MEXICO CITY - This spring, a doctored image claiming that the wife of the leading Mexican presidential candidate was the granddaughter of a Nazi ricocheted across Facebook and its messaging service, WhatsApp.
The post, shared 8,000 times before it was disproved, was among a flood of fabricated stories that have spread on Facebook and its other services, Instagram and WhatsApp, ahead of Mexico's July 1 presidential election - the country's own version of the divisive misinformation that sought to influence the 2016 campaign across the border.
Determined to prevent a repeat of the abuses of its platform ahead of November's U.S. midterm elections, Facebook has poured resources into election integrity, hiring thousands of content moderators and fact-checkers, deploying artificial intelligence, and conducting large sweeps of problematic accounts. Each new election is seen as a test: Facebook's security and civic teams are actively tracking 50 different elections in 2018 alone - and triaging for those deemed "high risk" - amounting to a national election practically every week.
But the Mexican election reflects the constantly mutating ways social media can be weaponized against democracy - and the immensity of Facebook's global challenge.
Most of Facebook's users live in countries like Mexico, where government corruption is endemic, distrust of the mainstream media is widespread, viral memes and WhatsApp messages are often perceived to be as credible as news stories, and the forces manipulating debate online are internal, tied to domestic political parties and other local actors.
"The hardest part is where to draw the line between a legitimate political campaign and domestic information operations," said Guy Rosen, a top security executive at Facebook. "It's a balance we need to figure out how to strike."
Facebook said it is aware of many problematic pages in Mexico, such as the shadowy page that first posted the image of the wife of front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist populist who threatens to unseat the party that has dominated Mexican politics for the past century. "Amor a México," or "Love for Mexico," has changed its name three times during the campaign season and was at one time run by a Mexican supporter of former president Felipe Calderón, according to Washington Post research and research by Animal Político, a local news organization. (Until she dropped out last month, Calderón's wife was also running for president.)
In a talk for security experts in May, Facebook security chief Alex Stamos called such domestic disinformation operations the "biggest growth category" for election-related threats that the company is confronting - groups, he said, that are copying Russian operatives' tactics to "manipulate their own political sphere, often for the benefit of the ruling party."
This area is also the trickiest: While most democracies bar foreign governments from meddling in elections, Facebook sees internal operators as much harder to crack down on because of the free speech issues involved.
After fact-checkers repeatedly flagged the page's content as problematic, Facebook this month punished Amor a México with its highest-level "demotion," dramatically reducing the likes, shares and other interactions for the page to 17,000 on June 3 from 121,000 four days prior. Still, Amor a México has doubled its followers to 300,000 in the past few months. Facebook said it was investigating the page but declined to share any information about it.
In interviews, executives conceded that determining the origin and motivation of many page operators is too great an effort for a private company to manage. Instead, the focus is on limiting the reach of serial offenders, punishing behaviors without often being able to get to the source. The brunt of Facebook's news vetting in Mexico falls to a small group of third-party fact-checkers, whose job is to play whack-a-mole - debunking one story at a time, with each taking several days to disprove.
Facebook's limited forensics around false news in Mexico show how the company's aspiration of keeping elections honest globally is still out of reach for the social network, despite the prominent role its service has come to play in many societies.
"This is the scale of [Facebook's] challenge," said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law School professor and an expert on social media and politics. "It is almost impossible to wrap your mind around."
The company didn't have fact-checking partners outside the United States and Europe until March, when it funded a group in Mexico. Until last month, fewer than a dozen fact-checkers were tasked with debunking Mexican disinformation for the country's 84 million Facebook users, along with tens of millions who use WhatsApp. In addition, several of the tools Facebook is launching in the United States, such as identifying the publishers of political ads and verifying pages with large followings, will not be operational before Mexico's election.
One scalable product - first launched in the Alabama Senate race last year - that the company plans to deploy in the days before the Mexican election is a dashboard to monitor potentially false stories as they bubble up.
"It's not fair to have a high set of standards in one country and not in another," said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos and author of a recent book about the country's disinformation landscape. "The biggest challenge for Facebook in Mexico is not Russia, and it is not Macedonian teenagers. It is our broken system."
