Fake Honduran Twitter: the digital campaign against Berta Cáceres and COPINH

A network of fake accounts tweeted a smear campaign against Berta Cáceres and COPINH three months before Berta was murdered. This was just one component of a larger campaign that was waged against COPINH for years due to their opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project.

A new report by an independent team of attorneys linked Berta’s assassination to the highest levels of Capital Energy Development SA de CV (DESA), the company whose hydroelectric dam project Berta and COPINH were protesting.

Given the new report I decided to take a closer look at a network of fake accounts that tweeted a smear campaign against Berta and COPINH in December 2015. The account @tierra_catracha tweeted screenshots of these suspicious accounts in 2016.

“more of the smear campaign against #BertaCaceres”

I found that all of the accounts that participated in this campaign are still online. Most have either never tweeted or have not tweeted since December 11, 2015. They are generic, most have no cover photos, their handles and user names follow a noticeable pattern and they all have profile photos that look like they could be any normal Honduran citizen. 15 accounts tweeted the campaign and I’ve found approximately 55 more that were created in the same timeframe and follow a similar pattern. Most of the accounts that participated in the campaign were created in November and December of 2015 and most used TweetDeck.

All of the accounts follow each other so they were easy to spot. The few accounts that have tweeted more than 1–3 times appear to be commercial/brand-promoting accounts or accounts that retweet other accounts associated with the government of Honduras. The full list of accounts can be found at the end of this blog.


The fake network

Using gephi I created a graph of the network of 36 accounts that fake user cesarjc31 is following. Most of the other accounts in this network are following the same accounts.

Network of 36 fake accounts that cesarjc31 is following
Pre-render screen of network of 36 fake accounts that cesarjc31 is following

I chose another account in the fake network to illustrate how the followers for each account are identical. “nory pavon” is following 32 of the 36 fake accounts that cesarjc31 follows.

The following graph shows the 71 accounts that user cesarjc31 is following which include all of the accounts in the fake network along with various Honduran media outlets and media personalities, football players and football clubs, the pope’s Spanish language account and the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández. All are large, verified accounts where a small cluster of fake accounts would get easily lost in their followers.

71 accounts that cesarjc31 is following including the fake network
Pre-render screen of the 71 accounts that cesarjc31 is following including the fake network

Background

The date that this smear campaign took place, December 11, 2015, is significant. It happened one day after a Honduran court convicted a military officer for the murder of another COPINH member and Lenca indigenous leader, Tomas García.

More information about Tomas García’s case can be found at Front Line Defenders. Here is an excerpt:

Tomas García was a Lenca indigenous leader who sat on his community’s Indigenous and Auxiliary Council, and an active member of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares — COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous. On July 15 2013, Tomas García was shot dead by the Honduran Army as he participated in a peaceful protest in Achotal, Río Blanco, in the department of Intibucá.
On December 10 2015, the Court of Siguatepeque convicted Mr Kevin Yasser Saravia, the military officer of the Battalion of Engineers, for the assassination of Tomas García Domínguez.

After the murder of Tomas, a media campaign criminalizing COPINH was launched claiming that they were violent and threatening and portrayed the Honduran company DESA, the company contracted for installation of the dam, as the victims.


The smear campaign

On the evening of December 10, 2015, the Honduran Public Ministry tweeted two tweets about the outcome of the trial for the murder Tomás García:

“Prosecution for ethnic groups won a conviction against a member of the army for the murder of the Lenca indigenous leader, Tomás García Domínguez”
“The indigenous leader died protesting the construction, without prior consultation of the community, of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam.”

The following day on December 11, 2015, the cluster of fake accounts tweeted a series of replies to the Public Ministry’s two tweets. All of the replies were tweeted between 5:26pm and 5:45pm (EST). Since the tweets are still online, I embedded them below in chronological order with translations for each. I saved screenshots of all tweets in case the accounts are deactivated.

5:26pm: “I understood that yes the community had been consulted. We should listen to what the hydroelectric company says”
5:27pm: “It is amazing how people don’t let the country progress, the people of COPINH have no credibility.”
5:29pm: “This is old topic, Agua Zarca rather redesign the dam to avoid problems.”
5:31pm: “Sorry, but that is a reflection of the provocative actions of COPIHN.”
5:32pm: “That project was stalled precisely to avoid the protests, however they continue provoking leading to this.”
5:34pm: “Society will note that this was the COPIHN strategy, wait until they kill some indigenous to victimize themselves AY HONDURAS!”
5:35pm: “Brazen manipulation of the poor little indians to push through COPINH’s plans”
5:35pm: “It is not possible to be this way because of Berta and COPINH’s manipulation it’s that these things have passed how are we going to move forward like this”
5:35pm: It’s obvious that before the repression of the acts of vandalism there would be losses! the police did their job”
5:36pm: “Bad for that man, for sure they gave him a pound of rice to participate in the protest.”
5:38pm: “No sirs, they have delayed the progress of this project. They are not conciliators”
5:38pm: “No sirs, they have delayed the progress of this project. They are not conciliators”
5:39pm: “It’s good to clarify that this was the result of acts of vandalism that they themselves organize.”
5:40pm: “Correction, yes the consultation was done in the town, they met with them and evaluated benefits for them”
5:41pm: “this is what Berta and COPINH caused with acts of manipulation and vandalism they are the culprits”
5:41pm: “you are wrong, they signed agreements between both parties and the secretary of state participated as a witness”
5:45pm: “COPINH just wants to make money and Berta Cáceres much more they send the indigenous to fight and only they profit with money”

Note that cesarjc31 and mariahn101 both tweet the exact same text at 5:38pm; this might have been an error since the other accounts tweet unique messages. These tweets in the mentions of the Honduran Public Ministry were intended to be seen by anyone reading the tweets from the Ministry about the trial. Ironically several of the fake accounts accuse COPINH of manipulation.


The murders of Berta Cáceres and Tomas García are just two cases in a long list of threats, attacks, intimidations, murders and criminalization against COPINH. This smear campaign is just one small part of a larger effort to target COPINH and the indigenous Lenca people who have been opposing the Agua Zarca dam project for several years. The project, which includes the construction of 17 dams in Lenca territory, would privatize and destroy the Gualcarque river, a body of water which is sacred to the Lenca people.

Even though this 2015 campaign is small and dated, I thought it was worth re-examining given the new information from the report linking DESA executives to Berta’s murder. Who ran these fake accounts? Were there other similar digital campaigns that are still online?

Here is a pastebin with the full list of accounts I found connected to the campaign and fake network. Most of the accounts are inactive but they are all still online.

Honduran activists have been documenting what they call #JOHbots (JOH are the initials of the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández) and you can find more information in Spanish language from the @AntiCachoBots blog here:

Twitter user @tierra_catracha created an interactive tool showing 2800 “JOHbot” accounts that can be found here:


This study is a collaboration with data scientist Damián Fossi, you can follow him on Twitter at @dam1an.