A new report by Citizen Lab Honduras reveals evidence of social media abuse by Honduran politicians on both Facebook and Twitter. Though previous reporting demonstrated fake engagement associated with the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, this is the first investigation to allege malicious — and increasingly sophisticated — activity during the ongoing presidential elections to replace him, including coordinated bots with stolen identities on Twitter and manipulation of Facebook’s political advertising system.
Last month, former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang — who the platform had fired in September 2020 — revealed the extent of the company’s mismanagement of prior coordinated inauthentic behavior to The Guardian. The disclosure was met with condemnation, as news outlets invited Zhang to discuss Facebook’s refusal to curb noncompliant political actors on its platform, especially in smaller countries.
In August 2018, Zhang found evidence that Honduran president Hernández was amplifying his Facebook page with hundreds of thousands of fake likes. An administrator from Hernández’s official page was also exploiting a loophole by setting up fake pages that resembled user accounts, which he would use to like Hernández’s posts.
This type of inauthentic engagement is the online equivalent of bussing in crowds for political rallies to generate the appearance of support. The only difference is that likes are much easier to buy — one person can easily pretend to be thousands.
It took nearly a year for Facebook to shut down the pages loophole in Honduras. The Citizen Lab Honduras report suggests that bad actors have since changed their tactics: exploiting the lax political advertising system on Facebook and focusing fake engagement activity on Twitter. The new findings illustrate the ongoing failure of not only Facebook, but other social media platforms like Twitter, to police problems of political manipulation in Honduras.
Aldo Salgado, co-founder of Citizen Lab Honduras, said that he and his consortium of researchers are dedicated to continuing the work that Zhang began in Honduras. The report’s new findings do not focus exclusively on Facebook. Although Facebook is more prominent in Honduras, Salgado said that because many journalists and politicians are on Twitter, it has a good deal of impact on public discourse.
The report lays out the case of opposition leader and Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal, who is currently battling the narrative that he is a convicted felon sanctioned by the U.S. after pleading guilty to laundering drug money in 2017. His supporters used hashtags such as #YoVotoPorYani (#IVoteForYani) and #YaniPresidente (#PresidentYani), while detractors employed #YaniYaNo (#NoMoreYani) and #YaniLadron (#ThiefYani). Both camps were trying to drown out the other side and, according to Citizen Lab Honduras’ findings, both used bots.
In a 10-day period near the March 14 primaries, Citizen Lab Honduras compiled almost 60,000 tweets looking for patterns with the specific hashtags it had identified. Within those networks, it then searched for accounts that seemed suspicious because they had been recently created, devoted most of their activity to political issues, and most notably, stole profile images from elsewhere on the internet.
On the hashtag #YaniYaNo, Citizen Lab Honduras found that 96% of the tweets and retweets had come from just 41 accounts; 33 have since been suspended by Twitter. One of these accounts brazenly took its profile image from a prominent Mexican gamer, which has since been taken down and archived by Citizen Lab Honduras through the online tool the Wayback Machine.
Rosenthal’s side is just as blatant in its use of fake accounts. One Twitter account launched in January 2021 tweeted positive content about Rosenthal from February 11 until the day of the primaries. It plagiarized both the name and image of a Guatemalan journalist named Regina Pérez. When Citizen Lab Honduras reached out to Pérez, she confirmed that she was unaware that her online identity had been hijacked to create a false account. Citizen Lab Honduras found two more examples where fake accounts copied the exact identities of prominent people.
In another case, Citizen Lab Honduras examined 742 tweets and 286 retweets from 311 accounts registered on Twitter in January and February 2021. Before March 14, they all tweeted memes and hashtags in support of politicians Juan Diego Zelaya and Mauricio Oliva. After Oliva lost, the accounts deleted all of their previous content and began exclusively tweeting against Rosenthal.
While it would be impossible to decisively say that they are bots without access to Twitter’s internal data, Citizen Lab Honduras described it as the most concentrated example of coordinated behavior.
Salgado may not have Facebook’s tools at his disposal, but Citizen Lab Honduras’ researchers do have a unique advantage — local context allowing it to document widespread abuse of the political advertising system.
Facebook requires that politicians label their advertising campaigns. Multiple candidates mislabeled their political advertisements as commercial ads during Honduras’ legally-mandated “electoral silence” period. Although Facebook eventually took these ads down, its own ad library estimates that each one reached over one million people, often within a single day.
A Twitter spokesperson responded saying the company had no comment. Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment.
When Zhang worked to uncover fake engagement at Facebook, she had a number of tools at her disposal, which she chose not to disclose to Rest of World. Citizen Lab Honduras does not have the same arsenal. Instead, they must rely on open-source information and their own technical savvy, using free applications with appropriate names like Botslayer and Hoaxy to try to replicate the near-infinite power of social media platforms’ control centers.
Salgado’s group, which is trained by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), has been working to uncover signs of activity for years, but often finds it difficult to get people — or social media platforms themselves — to pay attention. “Honduras is always an afterthought because it is so small,” he said. “For entities that focus on issues in the Global South, it is very difficult to get access to mega-corporations.”
Without external pressure or financial incentive, companies like Facebook and Twitter are loath to address these abuses. Zhang called this a problem of information asymmetry. Only the companies with an interest in ignoring political manipulation on their platforms have full access to what’s happening within them. They alone hold the resources to both track this type of behavior and eliminate it.
Zhang told Rest of World that many of the fake engagement campaigns she found during her time at Facebook were relatively easy to take down — the issue was finding the internal appetite to actually take action. “At the end of the day, Facebook is a private company,” she said. “It doesn’t do things out of the goodness of its heart — it does things to make money.”
In response to Zhang’s allegations about Facebook’s negligence regarding political manipulation in small countries, Guy Rosen — Facebook’s VP of integrity — tweeted: “With all due respect, what [Zhang has] described is fake likes — which we routinely remove using automated detection. Like any team in the industry or government, we prioritize stopping the most urgent and harmful threats globally. Fake likes are not one of them,” he said.
His comment illustrates why Facebook is unwilling to address the root causes of coordinated inauthentic behavior — it doesn’t see a widespread problem that needs fixing, only an occasional culling. As Citizen Lab Honduras’ findings reveal, it appears that noncompliant actors are just responding to the takedowns by adapting their practices.
While there is no definitive evidence that fake engagement actually sways opinion, it has a clear effect on how the public perceives the political system. “It creates doubt about everything,” said Luiza Bandeira, the research associate for Latin America at the DFRLab. “You don’t really know what to trust. And then you don’t know how to vote basically, or how to act because you get lost in this world of fakes and lies.”
“It’s easy to control people when you do that.”