The U.S. government’s misguided attempt at a Cuban Twitter
Between 2010 and 2011, the U.S. government tried to launch a form of Twitter in Cuba with the intention of spurring what the government hoped would be protests similar to that of the Arab Spring, according to the Associated Press.
Social media is something so new that many still do not understand its full potential. Numerous organization have sought to capitalize on the success of online social networks with various levels of success. The most successful have been the social media outlets themselves, with millions of users using tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn each day. Numerous companies have also turned to social media to help improve their marketing efforts, often using their own Facebook and Twitter profiles, while also offering promotions exclusively through these resources.
Social media has also played a major role in enacting social change. Twitter has been credited with being a major force in the proliferation of the Arab Spring, as many people used the tool to disseminate information about protests and report on what was transpiring in real time. However, this success has prompted other organizations to capitalize on social media's mobilizing capabilities – namely, the U.S. government.
A Cuban Twitter
The Associated Press reported that United States Agency for International Development, the humanitarian wing of the U.S. government, attempted to launch a massaging network in Cuba that would be used to undermine the government in power. The program, entitled ZunZuneo, would allow citizens to communicate with one another by using cell phone text messages so as to circumvent Internet controls.
In order to hide ZunZumeo from the Cuban government, the U.S. government used a system of front companies through Cayman Island banks accounts. Mobile Accord, a company that creates mobile platforms to promote "social good," was one of the major firms behind the development of the app, which was intended to be a bare bones form of Twitter.
The intention behind the program was to build up a broad subscriber base among Cuban citizens by disseminating content that would not have been particularly controversial. When the consumer base was large enough, operators would begin to disseminate more politically charged content. The idea would be to have Cubans begin to mobilize in large groups similar to the gatherings during the Arab Spring.
When it was at its largest participation, the program had more than 40,000 users in Cuba, however, by 2012, the service had ceased to exist.
Shortcomings of ZunZuneo
When all was said and done, the program cost about $1.6 million, according to Mashable. However, this wasted money is just one of the major problems with the program.
First and foremost, one of the biggest issues was that it was veiled under the guise of promoting Internet freedom, but in practice was really just a misguided attempt to take down the Cuban government. At the moment, there are bloggers and activists in Cuba who are critical of the government but for the U.S. government to create its own channel with which it disseminated its own politically charged messages, is another story entirely. This is not so much online freedom as it is an attempt to control public sentiment in the island country.
As Mashable noted, the biggest problem in Cuba to promoting Internet freedom is actually connectivity. In 2011, about a quarter of the population had Internet access, according to the country's government figures. However, a Freedom House report indicates the figure is actually closer to 5 percent. Those who do have access are able to access numerous sites like Facebook, Twitter and the New York Times, though many who are critical of the government are silenced. Had the U.S. government sought to increase Internet infrastructure in the country, for instance, maybe these efforts would have been a more productive use of funds.
The program's failure raises a very important question – does U.S. government wishes to truly increase online freedom around the world, or simply use it as diplomatic rhetoric?