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Decline 'Friend' Request: Social Media Meets 21st Century Statecraft in Latin America

By       Message Cyril Mychalejko     Permalink
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"New media and connective technologies enhance our ability to listen...Social media provides new ways for us to keep our ear to the ground," said McHale . "Of course, we are not interested in developing social media platforms for the sake of having them. We are interested in applying social media to promote our strategic objectives in the Americas."

But as history has shown , Washington's strategic interests are often antithetical to freedom and human rights. And it is naïve to think that the State Department would be conducting this form of diplomacy in "a principled and regime-neutral fashion," as intellectual apologists like Anne-Marie Slaughter may profess. And in Latin America, ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) countries are undoubtedly in Washington's cross-hairs.

During a June 30, 2011 Senate hearing, "The State of Democracy in the Americas" , Senator Lugar asked Roberta Jacobson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of the Western Hemisphere at the time, to name programs specifically targeting ALBA countries. Jackson noted in her answer that the "Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has programs that support media training in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador; these programs address the use and impact of social media, along with traditional topics such as independent journalism, investigative reporting, and overcoming self-censorship."

All of these countries have democratically-elected governments, and while they all are struggling in varying ways to build stronger democratic institutions and to translate democratic rhetoric into functioning policy, Washington's meddling in internal affairs through 21st Century Statecraft is dangerous for social movements and democratic activists.

The Social Networking Counterinsurgency

On February 3, 2011 the Senate held a hearing examining US intelligence agencies' alleged lack of anticipation of the uprisings in Egypt. Afterwards, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, "said she was particularly concerned that the CIA and other agencies had ignored open-source intelligence on the protests, a reference to posts on Facebook and other publicly accessible Web sites used by organizers of the protests against the Mubarak government," t he Washington Post reported. The CIA has an Open Source Center , where analysts based in a headquarters in undisclosed location in Virginia, along with analysts in working in U.S. Embassies ("to get a step closer to their subjects") throughout the world monitor as many as millions of tweets per day, along with Facebook updates and other open source media outlets.

Wired Magazine reported in July that the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) unveiled its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. Wired's Adam Rawnsley points out:

"It's an attempt to get better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media. SMISC has two goals. First, the program needs to help the military better understand what's going on in social media in real time -- particularly in areas where troops are deployed. Second, Darpa wants SMISC to help the military play the social media propaganda game itself...SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on social media, figure out who's behind it and what."

Furthermore, the military solicited contracts for the development of software to create fake Facebook personas, to be "replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent," the Raw Story reported in February. Private security contractor HB Gary has already been exposed for doing such a thing on behalf of the US Chamber of Commerce as a way to "infiltrate left-leaning groups" in the country, as ThinkProgress revealed last year courtesy of 75,000 private company emails provided by the hactivst group Anonymous .
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These strategies are particularly cynical given the following passage from Lugar's Senate report:  

collaborators of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela recently hacked the Twitter accounts of opposition activists. Staff strongly believes that this example indicates how policy needs to take into consideration the extent repressive governments will take to silence democratic voices using this technology.

What officials seem to be saying is: never-mind what happens in this country. The fact that the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring "social media sites, blogs, and forums throughout the world" isn't important. And while US corporations are selling surveillance systems to repressive regimes, that's just the free-market supply and demand economics at work.

And even if, "What elevated the [Occupy Wall Street] activism to a national and global movement, though, was the sophisticated and widespread use of social media," as Betty Yu, national organizer at the Center for Media Justice, wrote last month, these same tools can, and are, being used to monitor, undermine and co-opt these and similar movements.

So if Washington approaches Latin American governments with aid for internet infrastructure and training, citizens and governments should approach this as a very loaded Trojan Horse.

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Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine covering politics and activism in Latin America.

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Decline 'Friend' Request: Social Media Meets 21st Century Statecraft in Latin America