It’s almost common these days for state-run parties to subvert grassroots movements. During the heyday of Anonymous, a hacktivist community born on 4chan and organized by hackers in chat rooms, federal authorities tried to usurp the collective with a honeypot-style movement called AntiSec. Not long after, AntiSec lost steam and fell apart.
A more fundamental failure hit ZunZuneo, a social-change project in Cuba that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) quietly created in 2009. The so-called “Cuban Twitter” shut down three years later when it failed to survive without state funding, and started getting blocked by the Cuban government.
The fake service allowed Cubans to send texts freely and anonymously to one another. USAID’s goal, according to the Associated Press, which cites government documents about the project, was to surreptitiously incite “smart mobs,” or spontaneous political rallies against Fidel Castro’s restrictive government.
U.S. officials have confirmed the government was behind the ZunZuneo project, calling it a discreet form of humanitarian aid and denying it was covert.
The aid agency’s Office of Transition Initiative division kickstarted the project after one of its sources obtained a database of half a million Cuban cell phone numbers. With the help of contractors the agency hid behind the guise of a hip, social-media service, then spammed those phone number with with texts bearing news snippets or satirical jokes. It relied on a complex network of spoof servers and front companies to disguise ZunZuneo’s origins in the United States.
This was secretive marketing for political purposes, an ill-fated attempt to copy the organic wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests that gathered momentum thanks to Twitter.
At first, it worked. ZunZuneo’s early users were people like Saimi Reyes Carmona, a Cuban journalism student quoted in the AP’s story, who could send free texts to thousands of followers under a nickname, free from the prying eyes of the Cuban government. Carmona recalled thinking at the time that ZunZuneo was “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” She was later stunned to learn about the service’s origins.
null It amassed 40,000 users but had no clear explanation for how it was paying thousands of dollars in texting fees each month. Contractors reportedly sent internal memos suggesting the service should cut financial ties with USAID and continue promoting political change in Cuba — but the ideas weren’t sustainable. Even with tens of thousands of users, targeted advertising simply wouldn’t make enough money in a developing nation like Cuba. By June 2012, ZunZuneo was offline.
Given how pervasive mobile messaging apps can be, governments around the world have almost certainly flirted with ways they can co-opt them for snooping or marketing, or create their own as USAID did. But the most effective route may be to work, transparently, with popular services that already exist.
In India, political parties have used messaging giant WhatsApp to send text messages to hundreds of thousands of their constituents, with the goal of reaching young, tech-savvy voters. Rather than pilfering a database of phone numbers, they require party members to sign up to their WhatsApp group voluntarily.
It’s unclear if USAID has since tried repeating the fake, ZunZuneo project in some other part of the world.
“It depends on the results of this mission,” says J.J. Thomson, CEO of security consultancy Rook Security. “If the core objective was fulfilled then it is likely to be replicated.”
Considering the failure of ZunZuneo, the answer may well be “no.”