A group of 19 Twitter accounts had identical views on the forthcoming presidential election in Honduras. They shared their opinions at exactly the same moment, 10:16am on October 7. All claimed to be supporting Xiomara Castro and suggested Castro may join forces with Yani Rosethal, another candidate, who was just released from a U.S. prison sentence for laundering money for a drug gang.
“If she forgets about the people to do business with Yani Rosenthal, I won’t even go to vote,” a user named Tere Bautista tweeted. A user named Wilfredo Rolan seemed to agree, tweeting “If she joins ex-con Rosenthal I’m not even going to vote,” along with a money laundering meme.
None of these were real Hondurans—or real people, according to a new analysis shared with TIME by Nisos, a cybersecurity firm based in Virginia. These profiles were linked to Facebook pages belonging to unsuspecting Peruvians located thousands of miles from their homes.
The tweets were one of several waves of coordinated posts from hundreds of fake Twitter accounts in an ongoing disinformation campaign ahead of Honduras’ Nov. 28 election, spreading conspiracies about opposition candidates and seeming to deter citizens from voting at all.
They’re part of an ongoing online influence campaign to boost the ruling party of President Juan Orlando Hernández, amplifying Hernández’s profile and sowing distrust and confusion among voters. Twitter and Facebook have taken down several inauthentic networks in recent years tied to people close to Hernández, who was reelected in 2017 Even though fraud accusations were made.
This latest push ahead of Honduras’ critical election underscores not only how ubiquitous online political disinformation has become in Central America, but how social media companies struggle—and often fail—to moderate or punish government-tied disinformation schemes in Latin America and other parts of the world. The Facebook Papers, an internal document leak, revealed details of how Facebook failed to curb abuses of the platform across the globe, especially in developing nations.
“It seems that Facebook invests more in users who make them more money, even though the danger may not be evenly distributed based on profitability,” Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, told a congressional panel on Oct. 5. “It’s like 87% of all the misinformation spending is spent on English, but only about like 9% of [Facebook’s] users are English speakers.”
Inauthentic, coordinated network of at least 317 Twitter accounts uncovered by Nisos’ analysts focused on discouraging Hondurans from voting for Castro, the opposition candidate. The wife of former President Manual Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup in 2009, Castro’s presidential run poses a serious challenge to the ruling National Party’s 12-year grip on the presidency.
The network circulated conspiracy theories over a period of eight days in October about her supposed political affiliation to a felon. They also disseminated information about corruption and money laundering and recommended that Hondurans not vote.
This has emerged as one of the most common tactics in Latin American political disinformation operations, says Esteban Ponce de León, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab based in Colombia. “Most of those narratives will be targeted against specific candidates,” he says. “This is one of the main ways these networks aim to affect or influence the elections, therefore affecting the integrity of the democratic process.”
While the Twitter network studied by Nisos didn’t focus on specifically encouraging voters to support the ruling party’s candidate Nasry Asfura, Asfura is the one only one who stands to gain from this online disinformation campaign, says Jackie Hicks, a senior intelligence analyst at Nisos. These accounts posted in waves with election-related hashtags for higher visibility between October 6 to 14, coinciding with a prominent politician’s endorsement of Castro. “It’s almost like the intent was to flood the political discourse,” says Hicks. “A regular person in Honduras looking up these topics would see this [as] information.”
Hicks says that most accounts claiming to be Honduran users are more than a decade old. These accounts were likely compromised or farmed accounts, which would have made it easy for them to buy. Many people connected to Facebook accounts, which eventually belonged to non-involved Peruvians. They used their photographs as their avatars.
A fake news website was set up after all the messages were received. It pretends to be a news agency. La Tribuna Honduras amplified the disinformation by reporting that “on Twitter, many voters are beginning to denounce a pact” between Castro and Rosenthal.” The inauthentic Twitter profiles then shared the article, creating a fake news feedback loop.
Twitter has removed this network After Nisos’s research was shared with the company, there were many fake accounts. Twitter did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Analysts Ex-employers say that social media companies’ Pattern of reactive reactions is always too little and too late, and that they don’t do enough to crack down on repeat offenders.
