Facebook Inc has said it shut down a “troll farm” run by the Nicaraguan government that had been spreading anti-opposition messages across multiple accounts, a move that comes just days before presidential elections are set to be held in the Central American nation.
The social media giant said on Monday that the troll farm – a coordinated effort to manipulate public discourse using fake accounts – was intended to amplify pro-government and anti-opposition content.
The accounts were operated by the government of President Daniel Ortega and the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front party, said Ben Nimmo, threat intelligence lead for Facebook’s parent company Meta.
“This was really a cross-government operation, the troll farm consisted of several clusters which were run from multiple … government entities at once,” Nimmo told the AFP news agency.
He said the company closed 937 accounts, 140 pages and 24 groups on Facebook, as well as 363 Instagram accounts, last month.
The news comes ahead of presidential elections on Sunday in which Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive term.
The lead-up to the vote has been marked by a widespread crackdown on Nicaraguan opposition leaders and presidential hopefuls, as seven potential challengers to Ortega are among about 40 opposition figures who have been arrested in recent months.
The United States has blasted the elections as a sham organised by an increasingly authoritarian president and the administration of President Joe Biden also has imposed a series of sanctions and travel restrictions on Nicaraguan officials.
Ortega’s government has been rounding up opponents since June on charges of treason or money laundering that critics say are trumped up and designed to facilitate the longtime leader’s re-election.
On Monday, Facebook said in a statement that the troll operation was run primarily by employees of the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and the Post (TELCOR), working from the headquarters of the postal service in Managua.
“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,” the company’s investigators said in their report.
Nimmo also accused other Nicaraguan government institutions, such as the Supreme Court and the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, of running smaller clusters of fake accounts.
“The goal was to flood the online conversation in Nicaragua with pro-government and anti-opposition messages,” he said.
Facebook added that the operation entailed a complex network of media brands across Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Blogspot and Telegram, as well as websites tied to these entities.
The activity, Facebook said, began in April 2018, after student-led protests against the Nicaraguan government broke out. More than 300 people were killed in an ensuing clampdown, and tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have gone into exile.
The troll-farm network created fake accounts to discredit the protesters, including through posing as students and through attempting coordinated reporting of critics’ accounts, Facebook said.
The company also said it increasingly focused on posting and amplifying pro-government content from late 2019.
Facebook, which last week announced it would begin trading as Meta Platforms as of December 1, has been under scrutiny from legislators and regulators over potential harms linked to its platform, particularly after former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents.
It 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 behaviour, calling this “an especially troubling trend”.