Honduras Shows How Fake News Is Changing Latin American Elections

At 10:16 p.m. on October 7, a group of nineteen Twitter accounts shared identical opinions about the upcoming presidential election in Honduras at exactly the same second. Claiming to be supporters of opposition candidate Xiomara Castro, they all falsely suggested that Castro join forces with Yanni Rosenthal, another candidate who had just returned to the country after serving a prison sentence in the United States for money laundering for a drug gang.

A user named Terry Bautista tweeted: “If you forget about the people dealing with Yanni Rosenthal, I won’t go vote.” A user named Wilfredo Roland seemed to agree, tweeting, “If I join ex-Rosenthal’s scammer, I won’t vote,” along with a meme about money laundering.
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None of these were real Hondurans — or real people, according to a new analysis shared with TIME by Nisos, a Virginia-based cybersecurity firm. Profile pictures on the accounts were linked to the Facebook pages of unsuspecting 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 the November 28 elections in Honduras, spreading conspiracies about opposition candidates and appearing to discourage citizens from voting at all.

They are part of an ongoing online influence campaign to strengthen the ruling party of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, amplifying Hernandez’s image and sowing distrust and confusion among voters. Twitter and Facebook have removed several non-original networks in recent years associated with people close to Hernández, who was re-elected in 2017. Despite allegations of fraud.

This latest installment leading up to a crucial election in Honduras 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 disinformation schemes in Latin America and other parts of the world. Recent discoveries in the Facebook Papers, a collection of leaked internal documents, provided details of how the platform has been neglected to abuse its platform in most parts of the world, especially in developing countries.

“Facebook appears to be investing more in users who earn more money, even though the risk may not be evenly distributed on the basis of profitability,” Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, told a congressional committee on October 5. It’s like 87% of all disinformation is spent on the English language, but only about 9% of the spending [Facebook’s] Users are English speakers.

False Coordination Network Of the at least 317 Twitter accounts discovered by Nisos analysts focused on dissuading Honduras from voting for Castro, the opposition candidate. TThe wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup in 2009, poses a serious challenge to the ruling National Party’s 12-year control of the presidency.

Over the course of eight days in early October, the network spread conspiracy theories about its alleged political alliance with a convicted criminal, posted content about allegations of corruption and money laundering, and suggested that Hondurans should not vote at all.

This has emerged as one of the most common tactics in political disinformation in Latin America, says Esteban Ponce de Leon, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory based in Colombia. “Most of these novels will target specific candidates,” he says. “This is one of the main ways in which these networks aim to influence or influence elections, and thus affect the integrity of the democratic process.”

While the Twitter network that Nisos studied has not focused on specifically encouraging voters to support ruling party candidate Nasri Asfoura, only Asfoura will benefit from an online disinformation campaign, says Jackie Hicks, a senior intelligence analyst at Nisos. . TThese accounts were published in waves with election-related hashtags in order to gain more visibility between October 6 and 14, coinciding with a prominent political endorsement of Castro. “It’s as if the intent was to drown out the political discourse,” Hicks says. Any normal person in Honduras looking for these topics will see this [as] Information.”

Hicks says that most accounts pretending to be active users in Honduras are up to a decade old, potentially implanted or hacked accounts that were easy to buy. Several of them were linked back to Facebook accounts that ended up belonging to uninvolved Peruvians, using their photos as their avatars.

Once all these messages were posted, a fake news website was created to look like a legitimate news outlet called Honduras Tribune He amplified the disinformation by reporting that “on Twitter, many voters began denouncing the agreement ‘between Castro and Rosenthal.’” Subsequently, non-original Twitter profiles shared the article, creating a fake news commentary loop.

Twitter has removed the network from 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 Ex-Employees He says that social media companies Interactive response pattern It’s always too little and too late, and they don’t do enough to suppress repeat offenders.

Hernandez and the ruling party have benefited from several schemes in recent years similar to those revealed by Nisos..

Over the course of six weeks from June to July 2018, Hernandez’s Facebook posts received likes from 59,100 users, more than 78% of whom weren’t real people, according to Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist who became a whistleblower after she was fired. In September 2020 for poor performance, which she says was due to her focus on non-authentic activity tracking.

Zhang discovered that Hernández employees were directly involved in a scheme to boost his Facebook page’s content with hundreds of thousands of fake “likes”. They have also run countless fake profiles and pages to support them, posing as regular Hondurans, corporations, public figures and people to push a fake post to the page.

Although this violates Facebook’s policy against “inauthentic, coordinated behaviour,” the company took no action for nearly a year after Zhang alerted teams responsible for stopping such activity, explaining that they considered Honduras not a priority, she says. . When she left, Zhang says, many of these accounts were still active.

“It took them nearly a year to finish the process, and they came back right after that,” Zhang says.

same yearFacebook has removed hundreds of fake Accounts running a coordinated influence campaign to “comment and amplify positive content” about Hernandez, According to a press release issued by the company. Facebook social networking site As it was sent down Many pages displaying political ads Support the president and attack the opposition candidates effort that Digital Forensic Research Lab Later have found It was run by the Israeli Archimedes Group black PR firm that has led similar digital impact campaigns around the world. According to DFRLab, it was not clear who paid for the ads.

In April 2020, a Twitter purge dropped more than 3,100 accounts and 1.2 million tweets dedicated to “the apparent amplification of positive content designed to benefit President Juan Orlando Hernandez” that had been linked to the president’s social media manager, According to a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory.

And just last month, another network of websites and Facebook pages, which appear to be legitimate news sources and spread disinformation about Honduran opposition figures, were exposed, be fast A leading political communications agency in Latin America. This was just the latest example of political PR firms finding a lucrative business in exploiting social media platforms to influence audiences in Latin America, rest of the world, a global technology news outlet, was reported at the time.

The problem does not spread In Honduras alone. Across Latin America, many other politicians launched successful disinformation campaigns.

For years, former Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno deployed a government run by Army of trolls on Twitter to advance his agenda. In Mexico, political parties Uses bots and fake accounts to push some candidates ahead of the 2018 and 2021 elections. In Peru, a Trump-style disinformation campaign by the runner-up in the country’s elections this summer sought to stop her rival’s victory from being certified. And earlier this month, Facebook remove troll farm From more than 1,000 non-original accounts on Facebook and Instagram amplifying content supporting the country’s ruling party ahead of the November 7 elections. Facebook said the group is linked to the Nicaraguan government.

As political disinformation campaigns have become alarmingly common in the region, government officials who profit from – and often support them – have grown bolder.

In Honduras, Hernandez was re-elected in 2017 after orchestrating a hotly contested maneuver to remove constitutional term limits. His eight-year term was marred by allegations of corruption, and his brother, former congressman Juan Antonio Hernandez, was sentenced to life in prison by a US court for smuggling cocaine into the United States. Same drug smuggling conspiracy. (He denies the allegations).

In 2019, riots over new education and health regulations and protests calling for Hernandez’s removal turned violent when Honduran police used tear gas to disperse protesters. These political and social crises led to one of the world’s highest homicide rates in Honduras, which led to a mass emigration to North America.

Zhang, a former Facebook employee, says US companies’ too little and too late approach to enforcing disinformation in Latin America encourages their leaders and supporters to manipulate social media in their favour.

“Ultimately, Facebook is not doing enough to prevent these people from coming back,” Zhang says. “They just slap people on the wrist and hope that’s enough, which it isn’t.”

Facebook and Twitter ads when they eliminate these fake networks I assume Calling them out in public would have an effect, but “some people aren’t able to be embarrassed,” she said. “They think they can slip under the radar because people Don’t bother… that’s definitely true. “

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