The United States quietly supported dozens of social media networks around the world in an effort to promote political discourse in countries in the Middle East and Africa, The New York Times reported.
Like the “Cuban Twitter” social media site ZunZuneo, uncovered by the Associated Press in April, the programs were secretly run by the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kenya, with plans to start sites in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. ZunZuneo gained 40,000 users during its run from 2008 to 2012, while the Pakistan program drew over a million users who traded upwards of 350 million messages. All of the programs except Afghanistan’s Paywast and Kenya’s Yes Youth Can projects were shut down because they ran out of funding. Some of the programs were run with the permission of foreign governments, while others were covert. The Obama Administration released details of the other U.S.-backed Twitter-like sites Friday.
The U.S. started running these Twitter-like sites soon after the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010. Social media platforms, namely Twitter and Facebook, played a crucial role in the Arab Spring’s months-long protests that eventually upended the regime of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. Through social media, news of the protests spread like wildfire, helping gain worldwide support and accelerating the protests. In fact, the main reason the uprisings were successful was because it broadcast the protests in real time for the world to see, even though most Egyptians weren’t online, according to a Pew Research report from 2012.
The Arab Spring’s use of social media also showed how the platforms unite groups across class and demographics that would otherwise stay segregated. “Social media is a key driver, was [a] game changer in Egypt primarily because it bridged the gap between social classes thus for the first time creating a much larger united anti-government front that included rich and poor,” News Group wrote in its analysis of the events.
Similar to Tahrir Square protesters, protesters in Ukraine’s Maidan Square used social media to notify others of their movements and share tactics to increase their numbers. Dissenters could project what they were seeing or thinking without the filter of traditional, often state-run news outlets.
Governments have punished people who speak out on Twitter or other social platforms to quell healthy discourse. Turkey banned Twitter in March before its elections after its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was named in several corruption scandals right before local elections. Ukraine’s draconian Internet law banned several websites, including many social media sites. But as in the case of Turkey’s failed Twitter ban, users simply switch programs or find other ways to circumvent censorship.