Guatemalan troll factories

The last three years in Guatemala have been very intense and plenty of political and justice related news. With those news came a topic everybody talk, but no one want´s to research: troll factories. If you come to Guatemala, you will probably hear the word. We call them Netcenters.

Note: This is a short version of the post Los Netcenters: Negocio de Manipulación (Netcenters: disinformation for hire in Guatemala). So, in this post netcenter should be understand as troll factory, troll farm or troll army.

In Guatemala City almost everyone talks about netcenters but not so many know how they work, who can be hired, if they are legal, if they are paid, why do they exist and for how long have they been trying to manipulate Public Opinion. The first attempts I recorded in 2008 are related to politicians and government officials. The last records are about manipulation, Character Assassination and Justice interference. Now its a big, undercover business and the growing number of victims have no one to ask for help.

For explaining purposes I point versions (evolution) of troll factories. In Guatemala netcenters 1.0 (pre troll factories) came to life in forums and comments sections at newspaper websites. Mostly groups of politician followers attacking each other. Then came the netcenters 2.0 (early troll factories) as very well paid organizations to inflate politicians and create distortion at the 2015 elections. The actual ones, the netcenters 3.0 (professional troll factories) came with better tools and almost illegal practices in Guatemala (like doxing) who are paid to destroy reputation of journalists and political adversaries. Hards times are coming. We will have elections in 2019.

PRE-TROLL FACTORIES

Case A: bigotry

In 2008 I was working in the Guatemalan newspaper elPeriódico and we published (in Spanish) an article about an irregular public tender. As a comment moderator eventually some government official send a comment, and this is OK, but in this particular article we received many comments trying to divert and attacking the newspaper. All of them using fake names, emails and the same IP address location. The IP was mail.scspr.gob.gt (SCSPR as Secretaría de Comunicación Social de la Presidencia) which is the Communications Office of the Guatemalan government.

Apology and information about the public tender sent by the Communications Director of the Guatemalan government.

That same day the Communications Director, Ronaldo Robles, send an apology and explain the situation. Never happened again as we know.

Case B: distort a topic

In 2011, time after I began to expose people using the same IP address to send a bulk of comments, they began to use anonymizers. Behind anonymizers the senders tried to distort or divert topics.

In these examples we can read fake names, fake emails and the comments with (the same) IP anonymizer.

The sender used the name of a reporter and here was attacking the president.
The sender was “clapping” a politician and former candidate who was accused before to allow a mass killing in a jail when he was a penitentiary director.
Three coments send within minutes from same IP address.

To exposed this kind of behavior I published an article (in Spanish) on the newspaper website. This was just the beginning of a election year (2011) and waves of fake comments were multiplying each day.

The beginning of a new market

Since we believe in social media accounts with a lot of followers and we trust popularity over quality of knoweledge, we forced (created) a market for politicians. They needed to be popular, to be trusted and, obviously, vote for them. In that order.

Create a fake account on social media takes one or two minutes. 100k accounts will need a little bit more. If a politician or a government official need to be popular will need more than five or ten fake followers. They will not take such time to do it. They are able to pay for it. We all know this.

Manage thousands of fake accounts needs some time, experience and abilities not everybody have. Give them instructions (Follow, RT, Like, Fav) will need more knowledge. And more if you create software to generate and manage bots. All of this have a price. The New York Times explains this very well.

And is very easy to buy.

whois record when buytwitterfollowersreview.org was taken.

There is a website to rank websites that sell fake followers. You can check it on http://buytwitterfollowersreview.org/.

One of this websites offers a variety of actions. In this case thousands of poll votes on twitter very cheap.

screenshot taken feb 8, 2018 from one of this websites where you can buy cheap interactions.
I tweeted about a politician who was trying to run as a presidential candidate and fake followers were inflating his popularity. He was preparing for elections on 2015.

Alejandro Sinibaldi learned very fast he needed to have people working on social media interactions to inflate interactions, distort and divert topics. By 2014 he was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and already had paid staff to inflate interactions and simulate popularity. Check this search in Twitter.

EARLY TROLL FACTORIES

Netcenter as a business oportunity

2015 was elections year. The social phenomenon was visible. On an early stage of a political crisis in Guatemala people were using social media to organize and protest against the president and asking him for resignation.

That same year two political organizations tried to recruit me when I came back from a fellowship. One member of a political party asked me to create a troll factory. I told them as a journalist that kind of business was illegal. The other organization wanted me as a controller of a troll factory already doing business and preparing to launch soon. This person told me they have plenty of money to do the job (character assessination among others), around $250 k monthly. Again I said no. In between I knew the location, who was behind and running the place, their budget and the people they were after to destroy their reputation.

I went to the secutiry agencies to give the information, but we lack of regulations. Nothing happened.

After that I helped another political party with online reputation and crisis management. I can tell they did a good clean (ethical) job.

Screenshots from a business proposal from an early troll factory (Netcenter 2.0)

This early troll factory hired mostly young people who like social media, need a job and can be trained fast. They get paid in cash, with two shifts (am and pm) rotating each weekend. All of them was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they know the job offer. The “headquarters” are in a very well known building in Guatemala City, but no one know what they do in that office.

