Digital guerrilla by El Salvador’s FMLN

ABC Madrid-01By Emili Blasco

[Translation by IASW]

Up to 300,000 fake Twitter accounts could be driving activists of the Government of El Salvador to attack the opposition and to flood social media networks with positive messages in favor of the positions of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former guerrilla group that runs the country since 2009.

An investigation from documentation submitted by the United States Department of Justice before Salvadoran courts has allowed to track a network of hackers and media trolls, which seem to operate in coordination with the mayor of San Salvador, Nayid Bukele.

Several communication aids of Bukele have been implicated in a case under investigation by authorities in El Salvador on the cyber attacks against the daily “La Prensa Grafica” and “El Diario de Hoy”, which occurred last year. Among those involved are Sofia Medina, who was the Mayor’s communications director, and Mayra Moran, Blue Group, who worked for the 2015 election campaign of Bukele under the banner of the FMLN. Bukele himself was part of a demonstration outside the prosecutor’s office to protest the investigations. The most prolific alleged hacker in that case is Jose Carlos Navarro (known as Payaso sin Gracia on social networks), who manages Bunker, a company belonging to Blue Group.

But Navarro’s strategic activities go much further, as he and Ernesto Sanabria, also Buckle’s private advisor; Marcos Rodriguez, Secretary of Participation and Government Transparency and Erick Joel Rivera, head of communications for the mayor, now using the alias Brozo,  (formerly operated by Sanabria) would have been at the forefront of half a dozen cells whose job  is to operate up to 300,000 fake Twitter accounts. This information appears in a report by Salvadoran researchers who have worked using some of the clues provided by the United States Department of Justice, which at the request of prosecutors in El Salvador has been able to examine certain activities on the Internet.

According to that report, obtained by ABC, the aim of the operation is to flood social media networks with favorable information, discredit opponents, conducting public debates towards the intended goals, change perceptions of the audience, and counter negative information.

Researchers estimate that the network is structured as follows:

Vertices: They’re in touch with the leaders and determine the messages to be disseminated or to be launched against opponents.

Satellites: People, alter egos or web pages with media influence in addition to campaigns, either by ideological conviction or because they are offered to the highest bidder.

Bots: They are responsible for the widespread dissemination of content, using automated mechanisms designed for social networks, known as bots, through platforms like Botize and TwitterFeed. Each person operates fifty Twitter accounts that retweet and like messages. In total, they manage almost 1,000 accounts that, due to their activity, look like real profiles.

Bots Followers (dormant): may be more than 300,000 accounts, which typically do not perform any activity and serve to increase the number of followers of the accounts that deemed convenient by the handlers.

Apparently, the main operations take place in half a dozen locations in San Salvador. Including the mayor’s office and the headquarters of the company Bunker. In each of these teams, ten to fifteen people work with a monthly operational cost of about $30,000. Another source of the attacks would be located near the Shiite Islamic Center of San Salvador, but the investigation has not been able to determine this connection.

The modus operandi can be seen in several cases. Although not recent, there is a particularly example that demonstrated the  mechanics of these operations. It occurred when the account Brozo launched a tweet with audio in which a leader of the opposition party ARENA criticized a fellow party member. Soon, the audio was replicated significantly with the help of the bits. The politician denied that his statements were such, because some other phrases were cut and taken out of context, but confirmed it was his voice. After he “confirmed” this was his voice, a second and a third audio were spread, with criticism of others.

The network would also have served to generate social support for projects of the FMLN, with the spread, for example, of criticism against the permit of a beverage plant and against other companies in charge of pension funds, which the government would later use to promote the  to promote the Water Act or trying to access part of the pension funds.

Sometimes, these activities take place in other countries to influence electoral processes such as Mexico, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and Spain. Researchers have found that in those situations, some of the same accounts mentioned before are used—using their followers, but deleting previous messages.

The Salvadoran opposition has criticized the government’s use of 240 Cultural Centers throughout the country to proselytize , especially 150 that offerinternet courses to spread the government’s propaganda online. The opposition has also pointed out that Vladimir Handal, who is considered to be responsible for digital communications of the FMLN, is now managing 600 surveillance cameras installed a year ago by the government of San Salvador that are allegedly used to spy on political opponents.

Click here for original article in Spanish.

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