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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Unused Weapon In Afghanistan? Twitter.

Paresh Dave |
October 7, 2010 | 1:39 a.m. PDT

Executive Producer

A soldier in Iraq talks to an employee at a cell phone store. (Creative Commons)
A soldier in Iraq talks to an employee at a cell phone store. (Creative Commons)
Almost half of the Afghan population subscribes to cell phone service, yet those residents caught in a nine-year-long crossfire between Taliban terrorists and Western soldiers don't seem to have taken advantage of an important four-year-old tool that could act as both weapon and shield.

Ninety-three million Internet users visit Twitter each month, but usage of the micro-blogging service in the Middle East and Africa trails every other region in the world. Though access to the Internet sits at about five percent in countries such as Afghanistan, nearly 8,000,000 Afghans say they use SMS, or texting.

So why hasn't Twitter penetrated a country that could greatly use it for organizing, sharing news and promoting safety? The service can easily be used through texting to both send and receive Twitter posts in areas where no Internet service is available.

From some 8,000 miles away, the problem in Afghanistan seems to be insufficient American concentration on protecting cell phone towers and an absence of a realization by Afghans about the power of publishing information for everyone in the world to see.

The U.S. government is investing $113 million this year to improve civilian communications in Afghanistan by installing new cell phone towers, “developing community media outlets and supporting educational radio.” Compared to the $33 billion President Barack Obama approved of to boost troop levels in Afghanistan during the summer, that's very little. But the small strategy could pay just as many dividends, the Boston Globe reported in an April article that is definitely in need of a follow-up.

American generals had realized insurgents were strongest were cell phone service was weakest. The Taliban has been sabotaging towers, so they can be the only source of information for residents of distant locales who had been relying on those towers. The shut down of communications between security forces and villagers allows the Taliban to thrive in such isolated communities.

A survey of the Afghanistan population near the end of 2009 found that 52 percent of people had access to a mobile phone at home, including 81 percent of people in urban areas.

Nearly half the population received their news from radio, and only 2 percent said they used texting to follow the news on a daily basis. The texting figure did rise to 19 percent when Afghans were asked which medium they used to track current events.

The U.S. military has been encouraging troops to interact “unfiltered” with civilians through social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. But are these same soldiers teaching the Afghans how to use these tools?

If more Afghans published more information, they could: collectively help hold their government in check by publicly noting corruption, share and receive up-to-the-second information about danger zones and blockades, quickly spread messages about protests and meetings to hundreds of people and begin to more regularly interact with individuals from across the globe.

The most-hyped about example of Twitter usage has been the protests following the June 2009 Iranian elections.

Though one study showed only about 9,000 people were actually posting to Twitter from inside Iran, the messages they shared with the world brought attention to injustices. It was fast and immediate. Most of the revolutionary protests in Iran may have been organized by text messages and word of mouth, but the Iranians broadcasted the end product through Twitter.

"Social media are helpful in exposing what's happening to the outside world, but it's a mistake to think that these protests [in Iran] are because of social media,” Harvard University researcher Ethan Zuckerman told BusinessWeek. “It's more conventional things like word-of-mouth and phone calls that really bring massive numbers of people into the streets."

Experts also cautioned that posting to Twitter could drive momentum toward one ideology and amplify only a single side of debate. But in a war painted by America as good versus evil, isn't that exactly what should be desired in Afghanistan?

A Japanese journalist captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan was able to post to Twitter by tricking a militant whose cell phone he was asked to set-up. The journalist offered to teach the militant how to use Twitter, and the unsuspecting militant obliged. A few days later, the journalist was freed. The terrorists don't seem to up-to-date on the newest social media technology, so the ordinary Afghans ought to beat them to the punch.

In a second example of Twitter's power, residents of the Mexican city of Reynosa posted about 600 messages to Twitter one day in August to describe the drug cartel wars flaming their streets.

“It’s debatable whether Twitter is helping save lives in Reynosa, but at least it’s empowering citizens with information during a dark time in their city’s history,” reporter Melissa del Bosque wrote.

WIRED thinks in similar veins, offering a story of a group trying to begin pilot programs throughout Afghanistan that would allow for court hearings to be held through cell phone conversations. Orderly dispute resolution through conference call? And communicating your problems to the authorities via text message? Perhaps even American courts could learn how to hand down sentences remotely.

The U.S. State Department has taken Silicon Valley executives, including Twitter founder and chairman Jack Dorsey, abroad to beg Iraqis to start using the service to bring transparency to their government.

The potential of Twitter to be more efficient and interactive for Afghans than regular text messaging and word-of-mouth in organizing, campaigning and alerting is clear.

Can the start of a new year in Afghanistan finally convince American diplomats and politicians that subsidizing the cost of cell phones, cell phone service and cell phone networks may actually empower and engage the Afghan population? It's worthy to explore if social media can both publicize and distract enough to thwart terrorism and increase self-policing.

Facebook's newest group feature offers an example of how technology is closing up our community—and bringing us farther apart from one another—as we self-select small communities to engage within. But for a country that suffered oppression for so long and that is still trying to fully open its wings nine years after the fall of a terrorist regime, technology has the chance to open it up further until it reaches a point of stability.

To reach reporter Paresh Dave, click here.

Find him on Twitter: @peard33.



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