The U.S. government created its own version of Twitter based on SMS messaging to help undermine the Cuban government, according to a new, eye-opening report by the Associated Press today. The report details efforts by a team of tech contractors to build and launch a messaging network in Cuba that would be hidden away from the country’s strict surveillance and control of the flow of information.
The network was called ‘ZunZuneo,’ which is Cuban slang for the song of the hummingbird, and it was designed to be essentially a so-called “Cuban Twitter” that could function without the web and build an audience using safe content initially, like talk about sports, music and extreme weather systems moving through the area. Once there was an audience, in terms of enough regular active users, the plan was to flip the switch on content that was critical of the ruling powers, and also intent on motivating political action activities called “smart mobs” in documents obtained by the AP.
ZunZuneo had around 40,000 Cubans on its network at its peak popularity, and at no time did the network make anyone aware that it was involved with the U.S. government or its contractors. That’s by design, and the AP’s documents are quoted as saying that the absence of mention of the U.S.’ involvement was “absolutely critical” to both the success of the service and the mission. That’s likely because they wanted the political activism that resulted to seem self-directed and grassroots in nature.
The government agency responsible for creating the “Cuban Twitter” was actually the U.S. Agency for International Development, and it isn’t denying its involvement, or the efforts to keep its involvement secret. The USAID is designed to “help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world,” a spokesman for the agency told the AP, and claims that hiding its involvement was just designed to protect the citizenry involved.
Critics, however, question the legality of the program overall (it would require presidential authorization to go forward legally, they contend, and it isn’t yet clear whether that was obtained), and of course there was risk to the Cuban users who were unaware it was a U.S. government program.
Eventually, the program grew beyond what the government contractors felt they could control, and they realized they needed to exit their involvement to in order to conceal their role. At one point, the USAID even went to Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey to seek funding for ZunZuneo, which was part of a plan for it to go independent and become a legitimate business, with the proviso that new management keep its original ambitions for inspiring political change.
After those plans failed, ZunZuneo was shuttered around mid-2012, which the USAID says was the result of the program simply running out of money. Users were apparently mystified and disappointed when it went dark, given how popular it had become.
It’s a strange story about how a government agency sought to foment the seeds of revolution using the playbook of Twitter, which has become a key tool for voicing political dissent and organizing in politically charged countries around the world, including Egypt, the Ukraine and Turkey. Perhaps the oddest part is that it ran into a typical startup problem, resulting in its ultimate end: how to scale effectively.