Widespread manipulation of Facebook's service during the 2016 U.S. presidential election woke the company up to the ways the social network could be abused by malicious operators in countries like Macedonia, profiting off sensational news, and by Russian agents seeking to sow division in U.S. society, imperiling the democratic process.
In response, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg gave himself the Sisyphean task of upholding the integrity of democracy around the world. Executives coordinate across countries to routinely conduct drills of pre-election disaster scenarios, such as last-minute hacks of a candidate's account. Facebook has recruited dozens of subject matter experts, including former National Security Agency spies, and has hired 15,000 moderators and security professionals to scan objectionable content, including potentially false stories. It has purged thousands of fake accounts before elections in Germany, Italy and France.
Facebook for years pitched its service to government officials as a way to make the democratic process more transparent, and trained them in techniques to build their audiences and engage voters.
Diego Bassante, an Ecuadorian diplomat who left his post in 2014 to join Facebook, was the first Latin American hire in what was then a tiny division focused on helping candidates and governments across the world become power users of the service. He helped the mayor of Buenos Aires broadcast on Facebook Live, one of the first times a Latin American politician had done so.
In Mexico, he led workshops for politicians and candidates on how to use Facebook. This year, Bassante obtained permission from Mexico's electoral commission for the platform to broadcast the presidential debates, which were viewed by 11.8 million people, the company said.
In a region where politicians seldom interact with the public, experts said these efforts helped facilitate a new form of transparency.
But after the 2016 U.S. election, when Facebook was reeling from the Russia controversy, a dramatic shift took place. All employees dealing with elections - even those in countries without Russian interference - had to consider what could go wrong, a directive that came straight from Zuckerberg.
"We in the region said, 'Oh shoot, our job description just changed,' " Bassante recalled in Facebook's Mexico City office, where he sits near a digital clock with neon-orange numbers that counts down - in days, hours, minutes and seconds - to the election.
In the highly charged contest, experts say there's a thriving underground economy of political trolls for hire, groups allegedly funded by local candidates that spend their days flooding social media with sensational stories and attacks.
Bassante's small staff coordinates with data scientists in Facebook's Menlo Park, California, headquarters and with content moderators in Austin. From an office decorated with local art and posters celebrating nerd culture, they have a weekly call with executives managing elections around the region. Facebook has no full-time security officials in Mexico; all the security work is done remotely, such as a threat report prepared by the security staff ahead of the Mexican election.
One morning last month, Bassante was conducting a manual sweep of accounts impersonating political candidates, something that violates Facebook's real-name policy. The company wasn't using its artificial intelligence technology, he said, "because we want to be very careful not to accidentally take down a page."
As part of its deal with electoral authorities to broadcast the debates, Facebook ran a national advertising campaign around news literacy, publishing in newspapers an infographic called "How to Spot Fake News," similar to ads Facebook ran in India ahead of a big election there.
Critics argue that Facebook may have developed too-cozy relationships with candidates and governments in weak democracies - opening the door to bad actors who abuse its service, said Monika Glowacki, a researcher for the Oxford Computational Propaganda Project, who is writing a case study about Mexico. "They invited them in," she said.
And executives are aware that a broader crackdown can create thorny political questions when Facebook also cultivates relationships with officials, a strategy the company has doubled down on since the U.S. election.
Unlike in the United States, where Facebook's AI systems automatically route most stories to fact-checking organizations, in Mexico, Facebook relies on ordinary people to spot questionable posts. Many people flag stories as false simply because they disagree with them, executives said.
Fake news operators, experts said, get a boost from deep-seated cynicism born out of the fact that major newspapers and TV stations in Mexico have long been allied with the government. Officials, political campaigns and even drug cartels frequently pay journalists to write positive stories.
One reason social media has exploded in Mexico - a country where every adult with an Internet connection is on Facebook - is because it is seen as a place where people can obtain alternative sources of information, an antidote to the climate of distrust.
Facebook, Google and the local branch of Al Jazeera have funded Mexico's first independent fact-checking organization, Verificado 2018, which means "verified." Launched in March, it has roughly a dozen employees, mostly in their mid-20s, who so far have debunked 310 Facebook posts. (In late May, Facebook announced a new fact-checking partnership with the Agence France-Presse news agency in Latin America.)
