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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."