Blog September 4, 2020

A US PR Firm Steps Into Contested Elections

A U.S.-based strategic communications firm engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior targeting people in Bolivia and Venezuela.
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Credit: Esteban Ponce de León

Download Report: "Bolivarian Factions: Facebook takes down inauthentic assets"
Read Facebook Announcement

On August 31, 2020, Facebook removed a network of 55 Facebook accounts, 42 Pages and 36 Instagram accounts attributed to the US-based strategic communications firm CLS Strategies for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior. In its report, Facebook stated that the accounts violated its policy against foreign interference or coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity and that the accounts focused on Venezuela, Mexico and Bolivia. Facebook shared a portion of this network with the authors on August 26, 2020. In our investigation, we found that the network involved in this takedown operated fake and duplicate user accounts under the same names. Based on public records, we were able to connect some of the assets on Facebook to CLS Strategies personnel and determine that the firm had worked or was working on behalf of the Bolivian government.

Key takeaways

  • 11 Facebook pages related to Bolivia mainly supported Bolivia’s Interim President Jeanine Áñez and disparaged Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales. All had similar creation dates and manager location settings.

  • Venezuela-focused assets supported and promoted Venezuelan opposition leaders but changed in tone in 2020, reflecting factional divides in the opposition and a turn away from opposition president Juan Guaidó. 

  • In addition to fake accounts, removed Facebook accounts include six profiles that match the names and photos of CLS Strategies employees listed publicly on their website and appear to be their real accounts. 

  • CLS Strategies has a disclosed contract with the Bolivian government to provide strategic communications counsel for Bolivia's 2020 elections and to strengthen democracy and human rights in Bolivia.

  • Coordinated inauthentic behavior reports from Facebook and Twitter have increasingly included assets linked to marketing and PR firms originating and acting around the world. The firms' actions violate the platforms’ terms by operating internationally and failing to identify their origins and motivations to users.

 

Many of the removed accounts shared names with employees at CLS Strategies. The Pages targeting Bolivia were all created in February 2020 and all had four managers in the US, one in Venezuela and one in Bolivia. The accounts primarily pushed messaging supportive of the interim president Jeanine Áñez and opposed to recently resigned president Evo Morales. 

facebook post and twitter posts
Left: A screengrab from the now-suspended page Bolificado, labeling a Tweet from the fact-checking organization Agencia de Noticias Fides as “Fake News”. Right: Original fact-check posts from ANF and ChequeaBolivia labeling the story as “true.” Bolificado presented itself as a fact-checking organization but posted images refuting fact-check claims from internationally recognized fact-checking organizations. (Source: Facebook, Twitter)

The other Pages and Instagram accounts targeted a Venezuelan audience and empathized with the Venezuelan opposition. The opposition has fractured in the last year, and the messaging from the accounts reflected that, with shifting support among opposition figures.

screenshots
Instagram account @FrenteLibreVzla posted a video (top) describing how Guaidó would lead the country to freedom while the Facebook page Fan Chavista amplified U.S. President Donald Trump’s statements supporting Guaidó. (Source: Facebook)

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