U.S. Aid Agency Reportedly Created 'Cuban Twitter' to Foment Dissent

A secret operation reportedly run by the U.S. Agency for International Development shows propaganda tools are alive and well on the Internet.

secret operation

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), whose mission is to end poverty and create democratic societies, worked for more than two years to create a social network in Cuba that could act as a medium to bring together dissenting opinions with the goal of creating a "Cuban Spring," according to media reports.

The operation, which allegedly did not include U.S. intelligence agencies, was managed through a number of shell companies to hide the involvement of the United States, according to an initial report in the Associated Press based on 1,000 pages of documents. The social network—named ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet—used cell-phone messaging to create the network and get around the Cuban government's restrictions on the Internet, according to a follow-up report in The Washington Post.

"The Cuban users of the network, called ZunZuneo, were not aware it was created by the U.S. Agency for International Development, overseen by the State Department," the Associated Press article stated. "They also did not know that American contractors running the program were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes."

The efforts in Cuba coincided with the use of social networks by dissidents in the Middle East to communicate among themselves. The degree to which Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have aided protesters in organizing the pro-democratic dissent that led to the "Arab Spring" is unclear. Yet some governments have sought to ban social networks as a way to prevent activities ranging from organized dissent among legitimate protestors to libelous claims by troublemakers hiding online. In the most recent case, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned Twitter and YouTube, following leaks of alleged conversations between Erdogan, administration officials and corporate backers discussing financial fraud and a potential war with neighboring Syria.

USAID disputed that the purpose of the social network, which was started in 2009 and shuttered in 2012, was anything more than providing basic access to Cubans to express their opinions.

"The purpose of the Zunzuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period," the agency said in a statement sent to eWEEK. "At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans. After that, Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that."

While the legality of the operation has been questioned in media reports, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the operation and found it obeyed relevant law, USAID said in a statement provided to eWEEK.

"It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world," the agency stated. "Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people."

Such efforts are not new, and even the use of the Internet is old hat, Jeffrey Carr, CEO of Taia Global, a cyber-security firm, told eWEEK.

"This just seems like another example of using social media to work a propaganda angle against a target," he said. "The tactic is an old one, but it's still effective."

Carr criticized the outing of the operation, which had ended in 2012, after the Cuban government started blocking access to the Website for the service. The link between the U.S. government and ZunZuneo subscribers could put the Cuban users at risk, he said.

Congress plans to hold a hearing on the ZunZuneo operation next week.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...