From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Type of site
Social networking service, microblogging
Available inMultilingual
Area servedCuba
OwnerUnited States Agency for International Development
UsersAbout 60,000
Current statusDissolved

ZunZuneo was an online United States state owned company social networking and microblogging service marketed to Cuban users. The service was created in 2010 by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) following recommendations by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and was covertly developed as a long-term strategy to encourage Cuban youths to revolt against the nation's government, fomenting a Cuban Spring[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]


Origins and funding[edit]

The word "zunzuneo" is Cuban slang for a hummingbird's call.[10] The origins of ZunZuneo result from the USAID allocating millions of dollars that were concealed as humanitarian funds designated for Pakistan.[1][11] Contractors funded by USAID "set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit[ed] unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company's ties to the US government", according to an Associated Press (AP) report which traced the origin of the service.[12][13] Private companies Creative Associates International and Mobile Accord were reported to have designed the network.[13][14] According to Creative Associates, the idea arose after they were provided 500,000 stolen Cuban cellphone numbers from a "source" who said they were available on the black market.[9][15] NiteMedia, an organization in Nicaragua which was run by a relative of a manager of Creative Associates International, was chosen to be a subcontractor.[16] Creative Associates International won the contract for their proposal in October 2008 and grant funding for ZunZuneo began in June 2009.[15]

ZunZuneo was founded in 2010 shortly after the arrest of USAID contractor Alan Gross in Cuba.[17] The network, dubbed the "Cuban Twitter", reached about 60,000 Cuban subscribers.[1][18] The initiative also appears to have had a surveillance dimension, allowing "a vast database about Cuban ZunZuneo subscribers, including gender, age, 'receptiveness' and 'political tendencies'" to be built, with the AP noting that such data could be used in the future for "political purposes".[1] This data would then be used for microtargeting efforts towards anti- and pro-government users.[5] The developers aimed to use "non-controversial content", such as sports and music, to build up subscribers and to then introduce political messages through social bots to encourage dissent in an astroturfing initiative.[4][12][19][20][21]

The United States Department of State reportedly attempted to have Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey assume leadership of the network.[1] ZunZuneo was discontinued in 2012 since funding was not self-sustaining and legal issues involved with paying the Cuban government that were not in accordance to U.S. law.[12][14][20]


The AP released an exposé on ZunZuneo in April 2014 after independently reviewing thousands of pages of documents about its function.[1] Following the report, the US government acknowledged that it funded the service but denied that it was a covert program.[12] According to a USAID spokesperson, the program was reviewed by the Government Accountability Office in 2013, and found to have been executed in accordance with US law.[13] The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations requested documents about the program from USAID.[22] A Office of Inspector General, U.S. Agency for International Development review from December 2015 said that "the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), advocated measures to hasten the regime’s downfall, including efforts to bypass the Cuban Government’s restrictions on communication" and that "ZunZuneo ... was designed to carry out CAFC’s recommendations to foster democracy."[15]


In 2014, the US Office of Cuba Broadcasting announced that it was creating a ZunZuneo successor, Piramideo, which could send group messages to an entire contact for the price of one text message.[23] The platform is designed to spread anti-communist, pro-United States propaganda and fake news promoting protests that never occurred.[23][24]


United States relations director Josefina Vidal of the Cuban Foreign Ministry described ZunZuneo as "illegal" and part of "subversive programs" enacted by the United States towards Cuba in an interview with NPR.[25]

Investigative journalist Jon Lee Anderson described the response from the United States as "bald-faced disingenuousness" and said that "there seems to be little doubt that ZunZuneo functioned as a secret intelligence operation aimed ultimately at subversion."[26] Americas Quarterly said that the project violated Cuban law and the privacy rights of citizens.[27] Mark Hanson of the Washington Office on Latin America said that those who supported the project were "who are the ones to seek the regime change—they believe in initiatives to destabilize the [Cuban] government", describing ZunZuneo as "wasteful."[28][undue weight? ] The Nation criticized the U.S. government's use of USAID, saying that it should participate in genuine assistance "without the hidden hand of government manipulation or a hidden agenda of regime change."[7][undue weight? ]

The project received various comparisons. The Washington Post compared the project to previous assassination attempts on Fidel Castro.[17] Lars Schoultz in his book In Their Own Best Interest: A History of the U.S. Effort to Improve Latin Americans likened the ZunZuneo affair to Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.[16]

