The State Department answered questions about ZunZuneo, USAID’s “fake twitter” program for Cuba, at a press briefing by spokeswoman Marie Harf last week.
“We were not generating political content of any kind on this platform,” she said, and the idea about getting subscribers at some point to engage in street protests – “smart mobs” referenced in the AP story – was “from meeting notes between the grantee and the contractor,” at a meeting where a USAID staff member was present. She wasn’t asked USAID’s view of the idea. Nor was she asked about polls conducted to gauge the political sentiment of subscribers (where AP named the company and quoted the employee involved) or what was done with the data.
The program ended when funds ran out, Ms. Harf said. She didn’t know why the grant was not extended.
The program was not covert action, she said, for various reasons, including that if anyone had asked participants about it, they would have responded that it was a U.S. government program.
A USAID spokesman issued a statement yesterday taking issue with parts of the article. He says that there were “around 68,000” Cuban users at the program’s peak. He does not address or challenge some central aspects of AP’s reporting, for example the polling to gauge the political tendencies of subscribers. One can buy the idea that USAID didn’t originate the “smart mobs” idea and still wonder why and for what purpose the U.S. government was collecting data on Cuban citizens’ political leanings.
More reading if you’re interested:
Bush Administration USAID official Jose Cardenas on the thinking behind the program, and the Washington Post applauding the program.
The apparent Cuban Interior Ministry video from February 2011 (with English translation) that shows what Cuba knew about U.S. technology programs at the time, Juventud Rebelde on other U.S. technology programs operating in Cuba, and Reuters on the same.
The ZunZuneo Facebook page is still open. It was active from December 2010 to May 2012.