On November 1st, Facebook said it removed a troll farm that was comprised of more than 1,000 accounts between Facebook and Instagram. The social media company alleged the troll farm was operated by Nicaragua’s government and the ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Movement (SNLM), and that the accounts violated its policy on “coordinated inauthentic behaviour.” Consequently, it removed 937 profiles, 24 groups, 140 pages, and 363 Instagram accounts (owned by Facebook), as reported by The Washington Post. These accounts targeted critics of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and the SNLM. In addition to resisting opposition, they were used to promulgate content praising the government.
In a statement, Facebook described a troll farm as “a coordinated effort… to corrupt or manipulate public discourse” through the use of “fake accounts to build personas across platforms and mislead people about who’s behind them.” Facebook’s investigators said in a report that “This was one of the most cross-government troll operations we’ve disrupted to date, with multiple state entities participating in this activity at one.”
The Supreme Court, known as an ally to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and Nicaragua’s Social Security Institute, allegedly operated smaller groups with fake accounts. Facebook’s removal of the troll farms occurred shortly before Nicaragua’s general election. Despite a 69% disapproval rating, President Ortega claimed victory with more than 97% of the votes counted, as reported by the Supreme Electoral Council. The United States, the international community, and human rights groups responded by condemning the election as a “sham.”
Along with influencing public discourse under the pretence of “vibrant and diverse public debate,” President Ortega detained and criminally investigated 40 opposition leaders on suspicions of national security threats. However, this has been criticized as political suppression. Paradoxically, Facebook enabled and then disabled Nicaragua’s authoritarian actions. Consequently, critics may posit that it decided to remove the troll farm too late. Charles Davis of Business Insider reported that President Ortega and the SNLM’s propaganda campaign attracted nearly 785,000 followers. CNN’s Caitlin Hu and Natalie Gallon observed that their tactics cleared “[O]rtega’s path to another five years in office.”
According to Facebook, the troll activity began in April 2018, after students led protests against the government. Amid harsh crackdowns, 300 people were killed and tens of thousands of Nicaraguans were sent into exile. These operations were mainly operated by staff for a Nicaraguan telecom watchdog called TELCOR, from the postal headquarters in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. Additionally, Facebook mentioned disbanding other government-linked networks in Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, Thailand, and Azerbaijan for violating its behaviour policy and that this was “an especially troubling trend.”
Facebook unintentionally aided the Nicaraguan government in spreading propaganda and winning the election, which has been rejected by the European Union, the U.S. and other bodies as rigged. On the other hand, given what appears to be lopsided results, Nicaragua’s election outcome seems likely to have occurred, regardless of their using Facebook. Nevertheless, if Facebook had taken action sooner, perhaps it would have reduced the troll farm’s influence on Nicaragua’s election.
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