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Facebook knew of Honduran president’s manipulation campaign – and let it continue for 11 months

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Facebook allowed the president of Honduras to artificially inflate the appearance of popularity on his posts for nearly a year after the company was first alerted to the activity.

The astroturfing – the digital equivalent of a bussed-in crowd – was just one facet of a broader online disinformation effort that the administration has used to attack critics and undermine social movements, Honduran activists and scholars say.

Facebook posts by Juan Orlando Hernández, an authoritarian rightwinger whose 2017 re-election is widely viewed as fraudulent, received hundreds of thousands of fake likes from more than a thousand inauthentic Facebook Pages – profiles for businesses, organizations and public figures – that had been set up to look like Facebook user accounts.

The campaign was uncovered in August 2018 by a Facebook data scientist, Sophie Zhang, whose job involved combatting fake engagement: comments, shares, likes and reactions from inauthentic or compromised accounts.

Zhang began investigating Hernández’s Page because he was the beneficiary of 90% of all the known fake engagement received by civic or political Pages in Honduras. Over one six-week period in 2018, for example, Hernández’s Facebook posts received likes from 59,100 users, of whom 46,500 were fake.

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She found that one of the administrators for Hernández’s Page was also the administrator for hundreds of the inauthentic Pages that were being used solely to boost posts on Hernández’s Page. This individual was also an administrator for the Page of Hilda Hernández, the president’s sister, who served as his communications minister until her death in December 2017.

Although the activity violated Facebook’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior” – the kind of deceptive campaigning used by a Russian influence operation during the 2016 US election – Facebook dragged its feet for nearly a year before taking the campaign down in July 2019.

Despite this, the campaign to boost Hernández on Facebook repeatedly returned, and Facebook showed little appetite for policing the recidivism. Guy Rosen,Facebook’s vice-president of integrity, referred to the return of the Honduras campaign as a “bummer” in an internal discussion in December 2019 but emphasized that the company needed to prioritize influence operations that targeted the US or western Europe, or were carried out by Russia or Iran.

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Hernández’s Page administrator also returned to Facebook despite being banned during the July 2019 takedown. His account listed his place of employment as the Honduran presidential palace and included photos taken inside restricted areas of the president’s offices.

The Page administrator did not respond to queries from the Guardian, and his account was removed two days after the Guardian questioned Facebook about it.

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A Facebook spokesperson, Liz Bourgeois, said: “We fundamentally disagree with Ms Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform.

“We investigated and publicly shared our findings about the takedown of this network in Honduras almost two years ago. These investigations take time to understand the full scope of the deceptive activity so we don’t enforce piecemeal and have confidence in our public attribution … Like with other CIB takedowns, we continue to monitor and block attempts to rebuild presence on our platform.”

Facebook declined to comment on Hernández’s Page administrator’s return to the platform. It did not dispute Zhang’s factual assertions about the Honduras case.

Hernández did not respond to queries sent to his press officer, attorney and minister of transparency.

Deceptive social media campaigns are used to “deter political participation or to get those who participate to change their opinion”, said Aldo Salgado, co-founder of Citizen Lab Honduras. “They serve to emulate popular support that the government lacks.”

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Hundreds demonstrate to demand the resignation of Hernández for his alleged links with drug trafficking, in Tegucigalpa in 2019.
Hundreds demonstrate to demand the resignation of Hernández for his alleged links with drug trafficking, in Tegucigalpa in 2019. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Eugenio Sosa, a professor of sociology at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, said the government’s use of astroturfing to support Hernández “has to do with the deep erosion of legitimacy, the little credibility that he has, and the enormous public mistrust about what he does, what he says and what he promises”. Beyond the president’s loyal supporters, however, Sosa said he believes that it has little effect on public opinion, due to a steady stream of headlines about Hernández’s corruption and ties to the narcotics trade.

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Hernández’s brother was convicted of drug trafficking in US federal courts in October 2019, and the president has himself been identified by US prosecutors as a co-conspirator in multiple drug trafficking and corruption cases. Hernández has not been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing. Until recently, he was considered a key US ally in Central America.

Salgado said that the Hernández administration began resorting to social media disinformation campaigns in 2015, when a major corruption scandal involving the theft of $350m from the country’s healthcare and pension system inspired months of torchlit protest marches. “That’s when the need for the government arises and they desperately begin to create an army of bots,” he said.

Facebook, which has about 4.4 million users in Honduras, was a double-edged sword for the non-partisan protest organizers, who used the social network to organize but also found themselves attacked by a disinformation campaign alleging that they were controlled by Manuel Zelaya, a former president who was deposed in a 2009 coup.

“The smear campaign was psychologically overwhelming,” said Gabriela Blen, a social activist who was one of the leaders of the torch marches. “It is not easy to endure so much criticism and so many lies. It affects your family and your loved ones. It is the price that is paid in such a corrupt country when one tries to combat corruption.

“In Honduras there is no guarantee for the exercise of the defense of human rights,” she added. “We are at the mercy of the powers that dominate this country. They try to terrorize us and stop our work, either through psychological terror or the shame that some campaigns on social networks can cause you through the rejection and hatred that they generate in some people.”

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The disinformation campaigns are most often employed during periods of social unrest and typically paint protests as violent or partisan, according to Sosa, the sociologist. “It scares people away from participating,” he said.

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Hernandez won a second term in a 2017 election plagued with irregularities. With the country rocked by protests and a violent government crackdown, researchers in Mexico and the US documented the wide-scale use of Twitter bot accounts to promote Hernández and project a false view of “good news, prosperity, and tranquility in Honduras”.

Hernández at the presidential house in Tegucigalpa last month.
Hernández at the presidential house in Tegucigalpa last month. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Fresh protests in 2019 against government efforts to privatize the public education and health systems were again met by a digital smear campaign – this time with the backing of an Israeli political marketing firm that was barred from Facebook in May 2019 for violating its ban on coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Archimedes Group set up fake Facebook Pages purporting to represent Honduran news outlets or community organizations that promoted pro-Hernández messages, according to an analysis by the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. Among them was a Page that ran ads again alleging that Zelaya was the source of the protests, and two Pages that pushed the message that Hernández was dedicated to fighting drug trafficking.

“They said that we were inciting violence and had groups of delinquents,” said Suyapa Figueroa, the president of the Honduran Medical Guild, who rose to prominence as one of the leaders of the 2019 protests. “Some people were afraid to support the [protesters’] platform because they thought that [the ousted president] Mel Zelaya was behind it. There were always fears that the movement was politically manipulated and that stopped it growing.”

Figueroa continues to struggle with Facebook-fueled disinformation. A Facebook Page purporting to represent her has nearly 20,000 followers and has been used to “attack leaders of the opposition and create conflict within it”, she said.

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“I’ve reported it and many of my friends have reported it, yet I haven’t been able to get that fake Page taken down,” she said.

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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