Facebook has given checkers around the world customized software to input questionable stories, which are routed to Facebook's data scientists in Menlo Park. But it wasn't until this month that the company enabled Verificado to feed content other than news articles, such as memes and images, into the system. That's critical to evaluating bogus information, because many falsehoods have evolved past text and links to images accompanied by extended captions, a format that is harder for software to spot.
With stories Verificado is able to check, such as the one about the Nazi ties of López Obrador's wife, its team writes an article disproving the story. Facebook's technology then blocks it from going into the newsfeed, decreasing its reach by 80 percent.
In such a cynical news environment, many "people don't know the difference between an image and a news story," said one fact-checker, Maria Jose Lopez.
The creator of Amor a México, TK, said he and a business partner launched the page two years ago under the name Passion for Mexico to support Calderón's policies. His partner, a lawyer in Mexico City, took the page in a different direction last year when she began to work for the campaign of Ricardo Anaya, the second-place candidate after López Obrador, TK said.
Sometimes his partner lets other people post from her account. "She knows it is fake news," he said. "But she doesn't write them."
Facebook's tool can't receive data from WhatsApp, where, fact-checkers say, violent or conspiratorial content spreads widely before reaching other social channels. To get around that, Verificado set up a WhatsApp hotline number to which people can report questionable stories.
For example, for weeks Verificado had been receiving messages about a video, in circulation on WhatsApp, of a crowd burning a man alive in the southern state of Tabasco. Accompanying text blamed López Obrador supporters. It took Verificado several weeks to produce an article about the incident. Because they couldn't find witnesses, they cited local news stories that said the man was attacked for stealing a motorcycle.
Verificado isn't able to issue a verdict on all stories. Earlier this year, a story surfaced alleging that Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán had been ordered by the government to kill López Obrador. The story was shared 80,000 times, including by a popular Facebook account that had a record of supporting the leftist candidate. Verificado said it didn't attempt to research the story because it would be too difficult to reach Guzmán, who is imprisoned in New York.
Illades, the magazine editor and author, said he was stunned to recently find out that Facebook was not verifying who pays for political ads in Mexico - a safeguard the company is introducing in the United States and Canada. Doing so in Mexico could have a big effect on transparency in the upcoming election, he said.
Executives said they were working as quickly as possible to support a growing ecosystem of fact-checking groups around the world. Since March, Facebook has helped fund groups in India, Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Most countries staunchly oppose foreign intervention in democratic elections. On the other hand, deciding what motivates locals to distort political debate in their own countries, and sometimes hire themselves out to do so, is a thornier call, executives said.
Facebook chooses to clamp down on "coordinated inauthentic behavior,"said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's recently appointed head of cybersecurity policy and a former director in President Barack Obama's National Security Council. But that allows for plenty of gray area: It prohibits fake accounts, but real people who post false information are permitted to do so.
Recently, Gleicher said, Facebook decided to take a stronger stand against users who engage in or are deemed to be serial offenders - more murky lines.
Fostering such lack of clarity, Gleicher said, was the strategy of Facebook's enemies. "From everything I've seen, and everything I've worked on, this behavior is designed to exploit grayness," he said.
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The Washington Post's Kevin Sieff contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON - Days after yielding to pressure to reverse his policy of separating migrant families at the southern border, President Donald Trump returned Friday to the nativist rhetoric that animated his outsider presidential campaign, casting immigrants as threats to "our citizens."
Seeking to counter the intense criticism of his border policies, Trump invited families of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants to tell their stories of being "permanently separated" from loved ones.
"These are the stories that Democrats and people that are weak on immigration, they don't want to discuss, they don't want to hear, they don't want to see, they don't want to talk about," Trump said at the White House.
The president has been on the defensive this week because of his "zero tolerance" enforcement policy that has led to at least 2,500 migrant children being separated from their parents. While Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the practice, he has bristled at the sympathy directed toward the migrant families and argued without evidence that many of them are criminals and intent on doing harm once in the United States.
"We must maintain a Strong Southern Border," Trump tweeted Friday morning. "We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections."
The administration has struggled to implement the hastily drafted executive order, which was intended to end the controversy over family separations by stating that parents and children could be detained together. But the Homeland Security Department interpreted it as meaning they would no longer refer for prosecution the cases of adults illegally crossing the U.S. border with children because of a lack of space at existing facilities for housing detained families. The Justice Department wanted the prosecutions to continue.
