinese approach requires China-sized coffers, and not many countries have those.
Similarly, to take the high road, as America has done, and simply monitor all communications taking place just about everywhere in the world, also requires a comparable level of expertise and infrastructure that would be needed to construct a small Death Star. To wit, only the Empire can do it.
Thus most leaders with authoritarian leanings, and whose nations already have significant numbers of netizens, opt to build, if not China’s Great Firewall, then at least a few fences. That’s what we saw in Turkey when Erdogan, stung by the social media-augmented Gezi protests, dubbed Twitter “the worst menace to society”, temporarily banned it and also pushed through internet censorship laws.
But such fences are flimsy, easy to jump over or cut holes in and in the end serve only to annoy and frustrate. Thus, you find that there’s a new approach being used. One of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Thus we find the rise of the ‘sponsored’ netizen, the ones whose purpose is to direct, and sometimes confuse, the debate.
Take South Korea for example, the National Intelligence Service of which is accused of sending 22 million Tweets from 2,270 Twitter accounts, in order to influence the presidential elections in favour of the winning candidate and now President Park Geun-hye. You don’t have to look too hard to find similar, yet far more bumbling, examples here at home.
For anyone who advocates an open internet, writing about such issues is hard, but not as hard as the situation covert projects like the ‘Cuban Twitter’ create. Such events simply give those who would deny us our right to information, our right to communicate, more fodder for their regressive actions. So next time, dear US, stick to the poisoned cigars and avoid poisoning our legitimate cause. Thanks.
The writer is a member of staff.