After the publication of this month’s Pandora Papers, a massive leak of documents revealing global corruption, the Honduran investigative outlet Contracorriente found that two leading politicians from the country’s ruling National Party were owners of offshore companies in tax havens.
Then, the next day, a website purporting to be a news site called Universal Noticias published a story suggesting that a major opposition figure, Manuel Zelaya, also appeared in the Pandora Papers. But unlike the claim from Contracorriente, this second claim was untrue — Agence France-Presse described it as disinformation.
A new investigation suggests that the disinformation effort is tied to a renowned Latin American political communications agency, which is running a network of websites and Facebook pages made to look like news outlets, in order to disseminate misinformation campaigns. These efforts are intensifying ahead of Honduras’ presidential elections, which will be held on November 28.
“We usually don’t have anything to make a direct attribution to someone that is crafting disinformation,” said Aldo Salgado, the Honduran researcher behind the investigation. “This time we have it.”
Disinformation networks across the globe have long exploited vulnerabilities within social and digital media. One of the most well-known was the Kremlin-linked groups spreading fake news in the 2016 U.S. elections. Outside of the United States, there have been cases, such as a government-run Twitter army in Ecuador and fake accounts and trolling on Facebook in Azerbaijan, tied to the ruling party.
That disinformation and propaganda campaigns are rife in Honduran politics, particularly on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, is not news. The latest findings however are potentially the first to identify a Latin American firm orchestrating these efforts and demonstrate how its operations spread across platforms.
With articles from across the region and a scrolling ticker tape of headlines, the website that published the fake news about Manuel Zelaya, Universal Noticias, is designed to look like other, more reputable, Latin American news outlets. The website even rips its logo design — a bird merged with a globe — from Mexican newspaper El Universal.
But now, Salgado has found evidence — verified by Rest of World — that Universal Noticias is part of a broader disinformation campaign. Its domain is currently registered to a company called Domains By Proxy, LLC. But a search of the registry’s records reveals that up until the day the article about Manuel Zelaya was published, the site’s owner was a company called Wish Win, with a geolocation of Tabasco, Mexico.
Wish Win is a political and communications firm based in Mexico City, although it is incorporated in Puerto Rico. Its chairman, Xavier Domínguez, has been highlighted by the actual El Universal, which described him as “one of the most recognized strategists and creatives in global political communications.” He did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rest of World.
“They committed a big mistake,” Salgado told Rest of World. “They used a proxy to hide who was behind it. … The day they published, they [changed the domain ownership]; so they were trying to hide their footprints.”
The network of websites run by Wish Win extends beyond Universal Noticias. Salgado’s search revealed that the company owned three other websites — elinformante.online, testigonoticias.net, and movimientoterritorial.org.
Like Universal Noticias, the first two both changed their ownership from Wish Win to Domains By Proxy in October, around the time that the article about Manuel Zelaya was published. None of the websites is currently active.
The Wish Win firm has worked extensively with Honduras’ National Party, especially over the past year, ahead of November’s elections. The company’s chairman appeared on a flyer posted on Facebook earlier this year by a Mexican political strategist named Sergio José Gutiérrez. The flyer promoted a training camp for political candidates, run by the party, as well as several posts on Twitter alongside well-known National Party figures.
Wish Win is likely one of many political PR firms in Latin America that have been exploiting digital platforms to influence audiences through “inauthentic behavior,” said Luiza Bandeira. She is a researcher for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), an organization that combats global disinformation.
It reflects a recent trend of mainstream agencies using questionable strategies — from bots to astroturfing to outright disinformation campaigns — to aid their political clients. In 2019, DFRLab discovered that the Israeli consulting firm Archimedes Group had run pro-government and anti-opposition ads supporting Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, using Facebook pages masquerading as news outlets.
Similar to Archimedes’ operation, Wish Win’s operations in Honduras were not limited to Universal Noticias and its associated websites. An analysis using Facebook’s Ad Library, a tool that tracks ad spending activity across different Facebook pages, reveals the PR firm was active on the social media platform as well.
Although they have been taken down, Universal Noticias and El Informante each had a Facebook page registered under the category of “media/news company.” Facebook’s ad library lists several individuals as having purchased advertisements to promote the pages. Through the tool, it is possible to search for other pages for which the individuals have also purchased ads.
This behavior is consistent with revelations exposed by Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang earlier this year concerning the Honduran elections. President Juan Orlando Hernández — also of the National Party — exploited weak Facebook moderation to spread massive fake engagement campaigns.
Although Facebook addressed the vulnerability that Hernández used to amass fake likes, Salgado’s findings suggest that disinformation actors are adapting with new strategies.
Three of these pages are still active: Catracho Macizo, a Facebook page self-listed under the category “comedy,” has political posts targeted against the opposition party. Two others, La Otra Cara de Latinoamérica and Centroamérica Post, which are both listed under “media/news company,” publish anti-opposition content.
Whether the content on the Facebook pages qualifies as disinformation on the platform is unclear and subject to Facebook’s ever-changing definition, said Bandeira.
“It appears that these pages were hiding their true identity and purpose, which seems inauthentic,” she said. “But only Facebook could confirm that by conducting their own investigation.”
Networks such as Wish Win are much more difficult to track because they are spread across multiple platforms — in this case, fake news websites and Facebook pages.
Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that these types of sophisticated propaganda campaigns appeal to political groups across Latin America, and especially to parties that have been tainted by corruption allegations, such as the National Party in Honduras.
“It’s just the easiest way to play with emotions and to create fear and increase distrust in the whole system,” he told Rest of World.