Administration officials met late Thursday and on Friday to try to hash out these differences as well as to come up with a plan for reuniting the migrant families that have already been separated.
At the White House event Friday, Trump and many of the family members who spoke criticized what they called one-sided media coverage that does not focus on their stories.
"We weren't lucky enough to be separated for five days or 10 days; we're separated permanently," said Laura Wilkerson, whose son Josh was killed in 2010. "Any time we want to see or be close to our kids, we go to the cemetery, because that's where they are. We could never speak to them, we can't Skype with them."
The president blamed Democrats for what he called weak immigration laws and policies that treat those in the country illegally too leniently, even though Republicans control Congress and failed this week to pass an immigration bill out of the House because of opposition from GOP members. Trump railed against the MS-13 gang, heroin from outside the United States, and "catch and release" immigration enforcement.
Trump also said he does not believe research that shows undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, but did not specify how he came to that conclusion.
"I always hear that, 'Oh, no, the population's safer than the people that live in the country,' " Trump said. "You've heard that, fellas, right? You've heard that. I hear it so much, and I say, 'Is that possible?' The answer is it's not true. You hear it's like they're better people than what we have, than our citizens. It's not true."
The president also falsely claimed that 63,000 Americans have been killed by illegal immigrants since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The number appears to come from a 2006 blog post from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who advocates limiting immigration, that was based on conjecture, not statistical evidence.
Trump's comments on immigration this week have roiled the debate in Congress, where House Republican leaders were attempting to pass legislation that could satisfy conservatives and moderates.
On Friday morning, Trump tweeted that Republicans should stop "wasting their time" on immigration, suggesting they put off efforts to pass legislation until after the November elections, when he predicted more GOP members of Congress will be elected.
Trump's comments came after Republican leaders in the House abruptly postponed a vote Thursday on a broad immigration bill intended to unite GOP moderates and conservatives, acknowledging they lacked the votes to pass the measure despite the growing uproar over separating migrant families at the border.
Trump's tweet, GOP aides said, could make the task of corralling votes for the bill significantly more difficult, though House Republican leaders said negotiations would continue. The House defeated a bill supported by conservatives on Thursday.
"Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November," Trump wrote. "Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solves this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!"
Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Trump was "expressing his frustration" at a lack of Democratic involvement on the issue and that efforts will continue to find enough votes to pass a bill. But Scalise acknowledged it would be "an uphill fight."
"We're going to move forward," he said. "We're going to have a vote. . . . It would be nice if you had at least one Democrat who was willing to vote for a bill that secures America's border, and so far none have been willing to do that."
Responding to Trump's latest tweets, Democrats - who are optimistic they will pick up seats in both chambers of Congress in November - said it was Trump who is standing in the way of immigration reform and trying to create a political issue. They have expressed frustration that the Republican bills were crafted without their input.
The bill set to be voted on next week would provide $25 billion for Trump's long-sought border wall, offer a pathway to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers" and keep migrant families together in detention centers.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., a member of the whip team in the House, said Trump could make a difference in passing legislation if he were more emphatic about what he wants.
"If the president said to a given bill, 'That's my bill, that's the one I want,' I think that would have a pretty significant impact on our discussions," Byrne said. "But he hasn't done that yet, and so we're continuing to work without that."
Despite the GOP leadership's vows to fight on, some Republicans were openly skeptical about their ability to achieve success in the wake of Trump's latest tweets.
"Game over," Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said during an interview on CNN. "It takes the wind out of the sails in what might have been a fairly productive week in terms of looking for compromise. I don't know how it happens, because if you look at how contentious this issue is, how much emotion there is, without the president being out front - without the president having legislators' backs - there's no way they're going to take the risks that would be inherent in a major reform bill."
GOP aides noted the difficulties. The chances of a bill passing are "not good, and worse with the POTUS tweets," said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the sensitive issue. Another said Trump would be to blame if legislation fails.
The president seemed unconcerned, having already turned his attention to November's midterm elections.
"Elect more Republicans in November and we will pass the finest, fairest and most comprehensive Immigration Bills anywhere in the world," Trump tweeted Friday. "Right now we have the dumbest and the worst. Dems are doing nothing but Obstructing. Remember their motto, RESIST! Ours is PRODUCE!"
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The Washington Post's Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.