Fake accounts, coordinated messages and digital troops: The smear campaign against Gabriela Castellanos

Experts on disinformation and influence campaigns told Contracorriente that between May and July 2023 the Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA) and its director, Gabriela Castellanos, were targets of a coordinated and inauthentic social media campaign after the CNA published a report that revealed nepotism in Xiomara Castro’s administration. Social media accounts involved in this campaign are linked to “digital troops” supported by the government, while other accounts mostly share pro-government content. The most relevant content posted in this campaign was used during Juan Orlando Hernández’ administration.

Text: Contracorriente 

Translation: José Rivera

English editing: Amy Patricia Morales


CNA issued “Concentration of power,” a report that denounces nepotism in Castro’s administration, live on social media on May 23, 2023, at 10:07 a.m. Seven minutes after the presentation, an X user shared a video of a TV show broadcast in 2021 in which Doris Madrid, a lawyer, accused Castellanos of nepotism.

The video was part of a series of accusations by Madrid against Castellanos that began on October 28, 2021, one day after Castellanos presented a report in Washington exposing a network of corruption at the center of which was former President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is awaiting trial in the U.S. for drug trafficking charges. 

Madrid—whose reputation has been questioned for her connection to the National Party and for representing David Castillo, one of the individuals who ordered the assassination of Berta Cáceres—brought accusations against Castellanos to the Attorney General’s Office for alleged “nepotism and embezzlement of public funds,” arguing that she hired relatives to work at CNA between 2014 and 2016.

Each time Castellanos presented a report on behalf of CNA accusing the Hernández or Castro administration of corruption or nepotism, she faced an aggressive backlash. Attacks against Castellanos have not changed much during Castro’s administration. Between May and July 2023, public officials issued statements, and memes were shared on social media, accusing Castellanos of nepotism and exposing information about her personal life.


A group of experts analyzed social media accounts that posted similar content and determined that such attacks were coordinated. At least 18 accounts on X and 18 on TikTok were fake. On May 24, 2023, 42 videos criticizing CNA and Castellanos were posted on both social media platforms, garnering 91,059 views.


Some of the posts shared by fake accounts were reposted by high-profile individuals close to Castro’s administration. According to the analysis by disinformation experts, content reposted by these individuals increased the reach of the smear campaign against Castellanos.

For instance, Ricardo Soto, a lawyer and controversial social media figure who supports the Castro administration, reposted a TikTok video of journalist Cesia Funes explaining that Castellanos is involved in nepotism. The post had more than 37,700 views. Soto refused an interview request by Contracorriente, but wrote in a text message that he considers himself a citizen who simply shares his opinions on social media and has also been a victim of smear campaigns.

From 2021, when Castellanos was first accused of nepotism, until the most recent campaign in 2023, around 500 similar videos with more than 3.5 million views were posted on TikTok. The first video of the new campaign was posted at 11:00 a.m. and featured a segment of Abriendo Brecha, a Honduran media outlet, which had been posted on Twitter a few minutes before.

These actions were repeated for several days and then stopped for a while before continuing between June 5 and June 20, 2023, when CNA issued a new report and Castellanos fled the country for safety reasons after receiving death threats.

Castro’s administration responded to Castellanos’ accusations in a communiqué read by Carmen Haydeé López Flores, Undersecretary of Governance and Justice, whom CNA denounced in the report for her alleged involvement in nepotism as she’s Enrique Flores Lanza’s niece. “We advise the Honduran population that the current CNA director, Gabriela Castellanos, is pretending to represent the people and hiding the interests she really protects; those of a reactionary faction of the U.S. government that destabilizes countries to promote coups,” the communiqué reads.

That same day, Flores Lanza, Castro’s legal adviser, said Castellanos was resentful because she wanted to be the attorney general and he did not endorse her.

Social media accounts involved in the smear campaign against CNA usually post pro-government content. Ninety-nine percent of content posted by the 18 analyzed TikTok accounts is from the government, and some images have the “Digital Troop” logo. Only ten of the 2,327 videos analyzed had pro-government content.

On June 19, 2023, when Hondurans found out that Castellanos had left the country, social media accounts under investigation ramped up nepotism and corruption accusations against CNA. A video of Gerardo Torres Zelaya, Honduran Vice-Chancellor, accusing Castellanos of nepotism was posted in coordination between 15 of the 18 accounts on the same day.

Although we couldn’t verify if all these accounts are part of the “Digital Troops” nor the number of accounts associated with them, Ricardo Salgado, Secretary of Strategic Planning, shed some light on how these accounts are coordinated from the same institution.

During an interview by Contracorriente for the investigation “Honduras, a paradise of disinformers,” Salgado said that at the time there were 30 people hired to monitor digital outlets and social media and identify and respond to “attacks.” They also had a team that drafted messages and developed a communications strategy. He added that the government provides information to a national network of active members called “Digital Troops,” who strategically post content issued by the government.

