In one of the oddest reports of spy games we've heard in years — and that's saying something — the AP has uncovered a United States plot to create a "Cuban Twitter" that would lure in users with soccer scores and music news before evolving its message into anti-Castro rhetoric. If any part of that made you say what, don't worry, that's a perfectly natural response.
According to the AP, the caper kicked off back in 2010, when U.S. official Joe McSpedon and an international team of contractors put a bow on the nascent Cuban social network. Called ZunZuneo — slang for the Cuban hummingbird's song and a sly nod to Twitter — it operated strictly via mobile phone text messaging to get around Cuba's restrictive internet rules.
The plan was eventually for ZunZuneo to hit "hundreds of thousands" of members, at which point its message would subtly shift from "football is good" to "Castro is bad," and then even further to incite "smart mobs", which sound like flash mobs but for civil unrest. In short, it was attempting to prompt Cuba's own Arab Spring.
But participation fell well short; at its peak, ZunZuneo hit 40,000 members, according to the AP, a scant 0.3 per cent of the Cuban population.
ZunZuneo may not be an exploding cigar, but it's a definite reminder that the United States has no shortage of tricks up its sleeve, some of them goofier than others. And don't worry, it gets weirder still.
Your natural instinct is to assume that the CIA would be behind something like this; bedeviling Cuba has long been its raison d'être. In this case, though, it appears that our superspies have their hands clean. Instead, the honour of the infringement goes to USAID, an organisation whose stated mission is to "provide economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world." Presumably "creating phony social networks to incite a government overthrow" is implied.
Assisting USAID in the plot was a for-profit agency called Creative Associates International, which you could also call C.A.I, which would be a just on-the-nose enough name for a CIA front, but who can say!
The entanglements get stranger; realising they needed more cash to keep the project going, USAID turned to none other than Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey for an investment. It's not clear if he actually committed any funds.
Eventually, the project petered out; USAID couldn't keep up with the tens of thousands of dollars in messaging feeds that each group blast necessitated. In 2012, the service disappeared entirely, another failed attempt by the United States to affect change in a Castro regime. It's well worth reading the full thing over at the AP for all the juicy spygames details. [AP]
Update: PopSci has a nice little interview with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah about the project, which Shah insists received Congressional approval.