Facebook allowed the president of Honduras to artificially inflate the appearance of popularity on his posts for nearly a year after the company was first alerted to the activity.
The astroturfing – the digital equivalent of a bussed-in crowd – was just one facet of a broader online disinformation effort that the administration has used to attack critics and undermine social movements, Honduran activists and scholars say.
Facebook posts by Juan Orlando Hernández, an authoritarian rightwinger whose 2017 re-election is widely viewed as fraudulent, received hundreds of thousands of fake likes from more than a thousand inauthentic Facebook Pages – profiles for businesses, organizations and public figures – that had been set up to look like Facebook user accounts.
The campaign was uncovered in August 2018 by a Facebook data scientist, Sophie Zhang, whose job involved combatting fake engagement: comments, shares, likes and reactions from inauthentic or compromised accounts.
Zhang began investigating Hernández’s Page because he was the beneficiary of 90% of all the known fake engagement received by civic or political Pages in Honduras. Over one six-week period in 2018, for example, Hernández’s Facebook posts received likes from 59,100 users, of whom 46,500 were fake.
She found that one of the administrators for Hernández’s Page was also the administrator for hundreds of the inauthentic Pages that were being used solely to boost posts on Hernández’s Page. This individual was also an administrator for the Page of Hilda Hernández, the president’s sister, who served as his communications minister until her
death in December 2017.
Although the activity violated Facebook’s policy against “
coordinated inauthentic behavior” – the kind of deceptive campaigning used by a Russian influence operation during the 2016 US election – Facebook dragged its feet for nearly a year before taking the campaign down in July 2019.
Despite this, the campaign to boost Hernández on Facebook repeatedly returned, and Facebook showed little appetite for policing the recidivism. Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice-president of integrity, referred to the return of the Honduras campaign as a “bummer” in an internal discussion in December 2019 but emphasized that the company needed to prioritize influence operations that targeted the US or western Europe, or were carried out by Russia or Iran.
Hernández’s Page administrator also returned to Facebook despite being banned during the July 2019 takedown. His account listed his place of employment as the Honduran presidential palace and included photos taken inside restricted areas of the president’s offices.
The Page administrator did not respond to queries from the Guardian, and his account was removed two days after the Guardian questioned Facebook about it.
A Facebook spokesperson, Liz Bourgeois, said: “We fundamentally disagree with Ms Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform.
“We investigated and publicly
shared our findings about the takedown of this network in Honduras almost two years ago. These investigations take time to understand the full scope of the deceptive activity so we don’t enforce piecemeal and have confidence in our public attribution … Like with other CIB takedowns, we continue to monitor and block attempts to rebuild presence on our platform.”
Facebook declined to comment on Hernández’s Page administrator’s return to the platform. It did not dispute Zhang’s factual assertions about the Honduras case.
Hernández did not respond to queries sent to his press officer, attorney and minister of transparency.
Deceptive social media campaigns are used to “deter political participation or to get those who participate to change their opinion”, said Aldo Salgado, co-founder of Citizen Lab Honduras. “They serve to emulate popular support that the government lacks.”
Hundreds demonstrate to demand the resignation of Hernández for his alleged links with drug trafficking, in Tegucigalpa in 2019. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images
Eugenio Sosa, a professor of sociology at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, said the government’s use of astroturfing to support Hernández “has to do with the deep erosion of legitimacy, the little credibility that he has, and the enormous public mistrust about what he does, what he says and what he promises”. Beyond the president’s loyal supporters, however, Sosa said he believes that it has little effect on public opinion, due to a steady stream of headlines about Hernández’s corruption and ties to the narcotics trade.
Hernández’s brother was convicted of drug trafficking in US federal courts in October 2019, and the president has himself been identified by US prosecutors as a co-conspirator in multiple drug trafficking and corruption cases. Hernández has not been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing. Until recently, he was considered a key US ally in Central America.
Salgado said that the Hernández administration began resorting to social media disinformation campaigns in 2015, when a major corruption scandal involving the theft of $350m from the country’s healthcare and pension system inspired months of torchlit protest marches. “That’s when the need for the government arises and they desperately begin to create an army of bots,” he said.
Facebook, which has about 4.4 million users in Honduras, was a double-edged sword for the non-partisan protest organizers, who used the social network to organize but also found themselves attacked by a disinformation campaign alleging that they were controlled by Manuel Zelaya, a former president who was deposed in a 2009 coup.
“The smear campaign was psychologically overwhelming,” said Gabriela Blen, a social activist who was one of the leaders of the torch marches. “It is not easy to endure so much criticism and so many lies. It affects your family and your loved ones. It is the price that is paid in such a corrupt country when one tries to combat corruption.
“In Honduras there are no guarantees for human rights defenders,” she added. “We are at the mercy of the powers that dominate this country. They try to terrorize us and stop our work, either through psychological terror or campaigns on social networks to stir up rejection and hatred.”
The disinformation campaigns are most often employed during periods of social unrest and typically paint protests as violent or partisan, according to Sosa, the sociologist. “It scares people away from participating,” he said.
Hernández won a second term in a 2017 election plagued with irregularities. With the country rocked by protests and a violent government crackdown, researchers in
Mexico and the US documented the wide-scale use of Twitter bot accounts to promote Hernández and project a false view of “good news, prosperity, and tranquility in Honduras”.
Hernández at the presidential house in Tegucigalpa last month. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images
Fresh protests in 2019 against government efforts to privatize the public education and health systems were again met by a digital smear campaign – this time with the backing of an Israeli political marketing firm that was
barred from Facebook in May 2019 for violating its ban on coordinated inauthentic behavior.
Archimedes Group set up fake Facebook Pages purporting to represent Honduran news outlets or community organizations that promoted pro-Hernández messages, according to an analysis by the
Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. Among them was a Page that ran ads again alleging that Zelaya was the source of the protests, and two Pages that pushed the message that Hernández was dedicated to fighting drug trafficking.
“They said that we were inciting violence and had groups of delinquents,” said Suyapa Figueroa, the president of the Honduran Medical Guild, who rose to prominence as one of the leaders of the 2019 protests. “Some people were afraid to support the [protesters’] platform because they thought that [the ousted president] Mel Zelaya was behind it. There were always fears that the movement was politically manipulated and that stopped it growing.”
Figueroa continues to struggle with Facebook-fueled disinformation. A
Facebook Page purporting to represent her has nearly 20,000 followers and has been used to “attack leaders of the opposition and create conflict within it”, she said.
“I’ve reported it and many of my friends have reported it, yet I haven’t been able to get that fake Page taken down,” she said.