Social media and information warfare
Anyone who spends much time on Salvadoran social media knows that those who publish information which might show the government of Bukele in a poor light, can expect to be met by a swarm of online attacks. It happens to me from time to time (oh well, he shrugs), but the especially virulent attacks are reserved for local Salvadoran journalists and human rights activists.
A new special report by Sara Kinosian at Reuters titled Trolls, propaganda and fear stoke Bukele's media machine in El Salvador shares revelations from interviews with social media specialists employed by the Bukele government. They were hired to swamp social media platforms with praise for the president and attacks on his critics:
These workers were cogs in what has become a powerful communications operation that has allowed Bukele to influence what Salvadorans read, watch and hear about their government like no previous leader of this small nation of 6.5 million people in the internet age.
Key to this effort are dozens of paid social media workers wielding hundreds of anonymous accounts and bots, a megaphone used to amplify the president’s messaging and deride opponents and journalists perceived as hostile to his administration, the individuals interviewed by Reuters said.
The Reuters article quotes an internal State Department report:
His strategy, [the report] says, is “to flood El Salvador with propaganda, demonize the institutions charged with debunking that propaganda – the free press and civil society – dominate public narratives, and repress dissent.”...
Bukele’s government uses paid influencers and “likely bot farms” to tweet pro-government messages “tens of thousands of times” on a given topic while masking their origin to “create the appearance of authentic grassroots support.”
Read the rest of Kinosian's reporting here.
Beyond being trolled and disparaged by the Bukele machine, journalists and other critics of the current Salvadoran government have also found themselves surveilled and their phones hacked. I have previously written about the disclosures that phones of journalists, human rights leaders and other critics of the Bukele regime were infected with spyware named "Pegasus" which is reportedly only sold to government actors.
In the New Yorker this week, journalist Ronan Farrow published the story of how that spying impacted the work of reporters at the investigative news site El Faro.
Many of the targeted individuals ... have been forced to flee El Salvador. In interviews conducted in the United States and Central America, more than a dozen members of the El Faro newsroom told me that the Pegasus hackings had impaired their ability to work as journalists and maintain sources’ trust. “It’s a shitty feeling,” Óscar Martínez, El Faro’s executive editor, whose phone was infected with Pegasus forty-two times between July, 2020, and October, 2021, told me. “Sources, they were very upset with me. And they have the right to be. They just trusted me. And I failed them.”
The article titled A Hacked Newsroom Brings a Spyware Maker to U.S. Court, was published the same day as the El Faro reporters, aided by the Knight First Amendment Institute filed suit against NSO Group, the makers of Pegasus software, in a federal court in California. A press release announcing the suit states:
The complaint filed today alleges that NSO Group’s actions in developing spyware and deploying it against El Faro journalists violated, among other laws, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act. In addition to asking the court to rule that the Pegasus attacks against El Faro and its reporters violated U.S. law, the lawsuit asks the court to require NSO Group to identify, return, and then delete all information it obtained through these attacks; to prohibit NSO Group from deploying Pegasus again against the plaintiffs; and to require NSO Group to identify the client that ordered the surveillance
The targeting of critics of the Bukele regime has even extended to members of the US Congress. For example, Democratic Representative Norma Torres of California, a frequent critic of actions of the Salvadoran government, found herself on the receiving end of a social media campaign urging Salvadoran-Americans to vote against her. The campaign was fully sanctioned by the Salvadoran government, as seen in this tweet by Bukele:
I hope that all my Salvadoran, Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Dominican, Venezuelan, and all Latin American brothers in the 35th District of California DO NOT VOTE for @NormaJTorres. She does not work for you, but to keep our countries in underdevelopment
In a press release after her recent re-election, Rep Torres complained:
I was the subject of many threats, falsehoods, and harassment, both in-person and online. Many of the online attacks were orchestrated in El Salvador by President Nayib Bukele. He was aided in these efforts by his cabinet, members of his political party, and even by Consul Generals working in the US.
A US State Department spokesperson was quoted by NBC News:
“Throughout our last electoral process, we noted with alarm increasingly direct attempts by some Salvadorans to directly influence certain electoral outcomes in the United States,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email. “As we have repeatedly made clear, this is unacceptable, and we have repeatedly communicated this directly to the Government of El Salvador through official diplomatic channels.
“The integrity of our elections is a vital part of our democratic processes; the will of the people must not be undermined by foreign influence,” the spokesperson said.
The NBC News story, which is titled State Department says Salvadorans' attempts to 'directly influence' a U.S. congressional election are 'unacceptable', describes the often personal spat between Rep. Torres and Bukele and his ambassador to the US, Milena Mayorga.
It is a central feature of the presidency of Nayib Bukele to set and control the narrative regarding the performance of his government. This has taken the form of limiting transparency and access to public information, and it has also taken the form of attempting to stifle independent voices in the press who present information which puts the government in a bad light. It is information warfare which deploys an army of trolls and bots, and is willing to surveil and threaten those who have the courage to investigate the regime.