Hernández and the ruling party have benefited from several schemes in recent years similar to the one that Nisos uncovered.
Over one six-week period from June to July 2018, Hernández’s Facebook posts received likes from 59,100 users, more than 78% of which were not real people, according to Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist who became a whistleblower after she was fired in September 2020Poor performance was attributed to her obsession with tracking fake activity.
Zhang discovered that Hernández’s staff was directly involved in a scheme to boost the content of his Facebook page with hundreds of thousands of fake “likes.” They also ran countless fake profiles and pages to support it, posing as organizations, businesses, public figures and ordinary Hondurans to drive false engagement to the page.
Even though this violated Facebook’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” the company did not take action for nearly a year after Zhang alerted the teams in charge of stopping such activity, making it clear that they considered Honduras to not be a priority, she says. Zhang claims that many of the accounts she had left were still in use when she left.
“It took almost a year for me to get the operation taken down, and they came back right afterwards,” Zhang says.
In the same yearFacebook has removed hundreds of these people. Fake accounts running a coordinated influence campaign “to comment and amplify positive content,” about Hernández, According to a company press release. Facebook Also, it was taken down Numerous pages run political ads Supporting the President while attacking candidates in opposition is an attemptThe Digital Forensic Research LabStay tuned Find itThe Archimedes Group in Israel ran it. “black PR firm”These campaigns were similar to those that they led around the globe. DFRLab said that it wasn’t clear who paid the money for the advertisements.
In April 2020, a Twitter purge took down more than 3,100 accounts and 1.2 million tweets dedicated to the “clear amplification of positive content designed to benefit President Juan Orlando Hernández” that were tied to the president’s own social media manager, According to the Stanford Internet Observatory.
A second network of pages on Facebook and other websites was discovered last month. They were created to appear to be news sources legitimately and spread disinformation about Honduran opposition members. Be runBy a well-known Latin American political communications agency. This was the latest example in a long line of PR agencies that have made a profit from social media platforms in Latin America to influence their audiences. Rest of the WorldGlobal tech news site, Reuters, published the information at the time.
The problem isn’t spreading in Honduras alone. In Latin America, other politicians have launched their disinformation campaigns with great success.
For years, former Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno deployed a government-run A whole army of Twitter trolling trollsTo push his agenda. IMexicoYou can also find political parties Fake accounts and botsto encourage certain candidates before the 2018 or 2021 elections. In Peru, a Trump-style disinformation campaign by the runner-up in the country’s election this summer sought to stop the certification of her opponent’s victory. Facebook was also launched earlier in the month. Removing a Troll Farm of more than 1,000 inauthentic Facebook and Instagram accounts amplifying content supporting the country’s ruling party ahead of the Nov. 7 election. Facebook claimed that the cluster was connected to Nicaragua’s government.
As political disinformation campaigns have become alarmingly commonplace in the region, the government officials benefitting from them — and often backing them — have become more brazen.
In Honduras, Hernández was reelected in 2017 after orchestrating a highly disputed maneuver to remove constitutional term limits. His eight-year tenure has been marred by corruption allegations, and his brother, former Congressman Juan Antonio Hernández was sentenced by a U.S. court to life in prison for smuggling cocaine into the U.S. At the trial, prosecutors accused the Honduran president of being involved in the drug trafficking conspiracy himself. He denies all allegations.
In 2019, riots over new education and health regulations and protests calling for Hernández’ removal turned violent when Honduran police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators. This political and social crisis has led Honduras to have one of the highest murder rates worldwide, prompting mass migration to North America.
American companies’ too-little-too-late approach to disinformation enforcement in Latin America emboldens its leaders and their supporters to manipulate social media to their advantage, says Zhang, the former Facebook employee.
“Ultimately, Facebook is not doing enough to prevent these people from coming back,” Zhang says. “They just give people slaps on the wrist and hope it’s enough and it isn’t.”
Facebook and Twitter’s announcements when they take down these fake networks Assume that publicly calling them out will have an impact, but “some people are incapable of embarrassment,” she says. “They figure that they can sneak under the radar because people don’t care…And that’s certainly correct.”