The U.S. government created a Cuban text-based social network called ZunZuneo to seed dissent and undermine the communist government, according to the Associated Press.
The AP investigation found the Twitter-like network was run by secret shell companies and financed by foreign banks, and that it was created for political purposes to attract young Cubans who had no idea that their data was being collected by American contractors:
The social media project began after Washington-based Creative Associates International obtained a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers. It was unclear to the AP how the numbers were obtained, although documents indicate they were done so illicitly from a key source inside the country’s state-run provider. Project organizers used those numbers to start a subscriber base.
ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
The Obama administration said the Agency for International Development created the social network to encourage political discussions, not as a covert program to overthrow the government or spread propaganda. “There was nothing classified or covert about this program,” the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, told The New York Times. “Discreet does not equal covert. Having worked for almost six years at the C.I.A. and now here, I know the difference.”
Democrat Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, who advocates lifting the Cuban trade embargo, told MSNBC on Thursday: “It was just dumb.” Other senators, including Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez, issued statements of support. “The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies,” Menendez said.
The Intercept published a document on April 4 by the NSA’s British counterpart, the GCHQ. The document “expressly contemplates exploiting social media venues such as Twitter, as well as other communications venues including email, to seed state propaganda.”
Propagandizing foreign populations has generally been more legally acceptable. But it is difficult to see how government propaganda can be segregated from domestic consumption in the digital age. If American intelligence agencies are adopting the GCHQ’s tactics of “crafting messaging campaigns to go “viral,” the legal issue is clear: A “viral” online propaganda campaign, by definition, is almost certain to influence its own citizens as well as those of other countries.
The Intercept report goes on to say that the GCHQ documents coupled with the AP’s Cuban Twitter revelations “underscore how aggressively western governments are seeking to exploit the Internet as a means to manipulate political activity and shape political discourse.”
Those programs, carried out in secrecy and with little accountability (it seems nobody in Congress knew of the “Cuban Twitter” program in any detail), threaten the integrity of the Internet itself, as state-disseminated propaganda masquerades as free online speech and organizing. There is thus little or no ability for an Internet user to know when they are being covertly propagandized by their government, which is precisely what makes it so appealing to intelligence agencies, so powerful, and so dangerous.
Documents uncovered by the AP reveal that American contractors found evidence of Cuban officials trying to break into the network and trace text messages. But when ZunZuneo abruptly came to a halt in 2012 without explanation to its 40,000 Cuban users, a USAID official told the AP it was because the government grant ended.
According to the Times, “At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the USAID’s longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions, 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.”