In his conclusion to his 2017 book We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves, John Cheney-Lippold writes that "As everything we do becomes datafied, everything we do becomes controllable", citing ZunZuneo as a "malicious" example of how governments can influence the public.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Butler, Desmond; Gillum, Jack; Arce, Alberto (April 3, 2014). "US secretly created 'Cuban Twitter' to stir unrest". Associated Press News. Archived from the original on April 3, 2014. Retrieved August 9, 2022.
  2. ^ Fernandes, Sujatha (2020). The Cuban hustle: culture, politics, everyday life. Durham London: Duke University Press. ISBN 9781478008705. The name ZunZuneo is slang for a hummingbird's tweet. The program, which was paid for and run by USAID, drew up to forty thousand unwitting Cubans through the distribution of innocuous-seeming news and music content, with the idea that political operatives would begin launching calls for political mobilization once it reached a critical mass. The hope was to trigger a Cuban Spring.
  3. ^ Ayestarán, Manuel González. (2014). "Acercamiento al estudio de la guerra mediática contra Cuba: representación de Cuba en 4 documentales de TVE". Historia y Comunicación Social. 14: 299–319.
  4. ^ a b Al-Rawi, Ahmed K. (2021). "2 Cyberwars and International Politics". Cyberwars in the Middle East. New Brunswick Camden Newark, New Jersey London: Rutgers University Press. pp. 30–31. ISBN 9781978810112. To achieve its astroturfing objective, USAID created front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to conceal the sources of money and used fake ad banners to give the impression ZunZuneo was a commercial enterprise. The objective was to encourage and organize 'smart mobs' and trigger a so-called Cuban Spring.
  5. ^ a b Cheney-Lippold, John (2017). We are data: algorithms and the making of our digital selves. New York: New York University press. pp. 130–131. ISBN 978-1-4798-5759-3. Quite saliently, this is what political campaigns call 'microtargeting,' in which data-driven profiles tailor political messages to potential voters on the basis of demographics, interests, and hobbies. And quite unsurprisingly, this is also exactly what the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) did from 2010 to 2012 in a haphazard attempt to destabilize Cuba with a 'Cuban Twitter' named ZunZuneo. ... U.S. state-employed contractors also devel-oped the aforementioned three political measurable types with goals of fomenting what was optimistically called a 'Cuban Spring.'
  6. ^ "What A Failed Hip-Hop Experiment Can Teach Us About The Future Of U.S.-Cuba Relations". NPR. December 22, 2014. Zunzuneo, or 'Cuban Twitter,' was a 2010 project to build a social-media network to facilitate regime change.
  7. ^ a b LeoGrande, William M. (April 23, 2014). "Washington's Secret 'Cuba Twitter' Program Is the Same Old Policy of Regime Change". The Nation. ISSN 0027-8378. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  8. ^ Cherian, John (May 14, 2014). "U.S. dirty tricks". The Hindu. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  9. ^ a b Bryan, Nakayama (Summer 2022). "Democracies and the Future of Offensive (Cyber-Enabled) Information Operations". The Cyber Defense Review. 7 (3): 49–66. One of the first instances of large-scale social media manipulation was conducted by the US against Cuba to promote a democratic revolution. ... the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) leveraged a stolen database of Cuban cell phone numbers to create an SMS-based Twitter-like social network called ZunZuneo, which was designed to foment anti-regime activity ... The goals were to 'move more people toward the democratic activist camp without detection' and help organize anti-regime 'smart mobs.'
  10. ^ Lewis, Paul; Roberts, Dan (April 3, 2014). "White House denies 'Cuban Twitter' ZunZuneo programme was covert". The Guardian. Retrieved August 9, 2022.
  11. ^ Brownlee, Billie Jeanne (2020). "Chapter 5: Media Development and ForeignAid Assistance". New media and revolution: resistance and dissent in pre-uprising Syria. Montreal Kingston London Chicago: McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 160. ISBN 9780228000884. the West's foreign aid investment is not driven by development aims exclusively, but by broader political and strategic aims, among which is to destabilise unfriendly regimes. ... However, in countries like Cuba, these techniques have been short-lived. The multi-million dollar programme of USAID, disguised as humanitarian aid, established an anti-regime social network called ZunZuneo designed to spark political dissent. The attempt failed when the authorities discovered the truth about it in early 2014. Interestingly, the US's attempts to destabilise the Castro regime through media development projects goes back to the late 1980s, employing radio or tv stations like Radio and TV Martì, which broadcasts from Miami and is aimed at encouraging bottom-up revolts against the communist regime.
  12. ^ a b c d "US confirms it made 'Cuban Twitter'". BBC News. April 3, 2014. Retrieved August 9, 2022.
  13. ^ a b c Meyer, Robinson (April 4, 2014). "The Fall of Internet Freedom: Meet the Company That Secretly Built 'Cuban Twitter'". The Atlantic. Retrieved April 8, 2014.
  14. ^ a b "In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change". The New York Times. November 10, 2014. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  15. ^ a b c "REVIEW OF USAID'S CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY SUPPORT PROGRAM: REVIEW REPORT NO. 9-000-16-001-S" (PDF). Office of Inspector General, U.S. Agency for International Development. December 22, 2015.
