When Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the nation’s legitimate president in January 2019, an Instagram account, @FrenteLibreVzla, posted a video declaring him a “new leader” who would bring freedom to the embattled nation, according to a research report published Friday.
The firm, CLS Strategies, this week became the latest communications company to be chastised by Facebook for using fake accounts — including on Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary — to secretly manipulate politics in another country, in violation of Facebook’s prohibition on foreign interference.
CLS Strategies said Friday that it had launched an internal investigation in conjunction with an outside law firm and put the head of its Latin American practice on administrative leave. But it disputed that its activities amount to foreign interference, saying the clients it was representing were located in the affected countries.
“Importantly, our past client work in Latin America, including opposition to oppressive regimes, was not conducted on behalf of foreign entities — the work was funded and directed by clients inside each country. This makes CLS’s work very different from the foreign influence activities reported by Facebook, and any characterization of CLS’ work in the three countries at issue as ‘foreign’ is wrong,” CLS Strategies’ chief executive Bob Chlopak said in a statement.
“We take very seriously the issues raised by Facebook and others regarding CLS’ past advertising in Latin America," Chlopak said in his statement, adding that the company wants to “ensure future work of CLS meets the highest standards of transparency and advertising platforms.”
Facebook announced Tuesday it had closed 55 accounts, 42 pages and 36 Instagram accounts linked to CLS Strategies that targeted politics in Venezuela, Bolivia and Mexico. The effort spent $3.6 million in advertising across all three countries, a sum that Facebook executives said was notable for its size and reflective of what happens when actors with deep pockets mount a disinformation operation. The pages had amassed more than 500,000 followers, Facebook said.
Friday’s report, by the Stanford Internet Observatory, a disinformation research group that had been provided data by Facebook, focused on the accounts active in Bolivia and Venezuela, including several real accounts operated by CLS Strategies employees. The researchers did not find that the accounts closed by Facebook operated in tandem to artificially amplify content, but they found that 11 of the accounts targeting Bolivia were opened in the same time period, in February 2020, and listed four managers in the United States, one in Bolivia and one in Venezuela.
The report also noted that CLS Strategies employees had previous professional ties to opposition political leaders in Venezuela.
The accounts targeting Bolivia supported Interim President Jeanine Áñez and criticized her predecessor, Evo Morales, who resigned amid nationwide protests in November after nearly 14 years in office.
One of the fake Facebook pages, Prohibido olvidar, posted content mainly about allegations of electoral fraud by Morales and had 524 likes and 595 followers, the report found. It said that another fake Bolivian Facebook page, Bolificado, portrayed itself as a fact-checking operation and on at least one occasion contradicted the findings of authentic Bolivian fact checkers, labeling a true story “FAKE NEWS" in bold red letters.
The Stanford report described the trend of hiring a public relations or marketing firm to conduct a disinformation operation as increasingly common, noting that Facebook has conducted takedowns against communications firms in Israel, Canada, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — and now, the United States — for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.
“It’s apparent that these campaigns have become a lucrative and in-demand service, and there are a host of digital marketing firms willing to provide them and profit off of them," the report said.
While most of these operations have been tied to firms outside of the U.S., the CLS takedown is evidence that Americans are also players in disinformation operations targeting other countries.
Social media companies were caught flat-footed during the 2016 election, when Russian operatives tied to the Internet Research Agency abused their platforms to spread divisive messages to millions of American voters. Since then, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have marshaled significant resources to improve their rules prohibiting such behavior and defend against attacks.
But since 2016, the tactics employed by the Internet Research Agency have become only more sophisticated and more accessible to a wider group of players, some with financial motivations.
Earlier this year, Facebook disrupted a Russian-linked effort to pay social media users in Ghana to pose as Americans and run Facebook pages dedicated to themes intended to influence Black voters in the United States.
Also this week, Facebook took down accounts and pages tied to individuals associated with the Internet Research Agency. The operatives had created a network of fake Facebook pages and accounts to promote a fictitious website, Peace Data. The operators had recruited more than 200 U.S.-based freelance journalists to unwittingly write articles for the left-leaning site.
Facebook takes down Russian operation that recruited U.S. journalists, amid rising concerns about election misinformation
On Thursday, the office of Áñez, in Bolivia, confirmed that CLS Strategies was contracted in December, 2019 “to carry out lobbying in support of Bolivian democracy” and “in support of holding new presidential elections.” The firm, the statement said, only facilitated contacts between the Añez government and U.S. officials in the “executive and legislative” branches, and provided “no other services or activities.” The contract was reported as required under U.S. law, the statement said.
The government, however, said it had been unable to pay CLS’s fee due to “legal restrictions.” It did not specify what restrictions it meant. A U.S. government registration document cited by the Stanford report found that the Bolivian government agreed in December to pay $90, 000 for a 90-day period.
The right-wing Áñez, formerly the second vice president of the Bolivian Senate from a minority party, was installed as a caretaker leader in an agreement brokered by opposition parties, the Catholic Church and the European Union last November.
Áñez initially vowed not to run for office, but she later did an about face and is seeking a full term in October elections, though she is trailing in polls. The Trump administration has backed Áñez despite mounting evidence that her interim government has launched a brutal campaign to silence dissent, quash freedom of the press and exact retribution against the political left during her 10 months in office.
Anthony Faiola contributed.