Honduras shows how fake news is changing Latin American elections

At 10:16 pm on October 7, a group of 19 Twitter accounts shared identical opinions about the upcoming presidential election in Honduras at exactly the same second. Claiming to be a supporter of opposition candidate Xiomara Castro, they all falsely suggested that Castro might join forces with Yani Rosenthal, another candidate who had just returned home after serving a prison sentence in the US for money laundering. for a drug gang.

“If she forgot about the people doing business with Yani Rosenthal, I wouldn’t even go to the polls,” tweeted a user named Tere Bautista. A user named Wilfredo Rolan seemed to agree with the tweet “If she joins Rosenthal, I won’t even vote,” along with a money-laundering meme.
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According to a new analysis shared with TIME by Nisos, a cybersecurity company based in Virginia, none of these are real Hondurans or real people. Profile pictures on accounts linked back to Facebook pages of Peruvians thousands of miles away.

The tweets were one of several waves of coordinated posts from hundreds of fake Twitter accounts in an ongoing disinformation campaign ahead of Honduras’ November 28 election, spreading conspiracies about opposition candidates and seem to discourage citizens from voting.

They are part of an ongoing online influence campaign to promote President Juan Orlando Hernández’s ruling party, amplify Hernández’s profile and sow distrust and confusion among voters. Twitter and Facebook have taken down several unauthenticated networks in recent years linked to people close to Hernández, who was re-elected in 2017. despite accusations of fraud.

This latest push ahead of the pivotal Honduran elections not only highlights the prevalence of political misinformation online in Central America, but also how Social media companies struggle – and often fail – to censor or punish government-bound disinformation plots in Latin America and other parts of the world. Recent revelations on Facebook Papers, a trove of leaked internal documents, have provided details on how the platform has overlooked abuses of its platform in most of the rest of the countries. around the world and especially in developing countries.

“It looks like Facebook invests more in users that make them more profitable, although the risk may not be evenly distributed based on profits,” said Frances Haugen, former Facebook product manager, told a congressional panel on October 5.” It’s like 87% of all misinformation spending is spent on English, but only about 9% [Facebook’s] The user is an English speaker. ”

Coordination network, not authentication of at least 317 Twitter accounts discovered by Nisos analysts focused on preventing Hondurans from voting for Castro, the opposition candidate. NSis the wife of former President Manual Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup in 2009, Castro’s presidential run posed a serious challenge to the National Party’s 12 years in power. authority as president.

Over a period of eight days in early October, the network spread conspiracy theories about her alleged political alliance with a convicted felon, disseminated content about allegations of corruption and money laundering, and suggested that Hondurans should not vote.

Esteban Ponce de León, research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory based in Colombia, says it has become one of the most popular tactics in operations. political information in Latin America. “Most of those stories will target specific candidates,” he said. “This is one of the main ways these networks aim to influence or influence elections, thereby compromising the integrity of the democratic process.”

Jackie Hicks, a senior intelligence analyst at Nisos, said the Twitter network studied by Nisos was not focused on specifically encouraging voters to support the ruling party’s Nasry Asfura candidate, Asfura was the only one. profit from this online disinformation campaign. . NSHese accounts were posted in batches with election-related hashtags for greater visibility between October 6 and 14, coinciding with a political endorsement Famous politician about Castro. “It’s almost like the aim is to flood the political discourse,” says Hicks. “A regular person in Honduras searching for these topics will find this [as] information.”

Hicks said most of the accounts posing as Honduran users are decades old, likely farmed or compromised accounts. Many people linked back to Facebook accounts that ended up belonging to unincorporated Peruvians, using their photos as avatars.

After all these messages have been posted, a fake news website set up to look like a legitimate news site is called La Tribuna Honduras amplified misinformation by reporting that “on Twitter, many voters are starting to denounce a pact” between Castro and Rosenthal. Then, unauthenticated Twitter profiles shared the post, creating a fake news feedback loop.

