When the Associated Press revealed that the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development had funded ZunZuneo as a sort of Twitter for Cuba, it provoked peals of laughter, ridicule and criticism. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy called it “dumb, dumb, dumb.” The senator has a point. The program did not last more than two years and USAID’s attempt to hide the U.S. government’s involvement in it clearly failed. In other words, the only the thing ZunZuneo did was embarrass the American people; Cubans are not more free and ZunZuneo has gone the way of many tech startups: failure and dissolution.
Yet, for all that, was the project as silly and stupid as Leahy concluded? Perhaps not. Since the beginning of the information age, tech advocates argued that new communication technologies will change the balance between freedom and tyranny in freedom’s favor. In theory, such technologies undermine the dictator’s ability to control information flows and create new ways for civil society to emerge and challenge the power of the state. The world saw this in Iran’s popular protests in 2009, when the most tech-savvy protestors led the way, and again in 2011, when youth across the Middle East relied on Facebook and Twitter to organize, get their messages out, and report on events. Observers didn’t call those upheavals the “Twitter” or “Facebook” revolutions for nothing. Indeed, one of the most well-known protestors was Wael Ghonim, Google’s Egyptian head of marketing in the Middle East and North Africa.
Yet, as a force for democracy and freedom, the spread of information technology is unproven. After all, the Iranian “revolution” failed and results across the Arab world are mixed. Egypt’s dictatorship now is stronger than it was before Ghonim’s generation took to Tahrir Square. Moreover, the world’s dictators, and the authoritarian-inclined, excel at using information technology to suppress their citizens. China is notorious for locking up the denizens of cyberspace merely for expressing an opinion the party deems inappropriate.
Even so, would-be dictators and authoritarians everywhere treat information technology in general, and social media in particular, as a threat to their control. Freedom House reports that of 60 countries surveyed, 34 decreased internet freedom by blocking services, censoring content, and arresting bloggers, among other tactics. Predictably, the list includes most authoritarian states: China, Vietnam, Russia and Iran, for example, and a disturbing number of Latin American countries, notably Venezuela and Brazil. The same day the Associated Press reported on ZunZeneo, Turkey lifted its two-week-old ban on Twitter, imposed after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan objected to widely-followed “tweets” about corruption in his government. At the time, Erdogan’s party was facing local elections, which it subsequently won. (YouTube remains banned.)
Promoting the spread of information technologies, including Twitter-like social media services, is not a substitute for a strategy to advance the causes of representative government and individual liberty. But, it will be a component of any successful attempt to build a better world. Notwithstanding the half-baked notion of using USAID for that purpose, the Keystone Cops-like implementation of it, or the subsequent insistence by White House officials that a program meant to remain covert is not, legally, a covert program, a Twitter-like service for Cuba would be good for Cubans’ ability to communicate with one another outside the constraints of their government, good for Cuba, and good for the United States. It was “dumb” for USAID to launch a program in which the American people had to hide their involvement; efforts to help Cubans (indeed, anyone living under a dictatorship) communicate with one another outside the restrictions of their government is something in which Americans should take pride.
Eric Sterner is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute. He has held senior staff positions for the House Armed Services and Science Committees and served at NASA and the Department of Defense.