The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has steadfastly maintained that a social media project it funded, which was revealed by the Associated Press as Cuban Twitter, was not intended to trigger “smart mobs,” transmit “political content” and “trigger unrest in Cuba.” However, the latest report from AP exposes more of the disingenuous nature of official comments coming from USAID on the project.
Paula Cambronero worked as a contractor for USAID in Cuba and part of her work involved “profiling” Cuban cellphone users, according to documents. In fact, users were categorized as “pro-revolution,” “apolitical” or “anti-revolutionary.”
She was tasked with “building out a database about Cuban mobile phone users, including gender, age, ‘receptiveness’ and ‘political tendencies’ that USAID believed could help bolster its Cuba programs. The Cubans responding to the text messages were not aware the US government was gathering data on them.”
Previously, USAID put up a blog post about the project, “Eight Facts About ZunZuneo.” (The project was officially named ZunZuneo after slang used for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.)
USAID pointed out eight “inaccuracies” and downplayed the idea that there was anything overtly political about the project.
“The specific reference to ‘Smart Mobs’ had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo,” USAID stated. “The documents do not represent the US government’s position or reflect the spirit or actions taken as part of the program in Cuba. The project initially sent news, sports scores, weather, and trivia. After which, the grantee did not direct content because users were generating it on their own.”
Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, was asked by Senator Patrick Leahy on April 8 if the goal of the project had been to “influence political conditions abroad by gathering information about Cuban cellphone users” or whether it was supposed to “encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government.”
“No, that is not correct,” Shah answered. He claimed the “purpose” of Cuban “Twitter” had been to “support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other.” It was not for the purpose “articulated” by Leahy.
But then how would USAID explain a contractor being tasked with going through and labeling users “pro-revolution” or “anti-revolutionary”? These are not standard political ideology labels like “liberal” or “conservative.” They seem to be particularly tailored toward enabling an uprising and gauging how likely it was for an uprising to be ignited in the near future.
Plus, AP published another report showing that drafted messages were “overtly political,” according to documents.
One early message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who once had warned that the Internet was a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.”
“Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. ‘I told you so,’ declares a satisfied Ramiro. ‘Those machines are weapons of the enemy!”‘
There were draft messages that may or may not have been transmitted like, “THE BACKWARDS WORLD: 54% of Americans think Michael Jackson is alive and 86% of Cubans think Fidel Castro is dead.” And, yet another drafted tweet, “The coma-andante,” was considered but organizers, who were referring to Fidel’s age, found it was “too political.”
Nevertheless, on April 29, “USAID spokesman Matthew Herrick told the AP that the agency had completed its review and forwarded to congressional oversight committees a catalog of the messages sent to Cubans.” The agency sent over 249 messages “related to technology, sports, world news and trivia,” and Herrick claimed they “were consistent with the objective of creating a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves.”
This set of messages must exclude the ones which a Cuban-born political satirist helped the project craft. They must be disclaiming these messages and maintaining that they were not responsible for that content.
Another issue is the collection of data on Cubans that were using Cuban “Twitter.” USAID claimed it was inaccurate for AP to suggest that “private data was collected with the hope it would be used for political purposes.” The “fact” is that “the ZunZuneo project included a website, as is typical for a social network. Users could voluntarily submit personal information. Few did, and the program did not use this information for anything.”
Messages were sent to users from Spanish telephone numbers. Cambronero, according to this report from AP, analyzed at least 700 responses in the course of her work. One of the tasks she fulfilled involved identifying the respondents by cell phone number, name and location. That would seem to violate their privacy, and it would be “private data.”
Now, was it used for political purposes? If the data was used at all by contractors, yes, because the program was inherently political (despite what Shah would have the public believe).
One of the more striking aspects of all this is how USAID has laughably found it ridiculous that anyone would suggest they would be interested in funding a project to bring about the overthrow of the Cuban government. Wasn’t Cuban “Twitter” a part of “democracy promotion” initiatives in the country, which are operated as part of the US government’s agenda for regime change?
The US has two laws, which would appear to provide a mandate for this kind of project. The Cuban Democracy Act was passed in 1992 to “promote a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba through the application of sanctions directed at the Castro government and support for the Cuban people.” The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act was passed in 1996 to strengthen the embargo of Cuba in order to encourage “a peaceful transition to a representative democracy and market economy in Cuba.”
The motivation for a project like Cuban “Twitter” is not to advance human rights or freedom for Cuban citizens. It is for the objective of advancing the economic agenda of the US government and interests of US corporations. It is about fueling a movement in the country that could change the political dynamics in the country and make it possible to accelerate efforts to privatize services and sectors in Cuba.
Finally, the latest report from AP shows just how much this project backfired. Apparently, those involved thought they would simply message a question to Cubans. Those Cubans would then hopefully answer, but most wondered who this person was that was anonymously sending them messages.
One respondent answered, “Explain your point better because I don’t understand and remember that if you haven’t done anything you shouldn’t fear anything, at least tell me your name if you’re not a coward.” Another response warned the sender not to “play around with the feelings of the Cuban people.”
Both are excellent examples of how this was a total farce. And, the saddest part is that the people involved are not decent enough to at least apologize to the Cuban people for setting back efforts to bring about more freedom of communication in the country—or to apologize to the people of any other country for that matter.
As Zeynep Turfekci, fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, wrote for POLITICO, “What might have been a well-meaning attempt to bring some free speech to the Castros’ Cuba now threatens the efforts of millions of people around the world who are harnessing the power of social media to challenge censorship and propaganda, and have no connection to the U.S. government.”
“Admittedly, most authoritarian governments hardly needed an excuse to taint social media as a tool of foreign powers. They’ve being doing it for years. But for their core supporters, their rantings about American plots behind every tweet just got a lot more credible.”