The three burials of the Cuban digital sphere

por Harold Cardenas Lema

A group of nerds created the Internet on the assumption that a connected world should have to be better. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook would make the world ‘a more open place’ and Fidel Castro described the web as a ‘revolutionary instrument’. They were all wrong. Today the world isn’t better, social networks are a hostile environment and many Cubans there become radicalized in conservative stances. The use of the Internet as a political weapon is marking 2020. It began with a song by Silvio Rodríguez, a poem by Ray Fernández and a video by Eduardo del Llano, three scenes in which national dialog lost to political opportunism.

In december 2016, Edgar Welch went into a Washington D.C. pizza parlor with an assault rifle. The 29-year-old young man stormed the place to save the children that Hillary Clinton exploited in her child prostitution network. Not having found Democratic Party sex slaves, he was arrested, and acknowledged having been influenced by conspiracy theories in social media and in non-specialized opinion forums. The conservatives had activated a blindly trusting soldier.

There’s abundant literature about the use of social media as weapons of war. The book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media explains the methodology: to create a narrative, to provide it with emotion, to give it a touch of authenticity, to gather a community around that discourse and to flood the web. This operating manual describes the behavior of radical actors in our social media. From the new Cuban-American McCarthyism promoted by Otaola and the media that support him, to the fanaticism of some officials in Havana and their followers, the extremes are very similar to each other.

Both groups use you and discard you at their convenience

When Silvio Rodríguez criticized the use of a fragment of one of his songs and Orishas answered back, an opportunity for the tribes arose. The Granma newspaper, which never publishes the political comments made by the songwriter in his blog, saw fit then to come out in his defense. The Cuban-American right, forgetting their criticism of the hip-hop group for having participated in the Peace without Borders concert, came out to defend it from Silvio’s ‘attacks’. Social media then became flooded with analyses by users which stretched legality and the facts to arrive at results which satisfied their political preferences.

Two weeks ago, Ray Fernández shared a ten-line stanza in his Facebook profile criticizing those who smeared with blood the busts of the Cuban Apostle. As Clandestinos were already a symbol of the opposition, criticism of the musician wasn’t long in coming. The horror came when Fernández declared himself a communist; it was hard to understand how a nonconformist artist, who writes critical songs, could also be a communist. The right, which until recently imagined him a prodigal son, denounced him with attempts at digital bullying, and unsuccessfully tried to culturally cancel him. And the more viscerally he was criticized from one end, the more purposefully was he defended from the other. Cubadebate, which never talked about Ray’s greatest hit, ‘Lucha tu Yuca’, then devoted highly favorable articles to his declarations.

For a decade, Eduardo del Llano has been creating videos and films which question the national reality. He is described in his Wikipedia page as ‘a critic of the Cuban government’. When he made a video asking that the death of three girls due to a collapsing building in Havana not be used politically, debacle ensued. Media with an opposition agenda such as ADN Cuba, CiberCuba and Diario de Cuba soon changed the favorable tone they had so far used with the filmmaker. Possibly some party members who celebrated the video shared by del Llano thought he was a CIA agent until then.

Fortunately, there are also people who support or condemn following their conscience, not convenience

Behind the criticism of Silvio, Ray and Eduardo there’s more than an exercise of civic opinion. While economic sanctions to Cuba grow, funding for regime change flows into the hands of the media and figures of the opposition and Cuban exiles. It would be interesting to know how many of those who tear their hair for democracy in Cuba receive funds to influence national domestic policy, something the United States forbids in its territory. International law considers it illegal, and it’s unacceptable for any country under any political system. Having your pockets filled by the same person who chokes your people is an interesting show of patriotism. There’s people who jumped in the Trump wagon and like to pretend they go with Obama, or Martí.

In Florida there’s plenty of media and digital endeavors which are not journalism, but their political propaganda is good business. Some receiving federal funding to have an influence in Cuba and others competing to get in the game, they all feed off the morbid curiosity of an audience of expatriates who seek to channel their nostalgia and feels powerless about the situation in the island. The Cuban government, which for decades had a discriminatory policy towards its expatriates, handed them over to that industry of resentment which today politically radicalizes them with conservative values. This happens in the US with federal funds. One might ask whether it’s legal to politically activate a vulnerable sector of expatriates in favor of the Republican Party. I don’t think so.

There are several types of influencers in social media, some more responsible than others, but most with a tendency towards scandal and to shows which increase their audience. It shouldn’t surprise us either that Cubans go from political apathy to visceral right-wing criticism, sometimes with racist or totalitarian undertones, and with abundant misspellings. And if Trump has an audience for his show, Cuba has an audience for gossip and nastiness.

While government trolls (ciberclarias) are denounced and called names, the ones in the opposition operate freely and namelessly

There are signs that the Cuban government has created organized groups on the Internet to insert favorable digital narratives, and there’s evidence that media paid for by the American taxpayer, such as Martí Noticias, create false profiles on the web to distribute their content and create an image of popular support. While this digital war continues to escalate, the social media dynamic promotes the worst practices. Political analysts often have fewer followers than opinion merchants, and an expert’s analysis is not as read as a strident claim.

In the last month, the Cuban digital sphere had three chances to keep the short-term goals of its belligerent groups from imposing themselves. In each of them the dialog was dead from the beginning. Nobody recognized the hypocrisy of either assimilating or discarding three artists in dispute, or what that means for the building of the nation and the pending reconciliatory process. Social media in particular became toxic, from Twitter gangs to groups of friends on Facebook, all giving each other likes. Having the possibility of choosing our contacts confined us to a circle of like-minded people who reinforce our own beliefs. We live in a constant echo chamber, believing we represent the majority.

On October 29, 1969, an UCLA student, Charley Kline, tried to transmit the word ‘login’ to a computer in Stanford. After the letters ‘L’ and ‘O’, the system crashed. With this error and an incomplete message appeared ARPANET, which would later evolve into the Internet. Maybe we have to bury the dialog once and again until we find the formula for digital coexistence, but I very much fear that human interaction is more complex than technology. Charley Kline should have typed another word in his keyboard: love.

(Translated from the original)

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