“We have a goal, a team and a very valuable experiment because many active members, not employees, are scattered around the country. In total, they’re 7,000 or 8,000 active members who are motivated and receive training; they’re instructed about the goal and the brand, both essential to their activities. They are the Digital Troops. Some members give a signal and the rest come out. We share information with these troops, but they are not allowed to post content they don’t know about,” he said during an interview for this investigation.

Regarding the hashtag #GabrielaNoMeRepresenta (Gabriela doesn’t represent me), he said, “They’re good; they used the hashtag, as we do every day. In practice, we’re very much capable of doing so.” He doesn’t think that it’s a smear campaign because “she represents the interests of the U.S. embassy and lobbyists and conservatives in that country who are working to destabilize the Honduran government. Those are the interests she represents; it’s not an effort to discredit her and that’s the truth.”

In addition, Salgado said that CNA’s campaign against the government has been more aggressive, ill-informed and vile.

Salgado’s attacks against CNA resumed in November 2023, after Castellanos questioned the appointment of the attorney general. In a video posted on social media, Castellanos stated that she will file an appeal of unconstitutionality to the Supreme Court against “Legislative Decree 001-2023-CP/CN, which outlines the appointment of the attorney general and the special prosecutor, for infringement of constitutional precepts in form and content.” On his X account, Salgado referred to CNA and the Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa – ASJ) as “NGO trash committed to defending the oligarchy” and added that CNA “was not established to fight corruption but to protect the interests of the U.S. and the elite.”

“This organization was not established to fight corruption but to protect the interests of the U.S. and the elite. Its members are openly supportive of the Citizen Opposition Block (Bloque de Oposición Ciudadana – BOC), as ordered by their superiors, and are now capable of saying that former President Hernández and his band of criminals are the twelve apostles.”

“To all idiots out there who wish to discredit this success, let me remind you that it’s UNESCO who corroborates the data and not any NGO trash like ASJ and CNA, organizations that protect the interests of the oligarchy. Greetings to the cowards who do not come forward.”


“A very important fact that must be made known is that the population in almost 100 municipalities is no longer illiterate, and we project that, owing to the excellent management by President Castro @XiomaraCastroZ, the entire Honduran population will be literate by 2024. We continue achieving victories.”


Messages posted by Salgado on social media, especially X, are direct, and he has reaffirmed statements from interviews on his account. Subsequently, when the appointment of the attorney general and special prosecutor in National Congress began and a conflict between congressional members arose, Salgado called for an intervention by “colectivos,” a faction of the Libre Party. As a result, colectivos arrived at Congress and assaulted several congressional members of the opposition party, throwing rocks and bottles.


For this reason, Salgado was included as an “undemocratic actor” in the Engel list published on December 21, 2023.

“Long live the Honduran people and LIBRE’s colectivos! They instill fear in thieves, murderers and traitors. Don’t give up; the Honduran people should increasingly impose sovereignty. Hondurans rule in this country and not meddlesome foreigners.”

Salgado is not ashamed but “proud” to be on the Engel list. He issued a statement and explained that the U.S. government “has always backed up corruption and impunity in favor of the National and Liberal parties.” He then mentioned historical anti-imperialist figures like José Martí and Augusto Sandino, both of whom he considers himself an heir.

In response to accusations against Salgado holding him responsible for any incident that could take place in anti-government protests, he said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing is going to happen to that band of criminals, drug traffickers and looters.”

A government employee, who will remain anonymous for safety reasons, witnessed how the government dismantled “call centers” of the previous administration that used to operate in La Bolsa neighborhood to increase former President Hernández’ popularity on social media. He affirmed that there were no instructions to support or share content from the digital troops, and no one issued an order “to attack Gabriela Castellanos.” He was against such actions because it’s “misogynistic behavior.” However, he acknowledged that a “radical faction within the government” was committed to discrediting Castellanos.

According to World Report 2024 published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “President Xiomara Castro has largely failed to deliver on her promise to strengthen human rights and democratic institutions in Honduras.” Regarding attacks on human rights defenders, the report states, “From January through August, 236 human rights defenders were harassed, threatened, or attacked, and at least 13 were killed—compared to 11 killed in all of 2022—the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Honduras reported.”

Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, presented a preliminary report on October 27, 2023, after a twelve-day visit to Honduras. She expressed concern for the polarization the country is going through which is exacerbated by social media. She advised governments to abstain from knowingly sponsoring and spreading false information and to avoid labeling differing opinions as “false.”

Fake accounts

The majority of accounts involved in the smear campaign against CNA were fake. On Twitter, 18 of the 22 accounts that repeatedly attacked CNA, and the 18 TikTok accounts that shared the same content have features of a fake account such as using the same profile picture on different accounts.

