Cuban Twitter’ Missed the Mark on Social Media Unrest: Experts

Image: A book street vendor passes the time on her smart phone as she waits for customers in Havana, Cuba

The Obama administration secretly financed a social network in Cuba to stir political unrest and undermine the country’s communist government according to an Associated Press investigation. AP

If the U.S. government hoped new millennium technology would reinvigorate its half century-old dream of undermining socialism 90 miles off the coast of Florida, it went about it all wrong, some experts say.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department launched a “Cuban Twitter,” with the ultimate goal of fomenting revolution similar to “Arab Spring,” the social-media supported uprisings in the Arab world that began at the end of 2010. But the plan’s revelation does more to support the Communist government of Cuba, and could undermine humanitarian efforts by U.S. agencies and tech companies to aid less advanced parts of the world, according to some who study social media and the island nation.

“It’s a little quaint, isn’t it?” says Jillian York, Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says of AP’s report. Indeed, as AP describes it, it's almost like a Cold War-style caper, only slightly less bizarre than the CIA’s substantiated plans in the 1960s to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar.

If the ultimate goal was to inspire something like Egypt’s uprising, as suggested by the report, it didn’t last nearly long enough, York told NBC News. Prior to the 2010 uprisings, “you had a decade of (activist) bloggers in Egypt, who were already using Twitter and had thousands and thousands of followers,” said York. “If this project were to work, they’d be looking at 10 years until something happened.”

AP report: US had secret ‘Cuban Twitter’ 2:49

Instead, ZunZuneo, a simple social media service accessible in Internet-censored Cuba via cellphone texts and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), lasted little more than two years. According to the AP, USAID spent $1.6 million developing the service, which was reportedly used to collect the personal data and political leanings of its more than 40,000 subscribers, with the end goal of sharing information through the service that might inspire dissent. ZunZuneo petered out in September 2012, after government funding ended, and the State Department was reportedly unable to convince Twitter to take over the project.

Though USAID is most recently associated with its assistance in the wake of major natural disasters, it’s been criticized since its inception for its ties to the CIA and accused of attempting to influence political changes in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela.

In June 2012, months before ZunZuneo shut down, the Alliance for the Peoples of Our America called on its members (which include Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela) to expel USAID for “the interference in the internal politics of the ALBA countries.”

Addressing the AP's report, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf countered implications USAID’s efforts were an undercover program:

“To suggest these are covert programs is just wrong. Congress funds democracy programming for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society,” Harf said in a statement.

Harf denied that USAID engaged in covert attempts to undermine the Cuban government. “In the implementation, has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That's how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we're working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba."

Philip Peters, president of the non-profit of the Cuban Research Institute, disagrees with this description of USAID’s involvement with the Twitter clone. “It was an attempt to affect political conditions in a foreign country through a program in which the U.S. government’s involvement was concealed,” Peters told NBC News. “That’s the definition of a covert program.”

Peters, who served as a State Department appointee under Presidents Reagan and Bush, foresees fallout counter to the program’s reported goal, in a country where political opposition doesn’t need artificial inspiration. “Plenty of people in Cuba oppose actions of the Cuban government, as well as the Cuban government itself,” he said. The “Cuban Twitter” revelation, however, is a gift to the Cuban government, which often accuses the U.S. of attempting to “fabricate political opposition," he said.

As he writes on his blog, if the Cuban government “hasn’t thanked USAID, it should do so now.”

“It’s easy to find Cubans unhappy with their government. It’s hard to find one that wants to be treated unwittingly as an object by ours.”