  16. ^ a b Schoultz, Lars (2018). In their own best interest: a history of the U.S. effort to improve Latin Americans. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press. pp. 284–285. ISBN 9780674984141. Creative also lacked in-house expertise, so it subcontracted primarily with Denver-based Mobile Accord, which received ten subcontracts to implement ZunZuneo. Two additional subcontracting grants went to NiteMedia, a Nicaraguan business focusing on mass email messaging. NiteMedia was operated by a relative of Creative Associates' operations manager. ... Two years later, Russia made exactly the same innovative effort to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
  17. ^ a b Roig-Franzia, Manuel (April 3, 2014). "USAID effort to undermine Cuban government with fake 'Twitter' another anti-Castro failure". The Washington Post.
  18. ^ Keating, Joshua (April 3, 2014). "Only Built 4 Cuban Tweets". Slate. Retrieved August 9, 2022.
  19. ^ Howard, Philip N. (2020). Lie machines: how to save democracy from troll armies, deceitful robots, junk news operations, and political operatives. New Haven London: Yale University Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-300-25020-6. Sometimes Western governments are unabashed about using social media for political manipulation. For example, the US Agency for International Development tried to seed a 'Cuban Twitter' that would gain lots of followers through sports and entertainment coverage and then release political messages by using bots.
  20. ^ a b Wiseman, Geoffrey (2015). "8. Cuba: Public Diplomacy as a Battle of Ideas". Isolate or engage: adversarial states, US foreign policy, and public diplomacy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. pp. 250–251. ISBN 978-0-8047-9388-9. In 2014, the Associated Press revealed that USAID had created a secret Twitter-like text-messaging program, nicknamed "ZunZuneo" (Cuban slang for the sound hummingbirds make), to send texts directly to Cuban cell-phone users and enable them to send free texts to each other. After building a user base by focusing on sports and entertainment, the plan was to send users political messages critical of the Cuban regime. The long-term hope was that ZunZuneo might catalyze 'flash mobs' of regime opponents, analogous to how social media mobilized people during Iran's Green Revolution and the Arab Spring. Although ZunZuneo attracted about 60,000 users at its peak, it was discontinued in 2012 because it was not financially viable. USAID was paying substantial fees (through intermediaries, to hide the origin of the funds) to Cuba's government-owned telephone company to cover the costs of all the texts—a financial transfer that was not strictly consistent with US law.
  21. ^ Augustin, Ed; Montero, Daniel (August 3, 2021). "Why the internet in Cuba has become a US political hot potato". The Guardian. Retrieved November 8, 2021.
  22. ^ "Senate committee probes 'Cuban Twitter' USAid ZunZuneo programme". The Guardian. Associated Press. April 10, 2014. Retrieved May 14, 2014.
  23. ^ a b Brenner, Philip; García Castro, Teresa (Summer 2017). "A Long Legacy of Distrust and the Future of Cuban-US Relations". Social Research. 84 (2): 470–471. doi:10.1353/sor.2017.0027. S2CID 149331117. They undermine Cuba's trust that the United States would not attempt to use open communications for subversive purposes. This suspicion was reinforced in 2014 by revelations about two US-sponsored clandestine programs intended to cause social disruptions. The first, ZunZuneo, was a Twitter-like project funded in 2011 and 2012, and designed to generate flash mobs of the sort that toppled governments during the so-called Arab Spring. The second, Pirimideo (Pyramid), was funded by the US Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which also oversees Radio and TV Martí. Cubans who signed up for Pirimideo could send cellphone text messages to their entire contact list for the cost of only one message. Subscribers also received texts with false news—for example, about demonstrations that had not actually occurred—and were encouraged to pass on the information
  24. ^ Erlich, Reese (July 18, 2014). "U.S. Funding (Another) Social Network to Try to Overthrow Castro". The Huffington Post. The GroundTruth Project. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  25. ^ "Cuba Maintains U.S. Embargo Is Harsh Financial Persecution". NPR. June 25, 2014.
  26. ^ Anderson, Jon Lee (April 4, 2014). "The Dangerous Absurdity of the Secret "Cuban Twitter"". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  27. ^ Biddle, Ellery Roberts (Spring 2015). "Decoding the Digital Cold War". Americas Quarterly. 9 (2): 93–97. The project stood in clear violation of Cuban laws that prohibit U.S. government agencies from working on the island. But more importantly, the platform's surveillance component violated the privacy rights of its Cuban users. It is hard to believe that the concept of ZunZuneo was not inspired, at least in part, by social movements in the Middle East and North Africa. It is equally difficult to imagine that the Cuban government, known for its surveillance capabilities, has not interpreted these developments as thinly veiled attempts at subversion.
  28. ^ Gamboa, Aldo. "ZunZuneo: The new sound of US-Cuban discord". Agence France-Presse. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  29. ^ Cheney-Lippold, John (2017). We are data: algorithms and the making of our digital selves. New York: New York University press. p. 262. ISBN 978-1-4798-5759-3. As everything we do becomes datafied, everything we do becomes controllable. So when we combine 'we are data' with 'inside us all is a code,' we see that who we are becomes controlled, too. Let's remember the case of ZunZuneo, the 'Cuban Twitter' from chapter 2, which high-lights how governments use big data for malicious ends. And let's also remember that the USAID-based surveillance program was shut down only two years after it began due to funding issues.