Social networking used to spread cyberpropaganda

Friday, September 11, 2009 | 12:58 p.m. CDT; updated 10:31 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 18, 2009

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: One cannot go far on a college campus without seeing students who are looking on their Facebook accounts or Twittering on their cell phones. What is not discussed much is the fact that this is spreading as a tool of international dialogue both positively and negatively, what might be called “cyberpropaganda.” Our guests today give us some examples of how these new instruments have been used in some recent international policy argumentation in places like Moldova, Venezuela, Georgia or Iran.

Noam Cohen, “Link by Link” columnist, The New York Times, New York: Speaking of cyber propaganda, I immediately think of the Israeli embassy in New York using Twitter to answer questions from their audience. Twitter has a lot of power because it is like a mass email and can connect people quickly, but one of the limitations related to cell phones is how many characters can be in a tweet. Devices like Facebook and Twitter become organizing tools, but technology can only do so much; nothing replaces face-to-face and phone contact. Iran, Moldova, Egypt also, are examples where social networking tools become helpful in creating a mass movement very quickly and, theoretically, without the government being able to know in advance. In Egypt, young people used Facebook to organize a labor protest before the government had a handle on what was happening. The government largely didn’t know what Facebook was; there is such a generational divide. Moldova as well, young people were able to organize protests. In Iran, YouTube and viral video was used; the woman who was killed in the protests became a rallying cry.

Scott: What about the effects of anonymity on the Internet and how governments themselves may be using this social organizing tool?

Evgeny Morozov, contributing editor, Foreign Policy magazine, “The Net Effect” blogger: Many governments are reaching out to small blogs, training a new generation of bloggers to promote viewpoints which are favorable to the government. In China, there is the “50 Cents Party,” people supposedly paid 50 cents for every call that they leave on politically important articles or blog posts. In Iran, the clerics are training international religious bloggers. For the government, cyberspace offers a very effective way to get their ideas out there, but to do that without looking pushy. Sometimes it takes a while before you understand that what you are reading was written by a blogger who is being paid by the government. Many of those relationships are not transparent.

Scott: There is a continuing cyberwar going on between Russia and Georgia, not only leading to but also following last August’s war.

Akaki Gogichaishvili, editor-in-chief,  Business Courier, Tbilisi, Georgia: True. First, nobody knows who was behind the cyber-attacks last August. It resulted in the blocking and rerouting of traffic and control being seized over sections of Georgian cyberspace. Local governments say that Israel was the first case in which a land invasion was coordinated with an orchestrated online cyber-offensive. National officials insist it offers crucial lessons on how the Russian federation has developed its defensive capacities on the Internet. It was mostly governmental Web pages but also media communications and commercial banks. My own account was blocked, and I couldn’t use my credit card. The commercial banks then shut down Internet banking services for over one month in fear that hackers might have interfered with their transactions.

Scott: What seems to be going on between the Venezuelan government and the anti-government sympathizers in neighboring Colombia?

Frank Daniel, correspondent, Reuters, Caracas, Venezuela: A year ago in Colombia, a big movement was started to organize anti-FARC guerilla marches in Colombia using Facebook. Perhaps millions were on the streets; this year, that movement was replicated with organizers from Colombia trying to organize a worldwide day of anti-Chavez marches. They did provoke some government reaction. The government is generally way behind the curve on this. Another recent case: Chavez’s government started closing down a group of radio stations that provoked some frantic Tweeting and became the top 10 Tweets in the world in August.

Scott: What about the government strategies, including the Obama administration here in the U.S.?

Daniel: The top Facebook fan group on the planet is the Obama Facebook with six million members.

Cohen: One thing about Twitter is how it is so decentralized; it is hard for governments to shut it down because it can be sent and received from a cell phone. The only places that really succeed are places like Myanmar, which basically just shuts down the Internet. The miracle of the Internet is that it still works. Humans have been in the past too warlike to have a global communication system. Will we be at a point where the Internet will become closed or so fought over that it won’t flow like a system? Hopefully governments think it is better to have commerce and communication than not to have them, even though it can potentially affect their government or dictatorship.

Morozov: Governments are very interested in taking it down around political events. Just last month, Facebook was made unavailable in Georgia because of a flurry of cyber-attacks against both sides. For the next Iranian election, the government will try to target Facebook and other tools of organizing. They are beginning to see that it doesn’t matter that the government cannot fully censor them, what matters is to disable them during critical time periods.

Cohen: To do it, they would have to take down Facebook and Twitter around the planet. That is a very aggressive act. Where does that leave the rest of the world because a particular government is upset about something?

Scott: During the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, the Chinese government at that point only knew how to control the standard broadcasting media, but fax messages got through very clearly. This may be history repeating itself with a more powerful technology.

Daniel: Here in Venezuela there is a lot of use of new and old media for information and misinformation from both sides. Last week, there was a rumor of a coup that went around days before some opposition marches were planned. That spread by text message in a matter of seconds one evening, then a counter message came from the Chavez camp asking its people to organize and prepare for trouble.

Scott: Is the Georgian government itself doing anything in cyberspace to counteract the Russian offenses?

Gogichaishvili: In August and September, our Internet was under the control of Germany because they were able to centrally reroute some Georgian traffic directly to servers run by Deutsche Telecom, but within an hour the traffic had been diverted again to Russian servers.

Scott: Governments are responding in sophisticated ways through the anonymity of the Net itself. What examples are there of this?

Morozov: An interesting case is how the Israeli government reacted to the Gaza conflict earlier this year. They recruited Israelis who speak various languages to start monitoring blogs and then respond to them with government talking points. The government was crowd sourcing a propaganda response but doing it in multiple languages, internationally. The Chinese employ several data mining companies that actually  analyze all text written on China’s Internet, and they can identify trends. Beijing can actually detect anti-government sentiment in a certain region and then dispatch their own pro-government bloggers.

Scott: How does the U.S. government use cyberspace?

Morozov: The Obama campaign used the media very effectively to get Obama elected, but they have struggled since then to integrate that into actual governance. Every time they open up discussion, they end up in strange positions like legalizing pot. People with the serious attitudes and positions tend to have much less time to spend on online voting.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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Ray Shapiro September 12, 2009 | 4:16 p.m.

Sounds like one big party-line to me.

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