Legend has it that one of the venture capitalists who dumped a few million into Facebook in its start-up phase was linked, by a degree or two of separation, to the Central Intelligence Agency's private equity firm, In-Q-Tel. Edward Snowden's leaked trove of classified documents confirmed long-standing suspicions that Facebook, along with other tech companies, has been collaborating with the National Security Agency to spy on just about everyone on the planet, giving government spooks direct access to the company's servers filled with rich social network data. Other tales of hushed military units engaged in info-wars through social networking sites like Facebook abound.
So it's no surprise then that Facebook is directly involved in spreading U.S. government propaganda to populations in Muslim countries. These are places where the American military has troops on the ground, and where powerful U.S. corporations have oil, mineral, and other economic interests. Facebook has become another weapon in the battle for hearts and minds.
The U.S. government already understands that Facebook has unrivaled access to foreign populations, capable of delivering content to billions of computers and smartphones. Facebook counts more than 1.5 billion Internet users, and 3 billion mobile users worldwide, with 84 percent of these users outside the United States, according to the company's most recent annual report.
Since 2011, the government has been using Facebook to target millions of computer-savvy and smartphone-toting Iraqis, Afghanis, Indonesians, Pakistanis, and Iranians with U.S. state-funded media — including content for web, TV, and radio news that supports American foreign policies. Facebook has earned more than $400,000 from the government's effort to influence populations in these countries since 2009. And if the social network proves to be an effective way for America to spread its message, this might grow into a multimillion dollar opportunity for the Palo Alto tech titan.
"I think it's at a very experimental phase," says Nancy Snow, a professor of communication at California State University at Fullerton. Snow worked in the United States Information Agency (another official state information outlet) and has studied American propaganda efforts as both a practitioner and scholar. She says if Facebook reaches enough people with the state-sponsored content, the government can ask for more funds to funnel into the program.
"Facebook allows us to connect with millions of potential customers at once," reads one contract agreement with the Voice of America. The contract notes that Facebook allows the government to "choose our audience by location, age, and interests, as well as test simple image- and text-based ads and use what works." Another contract explains that Facebook will provide the VOA with "metrics" in order to "determine the reach and effectiveness" of the government's persuasive efforts.
VOA ads through Facebook appear in users' news feeds and as sponsored content. The ads take advantage of the social network's "like" function to virally spread links to U.S. state-run media websites through the friend networks of targeted users.
One VOA Facebook advertising campaign targeted 11 million Pakistani Facebook users, steering them toward the VOA's Urdu News Service. Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, the Muslim nation whose government has been a key American ally in the war and occupation of Afghanistan, and which has allowed American drone strikes within its own territory. These policies, however, are extremely controversial within Pakistan, with millions of the nation's people strongly opposed to the policies of the United States.
The VOA's Urdu News Service grabs young readers with stories about Pakistani and American pop culture. One recent article on the VOA Urdu News Service website described Justin Bieber's drunken driving escapades, pairing this with a profile of Sahir Lodhi, a Pakistani talk show host and heartthrob. These gossip columns ran alongside a "hard news" feature about a recent meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz. The high-level conference, readers of the VOA Urdu News Service were told, is about "strengthening bilateral ties" between the U.S. and Pakistan, "which is in the interest of both countries." An image of the flag of the United States blending seamlessly into the flag of Pakistan accompanied the story.
"The VOA was set up during World War II and exclusively used shortwave radio to disseminate U.S. state media," says David Krugler, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville. "They set up permanent transmitters in the USA, and then they leased transmitters around the world to reach audiences abroad."
These early media operations were aimed at audiences in Latin America, where the Nazis were beaming their own anti-American information. Later, the VOA focused on reaching Russians and Eastern Europeans behind the Iron Curtain with anti-Communist messages.
"Since the end of the Cold War, the Voice of America has continued to focus efforts on areas of the world where the U.S. is engaged in open war, or war by other means," says Krugler. "Advocates promote it as a way to win hearts and minds."
Today, much of the VOA's media projects target Muslim audiences in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, the epicenter of America's global "war on terror." Changing technology has also shifted the VOA's operations, says Krugler. "I think they were pretty quick to get on the Internet. I remember in the 1990s you could listen to shortwave VOA broadcasts on the web."
Since then, propaganda efforts have focused on the reach of social media, says Snow. "This is new, there's no doubt about it," says Snow about Facebook's contracts with the VOA. In 2005, there was a major push by the Bush administration to beef up the presence of American state-media in Internet chat rooms, blogs, and other Web 2.0 environments where users were actively sharing information and debating one another. "There was an emphasis on using social media to counter narratives of the enemy," she says.
In Afghanistan, the VOA runs multiple media operations, including the news outlets VOA Dari and VOA Pashto, two regional languages. Using funding from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the VOA also produces a TV program called Karwan (which means caravan). Karwan is hosted by Daoud Sediqi, who the VOA describes as the "Ryan Seacrest of Afghanistan."
In September 2010, the first episode of Karwan featured a trip by Sediqi to San Francisco. In good tourist form, he visited the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown, rode on the cable cars, and treated himself to sourdough bread at the Boudin Bakery, all to showcase America as a tolerant, multi-cultural nation. The VOA purchased $20,000 in ads from Facebook last year to steer Afghanis to Facebook pages for Karwan TV.
Other Facebook contracts with the VOA are designed to promote and steer users to the VOA's Middle East Voices page on Facebook. Middle East Voices features news and opinion created by the U.S. government to influence the thinking of people across the Arab world, including Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and even inside the Palestinian territories. The VOA's Persian News Network, for which there were even more Facebook ads last year, performs a similar function, but targeted to Iranian audiences.
The U.S. government characterizes Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, as a potential source of radical Islamist movements and terrorism. Last year, the VOA spent $22,000 on Facebook ads and services to reach audiences in Indonesia with pro-American news and entertainment. It's working. Today, VOA's Bahasa Indonesia news services has more than 1 million "likes" on Facebook.
SF Weekly shared contracts between Facebook and the VOA obtained via the Freedom of Information Act with Krugler. "Maybe the great attraction of social media is that, as those contracts state, they can identify, down to each user, to a click-by-click basis, who is coming over [to VOA web sites]," he says.
Even if the messages get through using Facebook's algorithm-powered ads and promotions, and even if the messenger is the local version of Ryan Seacrest, it's not clear that audiences in parts of the world subject to U.S. bombs and sanctions will be receptive to American propaganda.
"There was a survey of international broadcasting outlets in Afghanistan, shortly after the invasion [in 2001], asking people how much of a particular source they thought was news, and how much of it they thought was propaganda," says Snow. "The VOA was deemed one-quarter news and three-quarters propaganda. Anything U.S.-sponsored was gonna be seen with eyes of doubt."
SF Weekly contacted Facebook but did not receive a response. It's unclear if other nations have contracts with Facebook to disseminate state-funded and controlled media through the social network inside the United States to U.S. residents. Russia's RT News network has a Facebook page that counts 1.2 million "likes." RT News is funded by the Russian government, but it's unclear if the company is paying Facebook to spread its propaganda like the VOA.
The other big question for tech giants like Facebook is whether close business ties with U.S. spy and propaganda agencies could hurt their business. Back in September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the government "blew it" with the NSA surveillance scandal, and that spying by the feds could economically damage global brands like Facebook. Analysts are now saying that spy programs revealed by Edward Snowden could cause billions in lost profits for Facebook, Google, Apple, and other Silicon Valley tech companies in markets abroad. Whether residents of countries like Pakistan and Indonesia will shy away from Facebook because of these revealed associations with the U.S. government is anyone's guess.