The emerging dark side of social networks


“Cuban Twitter” was a troubling communications network designed to undermine the government in Cuba. It was built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

We’ve all heard how social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube help to spread democracy around the world by mobilizing the masses and making it easier to topple dictators. Now, we’re now seeing a darker side to them. In some cases, they’re being co-opted by governments as disinformation tools, used by authoritarian regimes to crack down on Internet dissenters, and even being used as part of digital Black Ops by the United States in places like Cuba.

The story of “fake Cuban Twitter” is especially disconcerting — we’re talking about a digital Bay of Pigs, in which the U.S. State Department, working through USAID, actively worked to create a Twitter-like social network (ZunZuneo) to engage the local Cuban population in order to topple the Castro regime. At one point, nearly 40,000 Cubans had signed up for the ZunZuneo network. To make the fantasy real, the U.S. government created an elaborate system of shell companies and foreign bank accounts to make sure that the Cubans bought into the whole system.

In other cases, social networks are being used as part and parcel of government disinformation campaigns to co-opt opposition movements – sometimes by the U.S. government and its allies. In February, controversial journalist Glenn Greenwald outlined all the dirty tricks and covert operations being used by Western covert agents on the Internet. If you know that your opponents are hanging out on YouTube all day, the thinking goes, that’s the place to crack down on dissenters. The list of tactics involved include everything from laying digital honey traps to crafting elaborate attempts to destroy online social reputation. As Greenwald notes, “These [Western intelligence] agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the Internet itself.”

In countries such as Egypt and Turkey, data from social networks is being used to find exact locations of protesters based on GPS locations or to track down the IP addresses of Internet users the government wants to discipline. The question now is to what degree Western know-how is being used to facilitate these actions. In the latest scandal over the Turkish government shutting down YouTube and Twitter for extended periods of time, could foreign officials have played a role in ensuring that local elections went on as planned March 30 without backlash from the “Turkish street?”

This emerging dark side of social networks has enormous implications for how America conducts its diplomatic business abroad. Ever since Hillary Clinton launched “21st century statecraft” for the U.S. State Department, there’s been a push to use Internet freedom as a rallying cry for the United States to win over friends and gain influence across the globe. Terms like “digital statecraft” and “e-diplomacy” are commonplace these days – not just for America, but also for nations that would like to emulate America’s ability to project power around the world. At little or no cost, social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube made it possible to spread the message that America was the land of baseball, apple pie and democracy for all.

But you can see where all this headed. The more that social networks are seen to be doing the bidding of the NSA and the CIA (and proxy organizations such as USAID) in terms of gathering and mobilizing the masses against governments, the less effective they are in sharing American values abroad. If the American way of life includes getting spied on by your government and having your online privacy and personal data compromised for political gain, is that something you can use to win over hearts and minds in foreign lands? As Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic pointed out in a tell-all about fake Cuban Twitter, this is already the case in places such as Pakistan, where a free mobile phone-based social network set up by generous American benefactors in 2009 turned out to be an elaborate State Department ruse to monitor the communication of Pakistanis.

In fairness to these social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, they are fighting back and taking a public stance against government’s ability to use them for monitoring of personal communications. They no doubt realize that the backlash against the NSA and its intelligence-gathering across the globe mean that future trust in Silicon Valley could be eroded forever. Most notably, Mark Zuckerberg called on President Obama to stop using the NSA to monitor the affairs of the social network’s one billion users. But that doesn’t stop the U.S. government from creating a “fake Twitter” or “fake Facebook,” does it?

It shouldn’t take Edward Snowden appearing as a giant talking head at SXSW to tell everyone how governments are “setting fire to the future of the Internet.” And it shouldn’t take Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) chiding Congress for a “dumb, dumb, dumb” attempt at covert operations in Cuba. It’s not only that Silicon Valley can erode the trust of Internet users: The United States might end up eroding the trust of citizens around the globe who once thought of the United States as the home of democracy and progress.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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