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Facebook says it just uncovered one of the largest troll farms ever - run by the government of Nicaragua

·3 min read
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  • Daniel Ortega
    Daniel Ortega
    President of Nicaragua
A portrait of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega with the word "asesino" written on top.
The Spanish word for "Murderer" covers a mural of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, as part of anti-government protests demanding his resignation in Managua, Nicaragua. Esteban Felix/AP
  • Facebook announced it uncovered one of the largest troll farms, run by the government of Nicaragua.

  • The troll operation involved state employees working out of Nicaragua's postal service, Facebook said.

  • The company said the effort violated its policy against "Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior."

One of the most sweeping state-run "troll" operations was taken down this week after researchers uncovered hundreds of accounts linked to the Nicaraguan government that were focused on slandering its political opposition, Facebook announced on Monday.

In a report on "coordinated inauthentic behavior," researchers said that at least 1,300 accounts on Facebook and Instagram had been removed for being part of an operation targeting critics of President Daniel Ortega and the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front. The propaganda campaign - which attracted just under 785,000 followers - appears to have launched in April 2018, according to the researchers, coinciding with a broad protest movement against Ortega's handling of the environment and cuts in social spending.

"This was one of the most cross-governmental troll operations we've disrupted to date,"the report said, though it appears to have been primarily operated by state employees "working from the headquarters of the postal service in Managua."

These government workers did not just stick to platforms run by Facebook, either, with researchers also finding their "media brands" on Tiktok, YouTube, Blogspot, and Telegram. The campaign involved a large number of such brands, some more explicitly partisan than others - "an attempt to flood the Nicaraguan information space with pro-government content, creating the appearance of a vibrant and diverse public debate," the report said.

One of the websites central to this operation, "Redvolución," purported to expose "fake news" spread by opponents of the government. However, as this reporter previously covered at The Daily Beast, it spread false stories itself.

In an effort to slander Ortega's political opposition, the website was one of several linked to the Nicaraguan government that published a purported "confession" from a popular student protester, Valeska Alemán Sandoval, who had been arrested following a deadly government raid on a church where she and others had sought protection. In the jarringly edited video, Sandoval, clearly under duress, denounces her fellow protesters as thieves, sex workers, and drug addicts.

Although the campaign revealed Monday was largely aimed at a domestic, Nicaraguan audience, it had an international reach. The student protester's false confession, for example, was circulated by a British supporter of the government, John Perry, who adopted a fake identity to publish commentary on the episode at The Grayzone, a US-based fringe website that has promoted the Ortega government's line on social unrest in the Central American country.

Sandoval, who renounced her prison confession in an interview with this reporter, later fled Nicaragua to seek asylum in the United States. The Trump administration deported her.

The takedown of the government influence operations comes comes ahead of a November 7 presidential election in Nicaragua. Despite a September poll finding his disapproval rating to be 69%, Ortega is all but certain to remain in office, since his leading critics were barred from running against him. Several were arrested and subject to criminal investigation in the lead-up to the vote.

A one-time revolutionary militant, Ortega first came to power in 1979 as part of a broad coalition, led by the left-wing FSLN, that overthrew a US-backed dictatorship. He was voted out of office in 1990 following a decade-long civil war fueled by the Reagan administration.

In 2007, Ortega returned to power as a new man: avowedly Catholic and with a running mate who had once led the Contras, the US-backed insurgent group that had waged war against his government in the 1980s. He has since consolidated power, eliminating presidential term limits and naming his wife, Rosario Murillo, vice president.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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