Given the prominent role of social media in recent protests in Moldova and Iran, its potential uses and misuses have attracted significant attention from various parts of the American intelligence community. The most important recent development has been a significant investment by In-Q-Tel, a CIA-funded venture capital firm, in Visible Technologies, a firm that tracks social media. According to an In-Q-Tel spokesman, one of the hopes of this collaboration is that the intelligence community will get an “early-warning detection on how issues are playing internationally.”
The State Department announced its commitment to experiment with the use of social networking for citizen engagement and civic participation in the Middle East (which folds nicely under Hillary Clinton’s recently announced initiative of “Civil Society 2.0”). The State Department is planning to award up to $5 million in grants in this area. Speaking in Pakistan, Clinton also extended her support for the creation of Pakistan’s first mobile phone-based social network, called Humari Awaz (“Our Voice”).
The director general of the International Telecommunications Union warned, “the next world war could happen in cyberspace and that would be a catastrophe.” In the meantime, a New York-based anti-globalization activist was arrested for using Twitter to direct protesters during the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. The Russian police admitted to reading Twitter for tips about protest rallies. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces announced plans for a
dedicated Internet and new media department unit. According to Haaretz, the department will focus on the Internet’s social media networks mainly to reach an international audience directly rather than through the regular media. The Iraqi government has launched a YouTube channel which, according to Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki , will help to “counter lies” and “showcase its successes.” It has also announced a partnership with Google, whereby the search giant will undertake scanning of archives at the Iraq National Museum.
In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards began experimenting with crowdsourcing by uploading photos of anti-government protesters in the streets of Tehran, so that they can be identified. Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s embattled former prime minister who is currently in exile launched an ambitious new media campaign to promote his political agenda; among other tools, it relies on online television channels and text messaging. Facebook and Stanford University announced that they are collaborating on an application known as the Peace Dot Initiative that encourages and chronicles friendships between historically rival groups. Additionally, it contains links to anti-violence activist groups, polls about the viability of world peace and a “Share Your Thoughts” widget.
The Vatican persevered in its eager embrace of new media. Representations from Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia were invited to brief the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CEEM). CEEM’s President, Bishop Jean-Michel di Falcothe, said that the church can better communicate its mission if it takes a more active role in its portrayal through new media. In the meantime, a group of volunteers in Saudi Arabia launched the Facebook Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a Facebook group dedicated to promoting the activities of the Saudi religious police that bears the same name.
The mobile space continues bustling with innovation. A new initiative from the BBC World Service Trust enables thousands of Bangladeshis to learn English via mobile phones. Through its Janala service, the BBC offers 250 audio and SMS lessons at different levels. Each lesson is a three-minute phone call, which costs a few pence. 300,000 people signed up to test the service in the first few days since the launch.
More foreign governments are beginning to feel uneasy about the growing dominance of American technology firms in their markets, mostly due to concerns about national security. Thus, citing concerns over “information sovereignty,” Cuba has objected to plans for a new Internet cable that would connect it to the US, opting out for a more expensive cable connection to its ally Venezuela. In Turkey, Tayfun Acarer, the chairman of the country’s Information Technologies and Communication Board, announced that government engineers are working on their own search engine that would better serve the sensibilities of Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world. Acarer also announced another government plan: to supply every Turkish citizen with a 10 GB email account – thus bypassing the need for them to use services like Gmail.
By Evgeny Morozov
Evgeny Morozov is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine and is a Yahoo fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. His book on Internet and democracy will be published by PublicAffairs in late 2010.