The Honduran president used Facebook to massively inflate his popularity – an interview with Sophie Zhang

By Tamara Pearson

Photo Martín Cálix

Juan Orlando Hernandez, current president of Honduras, used over a thousand inauthentic Facebook Pages and benefited from hundreds of thousands of fake likes. Over a six-week period in 2018, his posts were liked by 59,100 users, of which 46,500 were fake.

Sophie Zhang is responsible for finding these figures and making them public, along with similar concerning figures about other countries. She was a data scientist working for Facebook. Her job was to combat fake engagements: likes, comments, and shares from inauthentic or compromised accounts. She was fired by Facebook in September last year for focusing on political fake engagement in countries that Facebook management said weren’t a priority.

She says she “turned down an almost US$64,000 severance package” because that package involved signing an agreement that would prevent her from publicly criticizing the company or speaking out. “I decided that wouldn’t be worth it,” she said in her interview with ContraCorriente.

She is outraged by the way so many politicians “choose to abuse Facebook to manipulate their own populace” and says the lack of response to this by Facebook is the responsibility of those at the top.

In 2019, Facebook publicly noted that it had removed 181 accounts and 1,488 Facebook Pages that were involved in coordinated inauthentic activity in Honduras. The Pages were designed to look like user profiles, with fake names and stock images, in order to “amplify positive content about the president.”

Here is a sample of content posted by some of these Pages: 

Responding to Zhang’s accusations about Facebook’s priorities, a spokesperson, Liz Bourgeois claimed, “We aggressively go after abuse around the world … As a result, we’ve taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were in networks that operated in countries around the world, including Latin America, the Middle East, and North Africa, and in the Asia region.”

We spoke to Zhang by phone about what she learned about President Juan Orlando Hernández’s use of Facebook, and the potential broader implications of that sort of abuse of social media. This interview has been edited and condensed.

CC: How did you work out that Hernández was falsely inflating his post popularity?

SZ: So it was very silly. I was working for Facebook as a data scientist, on the fake engagement team. By fake, I mean things like fake accounts, hacked accounts, self compromised ones where you give your credentials over to someone else. It was things like people buying fake likes. There are small businesses who want more fans, there are influencers who want more fans. There are spammers who are selling questionable products like air purifiers that will keep you safe from Covid. My job was supposed to be getting rid of this sort of fake activity.

This other work (uncovering political fake engagement), I was doing in my spare time, or spare moments at work. From the start, I was interested in the idea of inauthentic activity acting on politics, and so I started looking for it. I found it in countries like India and Brazil, and in Honduras. Actually, a lot of it in Honduras, relative to its size. I took a screenshot of one of Hernández’s posts and I realized it was very odd, because there were a lot of (Facebook) Pages liking his post. As I looked closer, it was very clear what was going on, and it was very clear it was very bad. I had never seen anything like this before.

CC: What was Hernández doing?

SZ: There were very clearly fake Pages pretending to be real people who didn’t exist, but which were being used to manipulate, in favor of the president of Honduras. And the person running these fake pages was actually one of the page administrators of the president of Honduras. This person had been authorized to have access to the official page of Juan Orlando Hernández, and to make posts on his behalf.

There were thousands of fake Pages. In terms of the activity, I don’t remember the exact volume numbers, but I do remember that in late 2018 and early 2019, roughly half of the activity such as likes, comments. and shares came from fake pages. That’s from memory. It was quite significant.

And it’s actually not that hard (to set up fake Pages). When you make a new account, Facebook goes through a process that ensures that people can’t set up new fake accounts. But it didn’t occur to people (at Facebook) to apply the same concept to Pages. So they could just make a Page, find a profile picture somewhere, make up a name, make another Page, and so on. This has advantages and disadvantages when compared to networks of fake accounts. It can be quite hard to control 50 different accounts because you can only be logged into one at a time in one browser. So maybe I need to have lots of devices, or to keep logging out and in. Whereas switching between pages is much easier, because Facebook set it up so that page administrators, such as people hired to take care of pages for corporations or political parties, can do so easily. On the flip side, it’s very obvious internally, to Facebook, (when people are doing this).

CC: Essentially, it is about manufacturing credibility, right? Is that different to digital advertising or native advertising?

