On November 28, Honduras held elections to decide its next president. Few expected the process to go smoothly. The ruling National Party had taken power after a military coup in 2009 and maintained control through a series of contested elections with allegations of widespread fraud — the most recent in 2017. The candidate for the opposition party was Xiomara Castro, the wife of the ousted president. In the end, the elections passed without major conflict — Castro won a resounding victory.
Looming behind the election was the ever-present threat of disinformation campaigns. When Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang came forward earlier this year with proof of coordinated inauthentic behavior on the platform, Honduras was one of her central examples. She found that President Juan Orlando Hernández and the National Party engaged in fraudulent activity on the platform, but given the country’s size, the social network was slow to act and allowed the activity to return. Earlier this year, Rest of World reported how disinformation spread and adapted to regulation across platforms, both during the presidential primaries and days before the election.
We asked Zhang and Aldo Salgado, a researcher and the co-founder of the investigative collective Laboratorio Ciudadano Honduras, to speak about the vote, look back at the role of disinformation in political campaigns, and discuss how Honduras can move forward.
This conversation was edited for clarity and concision.
How did this election cycle go?
Salgado: We have gone through a very unique political campaign. We also saw full adoption of Facebook advertising and the Google Display Network. Presidential candidates and candidates for small town mayoral races all had at least one Facebook page. The electoral silence, a rule that prohibits electoral advertising asking for votes five days before the elections, was violated by all parties. The evidence is in the Facebook Ad Library for anyone to see.
The National Party focused on anti-communism and abortion. The most disturbing ads exaggerated and took out of context the opposition Libre party’s proposals for the decriminalization of abortion. Libre, or at least its related accounts, was also involved in spreading fake polls, doctored images, and audio in which Nasry Asfura, the National Party candidate, declared that he lost.
Take us back to the beginning. How did you first notice disinformation campaigns happening in Honduras?
Zhang: I was hired by Facebook in January 2018, and I joined a team dedicated to combating fake engagement. Half a year into my employment, I began looking into political scripted activity in my spare time, out of curiosity. In July of that year, I wrote an informal report noting that Hernández ranked third globally among political targets receiving scripted fake likes. It attracted minimal attention, but I was able to bring it to the attention of leadership the next month.
While putting together a presentation for Facebook leadership, I examined Hernández’s page to see who liked his posts, for a screenshot, and stopped, dumbstruck.
Many of those liking him were not people but pages pretending to be Hondurans who did not exist. There were thousands of these fake pages. This case was extraordinary because the perpetrators did not even bother to hide.
Hernández’s team was so blatant and arrogant that a 27-year-old girl on her second job out of school, who spoke no Spanish and was completely untrained in disinformation or investigations, was still able to catch a national president red-handed.
Salgado: I also stumbled on an astroturfing campaign in 2015 and saw that there was quite a bit of work to do to build resilience in the face of this manipulation.
On the outside, Hernández was recognized for his social media prowess. In 2016, he was named one of the 25 most influential people on social media in Central America by Forbes, ostensibly because his astroturfing campaign was working to such an extent that it was fooling journalists.
In reality, he was manipulating the platforms. His social media campaign was automated and coordinated, and it was easily recognizable by anyone with time, programming ability, and basic data management skills. Even so, it took me a year to get any media interested in the data that I had.
So, coordinated inauthentic behavior had been happening on social media platforms for years. When did Facebook start to take action?
Zhang: I caught the Honduran government red-handed on August 15, 2018. Even though I reported it right away, I wasn’t able to convince the Facebook disinformation team to act until April 2019, resulting in the formal takedown of the Honduran disinformation operation on July 25 — 11.5 months after I raised the issue.
But your role in the takedown didn’t come to light until the September 2020 BuzzFeed News article, Sophie? Aldo, how did you react to her revelations?
Salgado: It was encouraging to know that there were people within the big bureaucratic machine that is Facebook who cared about countries in the Global South, but we also realized how little Facebook cared.
I stood in front of Facebook officials at the Atlantic Council’s 360/Open Summit in London in 2019, asking them for important information for our work, like having access to CrowdTangle, a data analytics tool owned by Facebook. In the conference, in front of the community, they told me that yes, they’d share access to CrowdTangle with me, but then they ghosted me.
Meanwhile, Facebook took advertising money without exercising any type of supervision. When it found influence campaigns, it didn’t do anything. It left journalists, human rights defenders, and grassroots leaders in the lurch.
Zhang: And, ultimately, most of Facebook’s disinformation investigations came from outside reports by NGOs and opposition groups. Without them to put pressure, Facebook has no reason to act.
Sophie, why does Facebook operate like this?
Zhang: Fundamentally, Facebook is a company. Its goal is to make money. We don’t expect Philip Morris to solve tobacco addiction or Exxon Mobil to solve climate change.
To the extent that Facebook cares about concepts like democracy, it’s because Mark Zuckerberg is human and needs to sleep at night, and also because societal damage enabled by Facebook can cause negative press, which impacts the company’s ability to make money.
Sophie, you were fired from Facebook in September 2020 and lost the ability to use the company’s internal tools to track how coordinated inauthentic behavior was taking place in Honduras. Meanwhile, Aldo and his team continue to use public information to monitor the situation.
Sophie, if Facebook is not interested in solving this problem, what suggestions would you make to anyone to improve the situation?
Zhang: I don’t believe Facebook will change itself without external pressure, whether from the people of the world or governmental regulation. It’s easier to persuade a government than to persuade billions of people to act collectively, and so I believe change from the government is more likely.
I have publicly offered on repeated occasions to testify before the parliament of any democratic nation, including the Honduran national assembly. That offer still stands for the new incoming government, and I am happy to provide the detailed documentation of my work in Honduras to them as well.
It seems like public pressure has previously resulted in changes at Facebook. In March 2019, Facebook enabled the Ad Library, a response to the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, which allows anyone to see which ads are running on the platform and who is funding them. Aldo, was this a positive development?
Salgado: Enabling the Ads Library and including Honduras among the countries was a huge step. We now have access to a great deal of information about Facebook ads, which allows us to find and map out many influence operations.
However, Facebook is not verifying that the ads are not disinformation. Very blatant things — such as the ad claiming that Xiomara Castro was going to change the name of the country from the “Republic of Honduras” to the “Bolivarian Republic of Honduras” — were in circulation for several days.
Based on what you saw during this election cycle, what else should Facebook do?
Salgado: Facebook should hire local researchers from each country to carry out the mapping of relevant disinformation actors. And importantly, Facebook should open more access to CrowdTangle. Most of the media and journalists in Honduras still don’t have access.
At the very least, during electoral periods, Facebook should establish a dedicated team whose top priority is to mitigate coordinated inauthentic behavior and disinformation advertising. When the team takes down content, it should also publicize the details of how the disinformation operations were conducted, to deter any similar activity. Otherwise, the takedowns do not have any real consequences.