With news breaking this week about USAID’s creation of a “Cuban Twitter,” it’s a perfect time to discuss the alignment of public diplomacy goals and the tools used to accomplish them. In this case, the tools, goals, concept, and the executor of the plan were all misaligned, dooming the project from the start.
The premise behind the Cuban Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, was to create an SMS (text message) based social network for Cuba, and build up a substantial user base by encouraging signups with innocuous, non-political messages. Eventually, after the network reached a large enough size, political messages could be introduced in order to call for street-protests and Arab Spring-style demonstrations against the Cuban government.
First, social media is neither a guarantor of a revolution, nor its success. In 2009, Twitter may have acted as a tool for organizing protest in Iran, but it’s important to remember how brutally those protests were put down. In China, Sina Weibo (now just Weibo) has been around for years, has over 500 million registered users, faces censorship, and has not generated any type of revolutionary change in the Chinese system of government. The conditions and will for revolution need to exist outside of the social network—the technology won’t create that for you.
Second, a network that can simply be shut down or blocked by a government opposed to the network is a truly fragile enterprise. ZunZuneo faced this prospect, and even though reaching only 40,000 subscribers in March 2011, its operators feared the Cuban government taking notice and blocking the service. The program operators’ solution to this problem was to limit the number of subscribers in order to keep it under the radar of the Cuban authorities. How, then, could this service have achieved its goals if it had to be small in order to not be noticed?
Third, online networks do not quite spread information in the same way that other networks do, nor do they inspire action in the same way. Taking Twitter, for example: how many people are aware of the conversations taking place on the network who don’t actively participate in the network? If you are not a participant, you are not “in the know,” and there is no guarantee the information will transcend from the virtual into the real world. Further reduce the impact by intentionally restricting the number of users in order to prevent it from being noticed, and the purpose is completely defeated.
Fourth, and less clear, is a key question about was whether ZunZuneo allowed for the free flow of information into and out of Cuba by users other than the network’s operators.
Though it is not entirely clear from the reporting on the topic, it appears that the way ZunZunzeo was set up, the control of information into the network from outside of Cuba was controlled and influenced primarily by the network’s operators. Given that the network was primarily SMS based and targeted specifically towards Cuban cell phone users, the number of participants from outside the country, even if they were technically and easily able to sign up for the service, would likely be very low.
Assuming minimal participation from private individuals outside of Cuba, the information flowing is still occurring in a relatively closed system, and verifying the validity of outside information is more difficult. In closed-off societies like Cuba, information doesn’t need to just flow freely between users in a single country—information needs to flow across national borders. Essentially, there is a difference in the type of information that is exchanged within a network intended for Cubans, and a global network Cubans can access.
Of course, it’s also important to note that ZunZuneo also had a website, but this is rather inconsequential in Cuba considering the low internet usage rates caused by extremely expensive cost of access, slow access, and a high level of government monitoring.
The lessons for the future made evident by ZunZuneo should be clear: revolutions are not dependent on or caused by social media—they are merely aided. Thousands of years of history show that electronic social media is not necessary for these revolutions to occur. This is about political influence—and that is a difficult thing to gain from afar.
In the meantime, keep an eye out next week for hearings on the subject.