Some of the profile pictures on TikTok accounts were taken from Instagram accounts that have different names or from Pinterest. These TikTok accounts post only pro-government content.

Another indication that this was a coordinated campaign is the frequent publication of the same content on Twitter and TikTok; some of these videos were uploaded within a couple of minutes of each other. For instance, two Twitter accounts published the same video with the same text and hashtags within a minute. This suggests that they are acting in a coordinated manner or the same person posted on different accounts.

Analyzed accounts show a high volume of posts. Twitter accounts had collectively posted a total of 49,000 tweets by July 2, a daily average of 22 tweets. The average Twitter user in Honduras, on the other hand, posts twice a day, and 10 percent of more active users post five times a day. At times, the Twitter accounts were even more active. For instance, on June 14, each account posted around 47 tweets about the diplomatic relations between Honduras and China. Only 7.5 percent of posts are original tweets, and the rest retweets, quotes or responses; another indication that these accounts are fake.

When there is suspicion that a social media account is fake, it’s important to verify the date it was created. It is considered a red flag when accounts that post the same content at roughly the same time retweet each other, have photos that belong to other people and accounts and were created shortly before or during the campaign. The 18 Twitter accounts suspected of being part of this campaign were created after August 2022. Users have configured multiple accounts across different social media, and the average time between the creation of the first and last account is 21 days. The newest account was monserratmejia99, which was created on X, Instagram and Facebook on the same day. The oldest account was @josebermu16, which was created 2,611 days, or seven years, before. This suggests that these accounts were created by real users and were reactivated to participate in the campaign along with the fake accounts.

TikTok does not disclose the date an account is created, but after looking at the first post made by each of the 18 accounts, many posted their first video between February and March 2023.

A notable example is an account created in April 2023, just a month before the smear campaign against CNA which had changed from Carla Sarmiento to Cesia Funez to Julia Izaguirre, the current name.

The TikTok account @cesia_funes—which uploaded videos from the campaign, and users like Ric Soto assure belongs to a journalist—is solely engaged in posting videos against the opposition party and praising President Castro. That user, who is also on Instagram, had a significant number of followers on Facebook (850) and TikTok (1,503) between May 18 and July 1, 2023, an indication of artificially increasing followers whether by payment or through fake accounts. The account currently has more than 8,000 followers on TikTok.

Damage to CNA’s reputation

CNA employees, whose identities will not be disclosed for safety reasons, told Contracorriente that their work to prevent corruption has been hindered by the campaign. In Catacamas, department of Olancho, communities have canceled visits by CNA to give talks about citizen oversight because groups associated with the ruling party say the institution is not welcome for being an enemy of the government.


“Unfortunately, institutions are not aware of the importance of citizens, who have the right to know how State resources are managed. Our work continued despite safety problems. However, CNA was heavily criticized during an audit for alleged connections to Hernández’ administration even though attacks against the institution also took place at the time. It seems that people forgot about that,” a CNA employee said.


Another employee affirms that Castro’s administration not only discredited CNA’s work via press releases or coordinated smear campaigns but also halted any efforts to carry out audits, especially in Congress. “This situation limits our ability to do our work because the government does not cooperate and limits access to information. But this is nothing new; the previous administration, including Congress, was also behind a smear campaign. We noticed when we issued a report on Congress, accounts associated with its president, Luis Redondo, launched attacks on social media.”


Another employee said the audit of the legislative branch was not thorough because of the campaign. “We had scheduled a meeting with a congressional member, but when we arrived a security guard asked us where we came from and said we needed an authorization, so we were not allowed inside despite the authorization from the congressional member.” He added that CNA is an ally of Hondurans in the fight against corruption because many people are afraid of denouncing authorities, so they provide valuable information to this institution, which in turn proceeds with denunciations. This is a way of protecting citizens.


CNA employees say attacks by the government have been coordinated, and even the President “issued official statements against the institution” on May 25, a day tribute is paid to journalists. Manuel Zelaya Rosales, presidential adviser and Castro’s husband, posted messages and responses on social media, defaming CNA.


The goal of the smear campaign is to discredit CNA. According to Castellanos, the institution was created by Congress in 2005 in response to international pressure to comply with transparency demands and to strengthen civil society. Since CNA was created by Congress, it can only  be dissolved by that entity as an institution that originated from the public sector.


“We have a visceral Congress that will try to dissolve CNA, arguing that the institution is not doing its job. If that happens, people that have influence will respond. However, we should not downplay the fact that voices that speak up about what is going on are few. We are now more conscientious about what we write and post on social media as to not give the opposition any basis for their arguments. Since they don’t know how to respond, they turn to insults and provocations, which we ignore,” he said.

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