Facebook says it removed troll farm run by Nicaraguan government

November 2, 2021 - 11:15 AM
Woman holds smartphone with Facebook logo in front of a displayed Facebook's new rebrand logo Meta in this illustration picture taken October 28, 2021. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo)

Facebook said on Monday that last month it removed a troll farm with more than 1,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts which it was said was run by the Nicaraguan government and the country’s ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

The social media company said the troll farm – a coordinated effort to manipulate public discourse using fake accounts – was intended to amplify pro-government and anti-opposition content. It said it had been active on its platforms since 2018 and was primarily operated by staff of TELCOR, Nicaragua’s telecoms watchdog, working from the postal service headquarters in capital Managua.

The Supreme Court, which has been an Ortega ally, and the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute also ran smaller clusters of fake accounts, Facebook said.

The Supreme Court and the office of Nicaragua’s Vice President Rosario Murillo, the spokeswoman for President Daniel Ortega and his government, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment about the report.

“This was one of the most cross-government troll operations we’ve disrupted to date, with multiple state entities participating in this activity at once,” Facebook’s investigators said in their report.

Facebook said it had this year taken down other government-linked networks from Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, Thailand and Azerbaijan for breaking its rules against so-called coordinated inauthentic behavior, calling this “an especially troubling trend.”

The company, which last week announced it would start trading as Meta Platforms Inc on Dec. 1, has been under scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators over potential harms linked to its platform, particularly after former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents.

Nicaragua will hold its presidential election on Sunday, which Washington has denounced as a sham organized by an increasingly authoritarian Ortega.

Facebook said the operation ran a network of blogs, websites and social media assets across TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Telegram.

A spokesperson for Alphabet Inc’s Google, which owns YouTube, said the company had terminated 82 YouTube channels and three blogs as part of its ongoing investigation into coordinated influence operations linked to Nicaragua.

“These channels had fewer than 1,500 subscribers in total and primarily uploaded spammy content in Spanish about gaming and sports. A small subset uploaded content supportive of President Ortega and the Sandinista party and criticizing the U.S. This campaign was consistent with similar findings reported by Facebook,” they said.

The other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Facebook said the activity began in April 2018, as student-led protests against the government broke out. It said the network created fake accounts to discredit the protesters, including through posing as students and through attempting coordinated reporting of critics’ accounts. From late 2019, Facebook said it increasingly focused on posting and amplifying pro-government content.

Facebook said it removed 937 Facebook accounts, 140 pages, 24 groups and 363 Instagram accounts as part of the Nicaraguan network. —Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien