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Published on June 13th, 2014 | by EJC

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The US-AID Cuban Twitter Affair: Social Media As The Fifth Estate

This article was written by Daniela Guzman and originally published on her Tumblr on 3 April, 2014. Republished with permission. 

A US government agency is caught in a whirlwind of controversy as the press begins to unravel a secret operation which sought to promote democracy in Cuba through social media.

For years, the island’s communist government has gagged independent media and strictly controlled the internet, often called the “untamed colt” by members of the regime. The fear was that the US was using the internet as a political weapon to plant the seeds of discontent and unrest.

Those fears were not completely unfounded. The Associated Press revealed that USAID had built a social media network based on text messaging that allowed Cubans to access information that would be otherwise filtered by the regime and freely communicate on an independent platform.

The AP reported that ZunZuneo, which in Cuban Spanish means a hummingbird’s tweet, was engineered by the development agency to “trigger a Cuban Spring” by engaging citizens in politically-charged discussions. It reportedly acted under the guise of a commercial enterprise which used front businesses and bank accounts cached in the Cayman Islands to keep the origins covert.

The investigation found USAID documents that described the program, which is essentially a stripped-down Twitter, stating that it might serve to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

The Cuban government has not yet issued a statement, but with this revelation, it would seem they have cause to be wary. The US government acted quickly in response to the scandal, with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney publicly denying that the operation was covert and assuring that it was necessary for USAID to be discreet in a “non-permissive environment.”

USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said the agency is proud of its Cuba programs and said the program was subject to congressional review, which deemed it to be a legal project.

“In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground,” Herrick said, referring to the clandestine nature of the social network’s origins.

“This is not unique to Cuba.” Read the USAID statement here.

The controversy is largely based on the idea that Cuban Zunzuneo users were unknowingly part of a larger scheme to start an uprising, based on government analyses of how social media played a part in Iran, Moldova and the Phillipines, to overthrow corrupt or authoritarian governments or to hold existing governments accountable.

Wikileaks published a cable from the U.S. State Department in 2010 emphasizing bloggers and young intellectuals as the key to policy change in Cuba. In fact, governments worldwide are becoming more aware of how information communications technology (ICT) are changing the way citizens engage and hold their governments accountable. In fact, it was no secret that USAID was promoting new technologies to improve citizen engagement and government responses. The agency started an initiative called Making All Voices Count, which is also a partnership with the UK’s DFID, Sweden and the Omidyar Network. The goal of the project is to increase government transparency and accountability, which might seem ironically pitted against the AP investigation of ZunZuneo.

Social media applications have exploded as new effective tools in anti-corruption, from the Indian “I Paid a Bribe,” an online platform that asks users details of bribes paid to public officials as a leveraging tool, to “Kallxo,” a network for Kosovo citizens to report corruption through multiple media channels.

The Technology for Transparency Network tracks civic engagement initiatives that use technology platforms all over the world. The project aims to map and research the different applications of social networks, from monitoring campaign financing (Kepmutatas in Hungary) to highlighting consumer complaints (Quien Paga Manda in Costa Rica) to open forums that provide information other than state-controlled media outlets (Saatsaam in Cambodia). So far, they have tracked and analyzed 63 cases globally.

Society-led ICT anticorruption initiatives can come in various formats, from online information requests and crowd-sourced reporting that push for transparency and reform to published open databases that urge citizens to act in some way.

Twitter has been a catalyst for change in various parts of the world. Most recently, Ukrainians and Venezuelans have used it as a way to mobilize protesters, warn citizens of impending danger, and spreading the word about state-imposed violence and human rights violations.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan realized how powerful social media could be, in an age where citizen grievances and corruption allegations spread like wildfire at the click of a mouse. He issued the court order to ban Turkish users from accessing the social media site two weeks ago. Erdogan, who was preparing for local elections, said he would attempt to block Youtube and Facebook, too, to the dismay and criticism of the international community.

In Lebanon, a new law against domestic violence was passed last week, largely because of public support on social media. Lebanese citizens used the hashtag #NoLawNoVote to pressure politicians to enact the law, sending a message of democracy.

London School of Economics published a report in 2011 called “Harnessing Social Media Tools to Fight Corruption” in which it identified six key issues related to anti-corruption efforts: access to information, checks on government, electoral monitoring, civic engagement, disaster response and human rights violations.

The situation in Cuba is a prime example how a lack of viable information networks can inhibit a society. Just over a hundred public internet access points have been opened for Cuba, but the prices make it impossible for a regular citizen to use it. One hour of online time costs almost a quarter of the average monthly salary disbursed by the state, the equivalent of $20.

It’s unclear how the US-AID Cuban Affair will affect foreign policy from Cuba towards the US, or how aid projects developed by the US for Cuba will go from here. But it is unequivocally true that ZunZuneo promoted open communication where it does not currently exist. Until 2012, when the project ran out of funding, there were approximately 40,000 users that received and distributed information freely.

About the author:

Daniela Guzman Peña is a journalist based in Miami. She is a 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors Fellow and a grant recipient of the US-Brazil Higher Education Consortia program. Her work has appeared in The Miami Herald, NPR and Insight Crime. She currently reports for a worldwide organization called the Association of Certified FInancial Crime Specialists, where she focuses on international corruption, cybersecurity and organized crime. She was born in Bogota, Colombia and has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Florida. Tumblr: danielamariaguzman.tumblr.com Twitter: @_DanielaGuzman_

Photo: flippinyank.

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