The emerging dark side of social networks

Coverage Type: 

[Commentary] We’ve all heard how social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube help to spread democracy around the world by mobilizing the masses and making it easier to topple dictators. Now, we’re now seeing a darker side to them.

In some cases, they’re being co-opted by governments as disinformation tools, used by authoritarian regimes to crack down on Internet dissenters, and even being used as part of digital Black Ops by the United States in places like Cuba. The story of “fake Cuban Twitter” is especially disconcerting -- we’re talking about a digital Bay of Pigs, in which the US State Department, working through US Agency for International Development (USAID), actively worked to create a Twitter-like social network (ZunZuneo) to engage the local Cuban population in order to topple the Castro regime. In other cases, social networks are being used as part and parcel of government disinformation campaigns to co-opt opposition movements -- sometimes by the US government and its allies.

In countries such as Egypt and Turkey, data from social networks is being used to find exact locations of protesters based on GPS locations or to track down the IP addresses of Internet users the government wants to discipline. The question now is to what degree Western know-how is being used to facilitate these actions.

This emerging dark side of social networks has enormous implications for how America conducts its diplomatic business abroad. Terms like “digital statecraft” and “e-diplomacy” are commonplace these days -- not just for America, but also for nations that would like to emulate America’s ability to project power around the world. At little or no cost, social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube made it possible to spread the message that America was the land of baseball, apple pie and democracy for all.

But the more that social networks are seen to be doing the bidding of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency (and proxy organizations such as USAID) in terms of gathering and mobilizing the masses against governments, the less effective they are in sharing American values abroad.

The emerging dark side of social networks