SZ: Yes, essentially. I’m not an expert in politics, so what I’m telling you is more educated speculation. But what I can say is that (the fake engagements and Pages) certainly did make the president (of Honduras) appear to be much more popular than he actually was.

There has been a lot of research about perception, and often what is found is that countries that are on the brink of crisis, countries that might be ruled by dictators who might be facing coups or uprisings – in these regions, perception can be more important than reality.

For example, everyone may hate the dictator, but pretend to still support him (sic), because if they think everyone else does, they will be too afraid of the consequences of (speaking out). And when they are protesting in the streets, when there’s an uprising, the officials and soldiers have to decide who they are going to support.

Ultimately, dictators need not just to be popular, but for people to believe that they are popular.

It’s not the same as advertising, because paying for advertising makes people see that (content) more, but these people can still make their own decisions about what they like and don’t like. But when it comes to falsely inflating popularity, these aren’t real people. I would compare it to when politicians bus in supporters to rallies, because if they didn’t do that, there wouldn’t be any crowds at their events and they would look like failures.

 

CC: There are national elections coming up in Honduras in November, is it likely that the National Party will continue to try this strategy, even though Facebook has taken down some pages?

SZ: I know that after Facebook took the pages down, a year after I discovered them, (Hernandez´s team) tried to come back with more pages. Facebook immediately stopped them. After, I know they came back using a different tactic of using fake accounts. These were much harder to discover. When I identified them, Facebook was very reluctant to take many of them down. It was still continuing when I left. I can’t say what has happened since I left, or what will happen in the future, but frankly I think it makes sense for them to continue (to employ fake engagement).

CC: Why has Facebook been so slow to act on this?

SZ: It’s a hard question to answer because I can’t read minds and I don’t know what motivates decisions. But what I was often told then, and what I believed at the time but I don’t believe any more, is that there was this loophole (of using Facebook Pages). We hadn’t seen anything like this before. The Honduran government was being cutting edge. So it wasn’t contemplated in the rules, is what I was told. There wasn’t a clear rule against fake Pages.

The reason I don’t believe that explanation any more is that I thought the precedent of Honduras would make a difference. By October 2019 we had a new policy that recognized that Pages could be used for coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Still, I don’t know, I can only guess. And what I believe is that it was a combination of factors. Facebook does take action regarding cases in smaller countries, but usually it’s because someone there, like an NGO or opposition group, has complained to the company. That means those outside people know what is happening and they could go to the media about it. But I was acting within the company, and so it was treated very differently.

Ultimately, Facebook is a company, and it’s goal is to make money. It isn’t interested in issues out of the goodness of its heart. In some cases, what it acts on is about luck, and in other cases I think it is about how important the country is perceived to be. I’m sorry to say it, but Honduras is a small country and it isn’t very wealthy, so I think it wasn’t considered as important to Facebook’s bottom line.

I think people have very high expectations of social media companies. In part because social media companies like to portray themselves as very nice and well-intentioned, and in part because they believe the existing institutions have failed. They don’t expect the government to fix the problem, and ironically that’s because many of the traditional gatekeepers, like the media, have been weakened by social media.

CC: Finally, what can people do?

SZ: I think publishing news articles is important. It is one of the pressure points that Facebook listens to, I know. And at the end of the day if people stop using Facebook it will have no more power, but that’s not likely to happen. But if people threaten to leave Facebook, I think the company would take that seriously. I know Honduras is a small country, but there are other countries who are experiencing similar things in Latin America. So if Facebook doesn’t clean up its act, in terms of cracking down on inauthentic behavior networks, people can threaten to leave, but it requires people to act together in great numbers.

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2 thoughts on “The Honduran president used Facebook to massively inflate his popularity – an interview with Sophie Zhang”

  1. Your reporter repeatedly misquotes Ms. Zhang by using parentheses rather than square brackets to insert her interpolations. Accurate quotation is rule #1 for any reporter. Also, what is the purpose of the random “(sic)”? There seems to be nothing odd about Ms. Zhang’s use of “him” where this intrusion is inserted.

  2. Your reporter repeatedly misquotes Ms. Zhang by using parentheses rather than square brackets to insert her interpolations. Accurate quotation is rule #1 in journalism. Also, what is the purpose of the random “(sic)”? There seems to be nothing odd about Ms. Zhang’s use of “him” where this intrusion is inserted.

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