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U.S. ran social media programs overseas

by RON NIXON New York Times News Service on April 26, 2014 10:34 AM

WASHINGTON — The United States built Twitter-like social media programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan that were models for a program in Cuba aimed at encouraging open political discussion in the countries, 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.

In all three cases, U.S. officials appeared to lack a long-term strategy for the programs beyond providing money to start them.

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 Kenya project, like the Cuba program, is the work of the Agency for International Development.

The projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan were run by the State Department.

All such programs have come under greater scrutiny since the administration acknowledged the existence of the Twitter-like program in Cuba, which ran from 2008 to 2012, when it abruptly ended, apparently because a $1.3 million contract to start up the text-messaging system ran out of money.

The Associated Press, which first published a detailed article about the Cuba program, reported that it was set up to encourage political dissent on the island.

But administration officials, while acknowledging that they were discreet about the program when it existed, said it was set up to provide Cubans with a platform to share ideas and exchange information.

Administration officials provided no information about the purpose and scope of the Afghan program, which had not been previously disclosed.

In contrast, in 2009, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, announced the Pakistani program during a meeting with students in Lahore, Pakistan.

The State Department worked with Pakistani telecommunications companies to create the network.

Called “Humari Awaz” or “Our Voices,” the program was run out of the office of Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who died in 2010.

The purpose of the program, according to people who worked on it, was to provide a platform that used the text-messaging to help Pakistanis build mobile networks around their shared interests. At its peak, State Department officials said, the program cost about $1 million and connected more than 1 million people who sent more than 350 million messages.

Users of the service could sign up using their personal information or remain anonymous.

The service was used by a diverse segment of Pakistani society, according to people who ran the program. Farmers used it to share market prices.

News organizations used it to reach readers. People used it to connect and share information such as cricket scores.

State Department officials enlisted the Pakistani government to promote the social media program, which officials thought at the time might ease mounting tensions between the two countries.

The United States provided billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan, but officials in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations have accused elements of Pakistan’s spy agency of supporting the Taliban.

Many in the Pakistani government have grown weary of U.S. operations within its borders, including drone strikes and the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Administration officials would not say when the Pakistani program ended or what it ultimately accomplished.

In Kenya, the “Yes Youth Can” service started shortly after the disputed 2007 presidential election, which left more than 1,500 people dead after gangs of unemployed youths linked to losing parties attacked voters.

The service allowed young people to use text messages and other tools to organize into “bunges,” or youth associations, that helped them register to vote and encouraged them to participate in the political process. U.S. officials credit the project with helping to pave the way for Kenya’s more peaceful 2013 presidential election.

The State Department and the Agency for International Development have actively pushed for the use of social media programs after seeing their successful use during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2010. Text messages were also used by protesters during the 2009 Iranian presidential election.

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