The United States discreetly supported the creation of a website and SMS service that was, basically, a Cuban version of Twitter, the Associated Press reported Thursday. ZunZuneo, as it was called, permitted Cubans to broadcast short text messages to each other. At its peak, ZunZuneo had 40,000 users.
And what government agency made ZunZuneo? It wasn’t the CIA. No, it was the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, working with various private companies, including the D.C. for-profit contractor Creative Associates and a small, Denver-based startup, Mobile Accord.
The news about ZunZuneo broke Thursday morning, around 3 a.m. Eastern time. 11 hours before, I had been in the D.C. offices of none other than Mobile Accord, talking to the company’s president about a future product release.
The US government has operated multiple social media services around the world in hopes of providing a forum for debate and possibly political unrest. The programs, which operated in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, and dozens of other countries, were similar to ZunZuneo, a US-created social media service that had 40,000 users in Cuba at its peak. That program, which was secretly run out of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), was uncovered by the Associated Press earlier this month in an extensive report. At its peak, the text messaging-based service — which has been described as “Cuban Twitter” — had some 40,000 users. It abruptly shut down in 2012 after officials ran out of cash and failed to make the service self-sustainable.
The additional programs were revealed by officials in the Obama administration on Friday, according to The New York Times. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the social media services were run by the State Department, not USAID, and few details are available on the scope of the programs. The Pakistani program, called Humari Awaz (Our Voices), wasn’t run in secret: US officials worked with the Pakistani government and telecommunications companies in the country to promote it. However, it — as well as the program in Afghanistan — were shut down like ZunZuneo. Another program in Kenya, called Yes Youth Can, is still active and is being run by USAID, according to the report. The targets of dozens of other programs are unknown, but officials say there were plans to start services in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Both government agencies began running such programs after uprisings during the Arab Spring in 2010, which have been linked to the flow of information enabled by social media networks.