Science & Technology

Washington Funds Failed Twitter Clones Around the World

Apparently, the government isn't good at designing sustainable social networks.


The New York Times reports:

I didn't like the movie, but I do like the poster.

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….

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 hand is bugged.

If you haven't read the AP's original exposé of the Cuban program, you should; it makes the project sound like a weird mash-up of a failed covert op and a failed start-up. At one moment, the AP reporters note that the service's "subscribers were never aware…that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes," the sort of sentence that suggests Mark Zuckerberg has taken over the national security state. (Though that sort of spying is actually older than you might think. In 1959, for example, the U.S. Information Agency—the same department that funded the Cuba program—set up a public exhibition in Moscow that was, unbeknownst to its visitors, a total surveillance environment carrying out what amounted to a combination of psy-ops and market research.)

For a moment, looking for a silver lining in this story, I told myself that the world is better off if our rulers to try to exert themselves with this sort of soft power than if they use drones or other instruments that kill people. Then I remembered that they're actually doing both, so I can't even say that much. Meanwhile, the inability of these services to sustain themselves shows that they aren't working well on their own terms either. Turns out the government isn't very good at designing social networks. (According to the Times, officials claim that the Kenya project was an exception, crediting it "with helping to pave the way for Kenya's more peaceful 2013 presidential election." I'll keep an open mind—it's true that this one at least hasn't collapsed, and that there's more to it than just a faux-Twitter communication system—but I'm doubtful about that alleged effect.)

And when Washington tries to use these programs to foment a revolt, as the AP says it did in Cuba…well, I'll just quote something that Jack DuVall, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, told me a decade ago:

"You can't simply parachute Karl Rove into a country and manufacture a revolution." You need, he explains, a mass movement that's rooted in civil society, tuned to local conditions, and willing to take risks. Outside aid can be helpful. It can hurt the cause, too, by opening the rebels to charges of foreign manipulation or by fostering a dependence on grants. But in a successful insurrection, it plays a marginal role; change has to be built on the ground, not abroad.

Apparently, you can't just parachute in a Twitter clone either.

Bonus link: The CIA's role in bringing Doctor Zhivago to the Soviet Union.