Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Whistleblower: Fake Facebook accounts undermine elections around the world (Sept. 16, 2020)

Fake accounts on Facebook's platform have been undermining elections and political dynamics around the world -- and the company has ignored or been slow to act in many cases, according to a recently fired Facebook data scientist. The former employee, Sophie Zhang, details concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion, in a 6,600 word internal memo accessed by Buzzfeed News. In other countries, including India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes,

The account is damning in its detail of how Facebook reacts to malign activity outside of the U.S. and Western Europe. In Latin America, the case of Honduras under president Juan Orlando Hernández figures prominently. It took Facebook’s leaders nine months to act on a coordinated campaign “that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost" JOH "on a massive scale to mislead the Honduran people," she writes. When Facebook finally took action against the perpetrators, they rapidly returned leading to a game of “whack-a-mole” between Zhang and the operatives behind the fake accounts, which are still active, reports Buzzfeed News.

Zhang discovered inauthentic activity — a Facebook term for engagement from bot accounts and coordinated manual accounts— in Bolivia and Ecuador but chose “not to prioritize it,” due to her workload. Zhang's memo details how the amount of power she had as a mid-level employee over some countries' political outcomes took a toll on her health.

Zhang also shared new details about the scale of inauthentic activity during the 2018 midterm elections in the US, and from Brazilian politicians that same year. “We ended up removing 10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the U.S. in the 2018 elections – major politicians of all persuasions in Brazil, and a number of lower-level politicians in the United States,” she wrote.

The scale of this activity — 672,000 fake accounts in one network, 10.5 million fake engagement and fans in others — indicates active fake accounts are a global problem, and are used to manipulate elections and public debate around the world, according to Buzzfeed News.

News Briefs

  • Peruvian congressional leaders angling to impeach President Martín Vizcarra reached out to armed forces heads -- who rejected the knocking on barracks door, reports Gustavo Gorriti at IDL Reporteros. (See Monday's post.)
  • Congress chief Manuel Merino, first in line to replace Vizcarra, made contact with military commanders and planned out a cabinet to assume government, the president said in a televised speech on Monday. (Bloomberg)
  • "The real reason Congress wants to remove Vizcarra is that he is the most sustainably popular Peruvian president in the post-Fujimori era and that makes him a serious powerbroker moving forward," argues James Bosworth in the Latin America Risk Report. (See Monday's post.)
  • Hundreds of armed Haitian police officers, many masked and armed, led a violent protest in Port-au-Prince Monday. The protesters fired their service weapons into the air, and rode around town on motorcycles, demanding that authorities release a colleague detained since May on suspicion of murder, arson and destruction of public property, reports AFP.
  • At least 307 people died in acts of violence between April and August in seven sectors of the metropolitan area of ​​Port-au-Prince, according to a report released by the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace (CE-JILAP), based on investigations, complaints, and the information circulating in the media. (Dominican Today)
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has catapulted Latin America's armed forces and police into unexpected power that could have negative impact on the country's democracies, reports El País. Brazil and Mexico are cases where the military has taken on drastically increased power, but the article also notes recent police protests in Argentina's Buenos Aires province and protests over police violence last week in Colombia. Chile has had the armed forces controlling the streets since the pandemic began in March. Human rights organizations flagged the need for increased vigilance over the role security forces could play in pandemic management since it began spreading in Latin America. (See post for March 23, 2020.)
  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s decision to block a second term for Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão – citing allegations of mismanagement – is undermining the organization’s autonomy, write a group of Brazilian professors at the AULA blog. (See Sept. 2's post.)
  • The global opinion of the U.S. under President Donald Trump keeps falling. (Washington Post)
  • The Inter-American Development Bank's new head, Mauricio Claver-Carone said he aims to play a constructive role in Argentina’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, but that the talks would be “long and arduous.” (Reuters) Argentina opposed Claver-Carone's nomination to head the bank and abstained from the vote Claver-Carone won on Saturday. (See Monday's briefs and last Friday's post.)
  • Brazil's civil society sector -- including groups like the Coalizão Negra por Direitos and legal collectives -- are leading the defense against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's attacks against constitutional guarantees, far outstripping the political opposition in this area, reports El País.
  • AMLO was elected on an anti-corruption platform -- but nearly two years into his government, he has made little real headway, and critics accuse him of angling for high profile prosecutions for political gain, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • AMLO has fostered a "pattern of increasing intolerance and suppression of critical journalism and thought" writes León Krauze in the Washington Post. Over the last couple of years, news outlets have frequently faced the president’s wrath, as have individual journalists, particularly those who revealed allegations of wrongdoing or criticized the president.
  • Discriminatory messages and incitations to violence against migrants increased in Colombia during last week's protests, according to Barómetro Xenofobia, a platform that analyzes online discourse about migrants. (El Espectador)
  • Barbados plans to become a republic and remove the Queen Elizabeth II by next year, reports the Guardian. Barbados would join Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica and Guyana if it moves this way. Jamaica has also indicated interest in such a transition.
  • Archaeologists in Mexico have identified a ship that carried Mayan people into virtual slavery in the 1850s, the first time such a ship has been found. -- Guardian
I hope you're all staying safe and as sane as possible, given the circumstances ... Comments and critiques welcome, always.


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