Well, that was nice – those few years we thought we could reach out over the internet to “connect authentically.”
Heady with the success of the Arab Spring, and the galvanizing role of Facebook in organizing the Ukrainian protest group EuroMaidan, netizens the world over justifiably may have been feeling that social media is the tool of the masses. The recent flap over the USAID’s (United States Agency on International Aid) blunder with the social media platform ZunZuneo in Cuba shows that things have just gotten more complicated.
A powerful tool is bound to be co-opted for use by other forces than “ordinary” citizenry at some point. Social media’s successes in helping large, anonymous groups to effectively find sympathizers and quickly organize is clearly too great not to tempt larger organizations with their own agendas. Yes, it’s true that commercial interests are using social media with resounding success. But it is in their interest to communicate honestly about who and what they are and what they are selling.
Turns out, USAID saw the potential of Twitter and sought to harness it for its own purposes in Cuba, although USAID offers a humanitarian spin on the creation of the Twitter-like ZunZuneo.
Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet, ZunZuneo was a social media platform developed by third-party contractors and distributed to the Cuban public via an SMS text blast in 2009. The microblogging site, which enabled users to accumulate followers and ostensibly exchange information about such everyday topics as weather and music was popular until its demise (following USAID withdrawal of funding) in 2012. The site reportedly had 68,000 users.
It is now known, however, that the real purpose of Zunzuneo was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
The effect of the operation has been far different to what its originators – whoever they are – must have intended.
What is known is that the platform’s implementation coincides with the arrest in Cuba of American Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 in Cuba for his activities in trying to set up a network for Cuban Jews.
Now the world watches and – perhaps somewhat wearily – struggles to find the truth among the semantics of the accounts being given by the major players.
Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT, chair of the committee overseeing USAID at the time, says that he was never told of the Zunzuneo plan. USAID head Rajiv Shah states that he “doesn’t specifically” know who ordered the creation of the platform, although he was charged with implementing it soon after taking his position at the agency. Shah, in a less than convincing manner, maintains that the creation of ZunZuneo was not covert, it was “discreet”.
USAID has been quick to respond with its own version of events on the USAID website on Monday, but the PR damage has been done. Cynicism is rearing its relentless head, and following yesterday’s testimony by Shah in front of the subcommittee that oversees USAID’s budget, Senator Patrick Leahy didn’t stop at calling the whole idea “dumb, dumb, dumb”. He also branded it as “cockamamie”.
His Republican colleague, Senator Mike Johanns, also questioned the entire validity of USAID’s social media project. As a supposedly humanitarian agency, becoming involved in an operation that went beyond the creation of resources to answer basic human need – things like bridges, roads, and food sources, seems to be outside its purview, he said. Shah answered that the platform answered a basic need for information infrastructure.
The platform, though, violated Cuban government restrictions on internet use, and may have unpleasant – at best – consequences for Alan Gross, now on a hunger strike in a Cuban jail to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and the U.S. governments. Leahy also expressed concern for USAID workers all over the world, who now will be viewed with suspicion and could be harmed if they are tarred with the spy brush. Genuinely important humanitarian work may be at risk. Recently thawing relations with Cuba have suffered a setback.
It’s a rough break for an administration that showed such early promise in advancing the American reputation on the world stage. So soon after provoking the outrage of the German government over the eavesdropping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone and the controversy sparked by Edward Snowden’s revelations of U.S. mass surveillance, the world is treated to the spectacle of another ill-advised scheme that screams of inauthenticity.
Perhaps this has all come at the right time in history. Just as many users have embraced open sharing and unquestioning trust in their digital society, we’re reminded that holding the power of social media tools will always require the vigilance of an informed public. And once again, we are reminded that authenticity is everything.