The US government subverts Twitter

Via reader Marcus Ranum, I learned of this story where it has been revealed that the US government agency known as USAID (US Agency for International Development) set up a fake Twitter network to create the impression of popular unrest against the Cuban government.

The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” – a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.

The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.

Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used some day for political purposes.

As Jon Lee Anderson writes in the New Yorker, the Obama administration as usual lies about what it is doing.

The contractors who ran the program are said to have concealed its U.S.-government origins via an offshore system of front companies and foreign servers, and to have collected data on subscribers’ “political tendencies” and “receptiveness,” among other useful information. The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, declared that ZunZuneo was a “neither covert nor an intelligence program,” preferring instead to call it a “discreet” form of humanitarian assistance to Cubans who lived in a “non-permissive environment.”

This kind of bald-faced disingenuousness is risible. Whatever it is labelled, there seems to be little doubt that ZunZuneo functioned as a secret intelligence operation aimed ultimately at subversion. The A.P. reported that one of the aims of the program was to help foster a resistance that could stage “smart mobs” to protest Castro’s rule.

This was not a surprise to me. The US government has always been in the practice of destabilizing those governments that it seeks to overthrow by creating the impression that there is popular opposition in that country to the government. It does this by organizing local front groups purportedly composed of ordinary citizens, financing opposition groups and media outlets, bribing journalists and media commentators to plant stories locally and overseas that create false impressions of opposition to the government, and other means.

In his classic 1975 book Inside the Company: CIA Diary, excerpts of which can be read here, ex-CIA agent Philip Agee revealed all the ways that the CIA used to create these false impressions. The basic tactics remain unchanged but the technology has advanced. Agee was another whistleblower to whom we can be grateful.

USAID is one such front organization set up in the US to launder CIA money. The infamous National Endowment for Democracy, whose goal is anything but democracy, was created by president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s as a front to continue to do what the CIA had done, since at that time the CIA had become discredited by the Agee and Church Commission revelations. The NED is essentially a way for the CIA to launder money that it wants to send to the countries that are targeted for subversion.

Glenn Greenwald has more on this latest story.

According to top-secret documents published today by The Intercept, this sort of operation is frequently discussed at western intelligence agencies, which have plotted ways to covertly use social media for ”propaganda,” “deception,” “mass messaging,” and “pushing stories.”

These ideas–discussions of how to exploit the internet, specifically social media, to surreptitiously disseminate viewpoints friendly to western interests and spread false or damaging information about targets–appear repeatedly throughout the archive of materials provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Documents prepared by NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ–and previously published by The Intercept as well as some by NBC News–detailed several of those programs, including a unit devoted in part to “discrediting” the agency’s enemies with false information spread online.

This is why I am very skeptical of ‘news reports’ of ‘popular demonstrations’ of people against governments that the US opposes, such as in Venezuela or Cuba or Ukraine. These are the foreign equivalents of the astroturf movements in the US, where wealthy groups fund what on the surface look like ordinary citizen movements. The latest Twitter revelations just add to my skepticism.

The tragedy is that when the CIA does things like subvert Twitter and other communications networks for its own ends, then genuine grass-roots opposition and human rights groups get viewed with suspicion and can more easily be portrayed as agents of the CIA and thus discredited.


  1. 5Up Mushroom says

    I may be wrong about this, but this really doesn’t have anything to do with Twitter. It’s suggested that the US government launched a web service, much like Twitter, for Cuba. Twitter, itself, is only being used in these stories as a comparison.

  2. says

    In fairness, the “occupy” protests do appear to have been domestic and not motivated by CIA fronts (though there appear to have been FBI provocateurs involved). So not all popular protests are fake.

    The popular protests in Libya that kicked off the rebellion there and the initial cadre of rebels appear to be CIA funded and sponsored. Basically, they have one playbook, which they try over and over again.

    But Russia and China are evil when they do it.

  3. says

    Yes, it was a twitter-like service.

    The US does tell twitter to resist government interference when it’s a rebellion “we” want to foment, but pressures twitter to block communications when it’s rioting in London. Because popular unrest is both democracy in action and really bad. Or something.

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