Twitter deleted the network of fake accounts after Nisos shared its research with the company in early November. Twitter did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Analysts and former employees say social media companies’ reactive feedback form always too little and too late, and they don’t do enough to crack down on repeat offenders.

Hernández and the ruling party have benefited from a number of schemes in recent years similar to those discovered by Nisos..

According to Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist, in a six-week period from June to July 2018, Hernández’s Facebook posts received likes from 59,100 users, more than 78% of the time. That number is not a real person. in September 2020 for poor performance, which she says is due to her focus on inauthentic activity tracking.

Zhang discovered that Hernández employees were directly involved in a scheme to promote the content of his Facebook page with hundreds of thousands of fake “likes”. They also run countless fake profiles and pages to support it, posing as organizations, businesses, public figures, and ordinary Hondurans to attract fake engagement to the site.

While this violates Facebook’s policy on “inauthentic coordinated conduct,” the company did not take action for nearly a year after Zhang warned the teams in charge to stop that activity, stating that they consider Honduras not a priority, she said. Zhang said that when she left, many of these accounts were still active.

“It took almost a year for me to remove the activity, and they came back shortly after,” says Zhang.

Same year, Facebook deleted hundreds of fake about Hernandez, follow a Press Release of the company. Facebook also defeated many pages run political ads support the President and attack the opposition candidates, an effort that Digital Forensic Research Lab At moment later find run by Archimedes Group, an Israeli “Black PR company” has led similar digital influence campaigns around the world. It’s unclear who paid for the ads, according to DFRLab.

In April 2020, a Twitter purge took down more than 3,100 accounts and 1.2 million tweets dedicated to “clearly amplifying positive content designed to benefit President Juan Orlando Hernández”, in reference to the president’s own social media manager, according to a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory.

And just last month, another network of websites and Facebook pages, created to look like legitimate news sources and spread misinformation about Honduran opposition figures, was revealed to the public. be run by a prominent Latin American political media outlet. It’s just the latest example of political PR firms that have found a lucrative business exploiting social media platforms to influence audiences in Latin America, The rest of the world, a global technology newspaper, reported at the time.

The problem doesn’t spread only in Honduras. Across Latin America, many other politicians have run their own successful disinformation campaigns.

For many years, former Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno implemented a government-run government army of trolls on Twitter to advance its agenda. In Mexicopolitical parties used bots and fake accounts to promote several candidates ahead of the 2018 and 2021 elections. In Peru, a Trump-style disinformation campaign by this summer’s runner-up in the country’s election has found How to prevent her opponent from certifying victory. And earlier this month, Facebook get rid of a troll farm among more than 1,000 unauthenticated Facebook and Instagram accounts amplifying content supporting the country’s ruling party ahead of the November 7 election. Facebook says the cluster is linked to the Nicaraguan government.

As political disinformation campaigns have become alarmingly common in the region, government officials who benefit from them – and often support them – have become more brazen.

In Honduras, Hernández was re-elected in 2017 after organizing a hugely controversial maneuver to remove constitutional term limits. His eight-year term was marred by corruption allegations, and his brother, former congressman Juan Antonio Hernández, was sentenced to life in prison by a US court for smuggling cocaine into the US. drug-trafficking scheme itself. (He denies the allegations).

In 2019, riots over new health and education regulations and protests calling for Hernández’s removal turned violent when Honduran police used tear gas to disperse protesters. These social and political crises have resulted in Honduras having one of the highest murder rates in the world, fueling massive migration to North America.

Zhang, a former Facebook employee, said US companies’ late approach to disinformation enforcement in Latin America encourages leaders and their supporters to manipulate the social network to their advantage. for them.

“In the end, Facebook didn’t do enough to keep these people from coming back,” said Zhang. “They’re just giving people slaps on the wrist and hopefully it’s enough, and it’s not.”

Notice from Facebook and Twitter as they take down these fake networks suppose, I think She said publicly calling them out would have an impact, but “some people are unlikely to be confused,” she said. “They think they can surreptitiously monitor the radar because people don’t care… And that’s certainly true. ” | Honduras shows how fake news is changing Latin American elections

Aila Slisco

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