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Cuba: Debate on Yoani Sánchez's Twitter Account

Categories: Latin America, Cuba, Mexico, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Technology

On February 26, 2012, an opinion article [1] [es] published in the Mexico City-based daily newspaper La Jornada called Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez a “fraud” because of her high levels of activity and popularity on Twitter. A year after Sánchez began her blog, Generación Y [2] [es], the site was garnering an average of 15 million views per month. Since this time, Sánchez has received numerous accolades from press freedom and human rights organizations around the world. On Twitter, Sánchez has 226,000 followers (as of March 8, 2012) and follows roughly 80,000 people.

Op-ed author Salim Lamrani, a French scholar and regular contributor to The Huffington Post [3] and to Cuban state media such as CubaDebate [4] [es], argues that Internet access restrictions in Cuba should make it impossible for Sánchez to maintain this level of activity on Twitter.

…[R]esulta absolutamente imposible seguir a más de 80 mil personas, sólo por sms o a partir de una conexión semanal desde un hotel. Un acceso diario a la red es indispensable para ello.
Yoani Sánchez emite un promedio de 9.3 mensajes al día. En 2011, la bloguera publicó un promedio de 400 mensajes al mes. El precio de un mensaje en Cuba es de un peso convertible (CUC), lo que representa un total de 400 CUC mensuales.

It is absolutely impossible to follow more than 80,000 people, only via sms or through a weekly connection at a hotel. Daily access to the web would be imperative for this.
Yoani Sánchez [tweets] 9.3 messages per day. In 2011, the blogger published an average of 400 messages per month. The price of [sending] a message in Cuba is at least one convertible peso [CUC, about $1.40 USD], which would represent 400 CUC per month.
Screenshot of Twitter feed for Yoani Sanchez. [5]

Screenshot of Twitter feed for Yoani Sanchez.

Lamrani’s claims begged bloggers and Twitter users to speculate on how Sánchez maintains such a robust presence on the microblogging site without regular access to the Web. (Note: While Lamrani points to the difficulties that Cubans face in accessing the web, he also reveals the astronomical cost of sending an SMS or text message via cell phone in Cuba.)

Like Lamrani, blogger Josep Calvet [6] [es] concluded that Sánchez must be receiving outside help with her account:

Podría ocurrir que esas personas a las que sigue [Yoani Sánchez], hayan sido las primeras en seguirla a ella y ella responde siguiéndolos. Eso [requeriria] unos recursos enormes que ella afirma no tiene. […] [En] mi cuenta de Twitter que si quiero tener seguidores, una forma elemental es seguir a mucha gente y siempre se obtiene reciprocidad. Pero yo sé lo que eso cuesta en dedicación, teniendo una conexión bastante buena. En este caso, son terceras personas las que administran esa cuenta. ¿Quiénes?

It could be that these people that [Yoani Sánchez] follows began following her first, and that she responded by following them. This would [require]…some enormous resources that she says she does not have. […] [On] my Twitter account, if I want to get [more] followers, an elemental way is to follow many people and to always obtain reciprocity. But I know what this costs in dedication, even having a really good connection. In [Sánchez's] case, third parties must administer the account. Who are they?

Sánchez has openly explained that her blog is hosted in Germany and operated by friends who reside abroad. She has never said that she receives outside help with her Twitter account, but considering the evidence that Lamrani cites, it is reasonable to assume that she does. Some argue that she does this simply in her best interest: she wants her message to reach as many people as possible, so she has solicited help from others. Whether or not this makes her a “fraud” may be a matter of opinion.

Lamrani also noted that Sánchez has numerous “ghost” followers, a point that he found using the Twitter analytics program Followerwonk. Roughly 10 percent of Sánchez's 226,000 followers have tweeted a maximum of three times since they joined Twitter. The report also shows that Sánchez has large numbers of followers who follow only her.

Barcelona-based Cuban writer and Penúltimos Días author Ernesto Hernández Busto [7] [es] rejected the notion that these so-called “ghost” followers proved Sánchez a fraud:

Salim Lamrani —y toda la e-propaganda cubana—, escandalizados porque el 1 % de los seguidores de Yoani Sánchez en Twitter no tiene ningún seguidor. Hay que ser un ignorante sobre el funcionamiento de las redes sociales para convertir eso en noticia. En todas las cuentas populares de Twitter de este mundo hay trolls, robots y seguidores sin seguidor.

Salim Lamrani – and all Cuban e-propaganda- scandalized by the 1% of followers of Yoani Sánchez on Twitter who have no followers. One has to be ignorant about the way that social networks work in order to call this news. On all popular Twitter accounts in the world there are trolls, robots and followers who have no followers of their own.

Lamrani’s article did not acknowledge that high profile Twitter users are likely to receive more spam and encounter more robots than those who have a few hundred or even a few thousand followers. Ryan Singel, editor at Wired Magazine [8], explained the Twitter “bot” phenomenon after interviewing Del Harvey, Twitter’s head of trust and safety:

The people behind [bots] are hoping to appeal to your narcissism. If you’re someone who reflexively follows anyone who follows you, you’ll be inviting spam messages until you unfollow or block the offending accounts.
One website that sells Twitter bot software promises to acquire 1,500 to 3,500 followers per week. The software lets spammers control multiple accounts, mask their IP address via proxies, and find followers by location or time zone for targeted hits.

It is important to recognize that Sánchez's activity on Twitter represents only one among many pieces of evidence of her popularity in Latin America and throughout the world. It is difficult to know what individuals or entities might be helping to maintain her ever-growing online presence. Regardless of claims from either side of the debate, it is clear that Sánchez's message continues to reach and affect millions of Internet users around the world, and this is a powerful engine for her cause.