Screenshot from a business proposal from an early troll factory in 2015 elections. 25 people per shift. Monday-Friday from 7 am to 4 pm.

They hay a place, big tables and cheap computers. The workers receive each day instructions from a coordinator. Instructions include follow a strategy using fake accounts.

At the beginning the use every browser (Explorer, Firefox and Chrome) to manage the fake accounts. Then they began using tweetdeck or hootsuite. They post what they were told to and that was it. Never read interactions.

When the owners needed more fake accounts they began to buy pre-paid phones. With the phone numbers they create as much fake accounts as possible.

One of the workers told me that company was making similar organizations in another country. He was asked to join but he declined, later he resigned.

screenshots from the business proposal from an early troll factory.

Big clients were asked to pay $280 k for the troll factory service. If the client wanted the full service they were asked to pay $375k + 35% of Communications Office budget among others. In that case the troll factory service was free of charge.

Revista Contrapoder published an article with part of this information in June, 2016.

The services were basically inflate their client and attack the other candidate. This kind of troll factories were making lots of money but for a very limited kinf of clients.

Case C: cloning newspaper website

In July, 2015, someone bought www.prensallibre.com and clone the website of the most importante newspaper, Prensa Libre.

In the cloned website was published many false articles claiming the popularity of the presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon (now detained by ICE in Florida and also accused by Guatemalan Attourny General for corruption related to Odebretch).

Later the police investigators learned the website was cloned in El Salvador. The salvadorian police detained and the author was prosecuted.

Case C: Create trending topics to divert

After elections, I was advicing online strategies for the public university think tank, the IPNUSAC. The General Coordinator, Edgar Gutierrez, exposed José Ramón Lam for plagiarism. He was the Transition Team Chief.

On December 15, 2015, one of the biggest cable tv channel, Guatevisión, aired a live interview with the elected president, Jimmy Morales. He was asked about the plagiarism of his Transition Team Chief.

It didn´t took long before many fake accounts publish negative information about Gutierrez, the one who exposed the plagiarism.

fake accounts from a troll factory

You can click and see below what those fake accounts from a troll factory publish:

TROLL FACTORIES

The 2016 crisis

In the second half of 2016 it was very common to see a lot of political bigotry. We had a new government but came with a lot of political crisis from 2015. Many young political movements grew and were trying to spread their agenda. At the same time many conservative and alt-right organizations began to spread an anti-CICIG agenda. This I will not be explained here.

In the middle of political propaganda spreading and ideology agendas a lot of trolls began to take sides. At that time you can see trolls in a social media battlefield and Social Media Influencers were making lots of money. This political context created an opportunity for all of them.

2016 was the beginning of a political war over modifying the Constitution. That bring to social media strong opinions and a hostile space. At the same time CICIG and the Attorney General were bringing to justice dozens of politicians, government officials, congressman and well known business man accused over corruption cases. They needed help to divert attention and retaliate the press and anyone who point them as corrupt.

That´s how online character assessination began. I posted about it on 2016.

Illustration by Jason Reed

Bigger, wider professional business

Nowadays we can find the troll factories better organized, with better tools, more agressive and with better results. The most powerfull can create crisis and manipulate. Distort and divert on any subject. This is really bad for us.

They work with a visible leader. Real or fake, it doesn´t matter. The have around 10 to 20 fake accounts managed by real people who troll as much as they can, and thousands of bots if needed.

The egg fake profiles are almost over. You can see thousands of fake accounts dead since november 2016. Now they use almost-real-fake-accounts.

Those fake accounts are used to post fake news, political propaganda and memes. They do doxing, harassment and character assessination.

The real accounts only retweet, like or share. That way they cannot get penalized. The bots are used to inflate, mostly Twitter polls.

The political radio talk show ConCriterio published some interviews with people who was offered a job or worked in a troll factory. Some services are around $7k on a monthly basis.

On february 22 Twitter began to suspend accounts with abusive behavior and automated posts in a global bot crackdown. In Guatemala some anonymous accounts pointed as part of a troll factory were suspended.

These are some of the suspended accounts. I cannot tell if they are related between them or belong to a troll factory, but they were pointed by many Twitter users for abusive behavior and they were suspended the same day twitter began the bot crackdown.

As far as we know the most recent troll factories uses different formulas to attack. But always try to imitate, merge with real users (mostly extremists) and simulate real social movements. They even victimize sometimes. Sometimes is very difficult to identify them.

Edit: Someone found and send me this information. I have checked and it matches. The account @HarryStevenWal1 came back as @HarryWa75521493.

Message from twitter about @HarryStevenWal1.

Some trolls manage to create their accounts again and again. Mostly used to publish propaganda, difamation and RT other accounts that does the same. You can check this account:

And this one example of thousands in many countries. This is a huge technical problem for Twitter.

Note: This is a short version of the post Los Netcenters: Negocio de Manipulación (Netcenters: disinformation for hire in Guatemala).

I am still collecting data. If you have information or want to help with this investigation please contact me on Twitter.

If you want to help, you can donate: paypal

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Journalist • Researcher | Emergency Manager • Arson investigator • Safety & Security Consultant.

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Luis Assardo

Luis Assardo

Journalist • Researcher | Emergency Manager • Arson investigator • Safety & Security Consultant.

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