Juan Orlando Hernández used fake accounts to manipulate Honduran public opinion in his 2017 reelection bid. This was discovered when the former president, who was arrested on drug trafficking charges after leaving office, was a year into his second term. Sophie Zhang, the Facebook data expert who discovered it and was fired for revealing the platform’s careless handling of the incident, identified that thousands of likes, shares, and comments in favor of the former president were made by accounts pretending to be from companies, organizations, and public figures. This is yet another example that elections in the region are under threat. Not so much from vote buying or corruption, but from the emerging private disinformation industry.
The main clients of these new companies that specialize in manipulating the digital ecosystem are the governments in power, aspirants, and political parties. In this way they deceive voters, molding the country’s public discourse in their favor in order to position or maintain themselves in power. This phenomenon is amplified by the alleged threats coming from regimes with autocratic practices such as China, Russia and Iran, which together with Venezuelan hackers carry out operations to destabilize certain democracies in the region.
But with the emergence of non-state actors in the production of disinformation, the picture has become significantly more complex, as finding guilty the political parties and governments that hire these companies is contingent on loyalty according to the payment for these services.
This disinformation market was exposed by the Oxford Internet Institute in its report “Industrialized Disinformation 2021.” This report insists that the manipulation of social networks is a serious threat to contemporary democracies. One of its most worrying findings is the growing activity of cyber troops, which are produced by private companies that have been hired by governments or political parties with the aim of disseminating political disinformation through platforms to affect their opponents.
Cybertroops in Latin America?
Of the 81 countries analyzed in the report, 12 are Latin American: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela. They have each been victims of disinformation operations by cybertroops during electoral periods and/or transitions of power. The ideological spectrum is irrelevant when it comes to distinguishing the contractors, as the report includes politicians from both the left and the right who have had links with these types of companies for the purpose of seizing power.
The tactics usually employed by private companies to disinform are narrative laundering and the use of cybertroops. The first method consists of developing a narrative from within the government by hiring a foreign strategic communications company, which creates web pages that simulate virtual think tanks that are complete with fabricated people.
These fake profiles are supposedly renowned authors who make publications with messages in favor of the contractor with the objective of viralizing them until they are embraced by the media to reproduce them for particular audiences.
This tactic has not yet been fully verified in Latin America, while cybertroops have already been used by politicians in the region. Usually, these companies have hackers or programmers on their payroll who offer to manage a variety of fake accounts to disperse the disinformation. These include sock puppet accounts, trolls, or puppet user accounts. These types of profiles modify their online behavior according to the client’s requirements, either to praise, defend, attack, or support a politician or organization, and, therefore, manipulate public opinion.
The Hacker of Elections in Latin America
According to the infamous Colombian hacker Andrés Sepúlveda, he worked together with political consultant J.J. Rendón in the presidential elections of Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, along with other countries, to carry out disinformation operations through anonymously contracted servers in Russia and Ukraine that were paid for with bitcoins. These operations were characterized by disseminating propaganda and political rumors, infiltrating the campaigns of opposition leaders, especially leftist or progressive ones, with the aim of burying them socially and politically.
For interfering in the internal politics of countries with leftist governments, Facebook closed 55 accounts, 42 pages, and 36 Instagram accounts belonging to the U.S. firm CLS Strategies that focused on Bolivia and Venezuela. According to the Stanford Internet Observatory report: “Bolivarian Factions: Facebook Takes Down Inauthentic Assets (2020)”, the accounts focused on Bolivian supported interim president Jeanine Áñez and accused Evo Morales of electoral fraud, but without further evidence. Regarding Venezuela, this company focused on supporting opposition leaders such as Juan Guaidó, whom they made viral by managing his social networks from Washington, particularly when he declared himself the legitimate president of this country.
New Threats to Democracy
This is a year of presidential elections and referendums in the region. Countries such as Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, which have been previously affected by disinformation campaigns carried out by private companies, are again in the eye of the hurricane because any political actor can hire these services.
The diversification and sophistication that has been developed to disperse disinformation, such as Deep fakes -images and videos created from artificial intelligence- and the automation of bots increasingly able to mimic human behavior, undermine the legitimacy of contemporary democracies.
In this framework, while civil society is working on initiatives such as fact-checking to mitigate fake news, disinformation, and propaganda, this is not enough to limit their harmful effect on public debate and democracy.
Translated from Spanish to English by Alek Langford