Social media’s utility as a channel for spreading dissent and catalyzing protest movements makes it an attractive tool for intelligence services seeking to destabilize their enemies. On that
note, the Associated Press is reporting that the U.S. government created a social network in Cuban, ZunZuneo, which functioned as a sort of primitive “Cuban Twitter” and was intended to
help undermine the Cuban dictatorship.
Supposedly masterminded by USAID, which usually focuses on development initiatives, ZunZuneo (the word comes from a Cuban slang expression for a
hummingbird’s tweet) was operational for two years from 2010 to 2012. It built a membership base of 40,000, mostly among young Cubans with cell phones, before it was shut down.
According to the plan, at first the social network would appear to be a simple mobile social app, but would gradually shape dialogue and stir dissent by introducing engineered user-generated
content. Along the way contractors, working with U.S. intelligence would be able to gather personal data about users that could later be useful in organizing anti-government activity.
USAID initiated the project after a Washington D.C.-based firm, Creative Associates International, collected the numbers of half a million Cuban cellphone users, probably through illicit means. The
AP reports that USAID funded the project through front companies located in Spain and the Cayman Islands. Not even top executives working on the project knew of the U.S. government’s
The social network carried fake advertising to make it look like a real business. At one point, the State Department hoped to get Twitter founder Jack Dorsey involved, but
nothing came of this plan.
Ultimately, the organizers hoped that the social network would help launch a wave of more-or-less spontaneous protests, similar to the ones that rocked the
Arab world beginning in 2010, in many cases leading to full-blown revolution.
As the AP notes, ZunZuneo is problematic for a couple reasons. For one thing, USAID is supposed to eschew
overt (or covert) political activity that might bring it into conflict with the governments of host countries. Rumors that it is a tool for U.S. intelligence date back to the Cold War, and this will
only reinforce such suspicions.
In a second and relate point, the story plays into the hands of authoritarian governments who attack social media in general as a tool for foreigners
trying to create chaos, rather than a legitimate forum for domestic dissent. This, in turn, allows them to demonize social media users as “traitors” and “puppets” of foreign
powers, justifying crackdowns and social media bans to stifle real dissent.
But none of this is likely to stop further attempts by U.S. and foreign intelligence services from trying to use
social media to bring about “regime change.”