According to an exclusive investigation by the Associated Press published Thursday, the U.S. government covertly built a "Cuban Twitter" social media network in an attempt to stir dissent against the country's communist government and "renegotiate the balance of power" in the state.
"First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent" all without its users knowing it was created by the U.S., according the 1,000 pages of documents obtained by AP and interviews with individuals who were involved in the program.
The network, which involved a mass-texting news service and eventually a social media site, was dubbed "ZunZuneo"—a Cuban word for the tweet of a hummingbird. It was built using "secret shell companies," was "financed through foreign banks," and lasted for more than two years between 2009 and 2012. It gathered over 40,000 Cuban subscribers and their personal information including their gender, age, "receptiveness" and "political tendencies."
According to the report, the project began when the Washington-based company Creative Associates International was contracted to collect Cuban cellphone numbers—most likely in an illicit fashion. From there the project organizers used those numbers to build a subscriber base.
ZunZuneo's organizers used "non-controversial content" such as sports news to slowly grow the network in order to avoid "detection by the Cuban government." Later, the goal was for the network to reach a critical mass of subscribers at which point "operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize 'smart mobs'—mass gatherings called at a moment's notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, 'renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society,'" AP reports.
At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes. [...]
ZunZuneo's organizers worked hard to create a network that looked like a legitimate business, including the creation of a companion website - and marketing campaign - so users could subscribe and send their own text messages to groups of their choice.
On the front lines of the project was the U.S. Agency for International Development. It created "front companies" in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the program's money trail back to DC, "and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project."
"Details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the U.S. Agency for International Development's longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions," AP reports, "and the details could undermine the agency's mission to deliver aid to the world's poor and vulnerable - an effort that requires the trust and cooperation of foreign governments."
"There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee's State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, told AP. "There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the fact that it was apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested."