Will Twitter Become the New “Voice of America” Propaganda Arm?
Sometimes the US government dumps paper pamphlets out of airplanes over places it wants to see people challenge their governments. How 20th century! This weekend the US State Department started something new: Tweeting in Farsi through an account set up to speak to the people resuming protests in Iran.
@USAdarFarsi, as the account is named, now has nearly 3,000 people following it. What is it Tweeting? Calls to support public demonstrations, like in Egypt. Referencing Egypt at this point sounds like a call to overthrow the government, does it not? Decades of historical tension between the US and the Middle East, when it comes to communication policies and technology in particular, give reason to pause before assuming the State Department’s social media campaigns will be received as benevolent.
State Department employee Darren Krape, however, confirmed to us (on Twitter!) that the account was official. Apparently whoever is behind it also has a sense of humor; they’re following the satire account @M_Ahmadinejad, for example. (“Great Satans! In Iran, February 14th has always been ‘Get Out In The Street And Get Some Fresh Air Day’,” that account Tweeted tonight. “Stop reporting this as protests!”)
Katie Stanton, former State Department official and now Twitter employee, last night compared this Twitter campaign to the historical Voice of America radio and television propaganda efforts. Voice of America, though, has been widely criticized as a crude tool of American influence around the world.
The award-winning National Security Archive at George Washington University published an in-depth examination of decades of US government propaganda efforts throughout the Mid East in 2002, it makes for good historical context. At the very least, as a lesson in what not to do and what to remember that people in the region likely have in their memories.
Salon.com published a long article about US propaganda efforts in Iraq eight years ago and some of the language US officials used then could be just as applicable now. At the time it was youth-oriented radio stations that played music, some from the US, that constituted the “new media strategy.” “This marks a shift from our attempt to reach elites who make decisions, to a youth cohort that is lacking in power, but has large numbers,” said one official.
The role of social media in political struggles around the world, and in the Middle East of late in particular, has been widely discussed. This account raises the question, though: will the US government make the most of tools like Twitter, including for its incredible listening and collaboration power, or will these technologies be used as instruments of propaganda broadcast just like traditional media has been for decades? That could prove unhelpful in the end.