The U.S. government created its own version of Twitter based on SMS messaging to undermine the Cuban government, according to a 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 from the country’s strict surveillance and control of the flow of information.
ZunZuneo, which is Cuban slang for the song of the hummingbird, was designed to essentially by a “Cuban Twitter” that could function without the Web and build an audience using safe content initially, like discussions around sports, music, and weather. Once there was a large enough audience, 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 AP.
At its peak, ZunZuneo had around 40,000 Cuban users, and at no time did the network make anyone aware that it was involved with the U.S. government or its contractors. That was intentional, and te AP’s documents are quoted as saying that the absence of mention of U.S. involvement was “absolutely critical” to both the success of the service and the mission.
The government agency behind the “Cuban Twitter” was the U.S. Agency for International Development, and it isn’t denying its involvement. 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 spokeswoman for the agency told AP.
The program eventually grew beyond what the government contractors felt they could control, and they realized they needed to exit their involvement as soon as possible. At one point, the USAID even approached 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, under the condition that the new management maintain its original ambitions for inspiring political change.
ZunZuneo was shut down around mid-2012, which was apparently the result of the program simply running out of money. Users were mystified and disappointed when it went dark, given its popularity.
Twitter has become a key tool for voicing political dissent under restrictive governments around the world, including Egypt, Ukraine, and Turkey, so it’s natural for a government agency to use the concept to plant seeds of revolution.