The United States built Twitter-like social media programmes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, like one in Cuba, that were aimed at encouraging open political discussion, The New York Times reported.
The newspaper cited unnamed Obama administration officials in its news story that said like the programme 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, US officials appeared to lack a long-term strategy for the programmes beyond providing money to start them, it claimed.
According to the paper, the administration officials also said on Friday that there had been similar programmes 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 programmes operate openly with the knowledge of foreign governments, but others have not been publicly disclosed.
The Kenya project, like the Cuba programme, is the work of the United States 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 messaging system ran out of money.
The U.S. 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 Clinton, then secretary of state, announced the Pakistani programme during a meeting with students in Lahore. The State Department worked with Pakistani telecommunications companies to create the network.
Called Hamari Awaz or Our Voices, the programme was run out of the office of Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who died in 2010. The purpose of the programme, according to people who worked on it, was to provide a platform that used messaging to help Pakistanis build mobile networks around their shared interests.
The State Department officials say at its peak the program cost about $1 million and connected more than a 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.
Administration officials would not say when the Pakistani program ended or what it ultimately accomplished.
The newspaper report says the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development have actively pushed for the use of social media programmes after seeing their successful use during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2010.
Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government, who has researched the role of social media in public participation, said tools like the ones used in Pakistan and Kenya could be valuable to American diplomacy — up to a point.