Meta’s Facebook has accused the Nicaraguan government of running a troll farm with hundreds of fake accounts as part of a sprawling disinformation campaign that has sought to disparage critics and boost support for the government ahead of elections this weekend.
The company said on Monday that it had taken down nearly 1,500 accounts, pages and groups across its Facebook and Instagram apps in October, which were part of a troll farm run by the government and the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front party.
The operation, active since 2018, was among the largest directed by a national government, borrowing from the playbook of Russia, whose St Petersburg troll farm was accused of attempting to meddle in both the 2016 and 2020 US elections.
The accounts were primarily run by employees in its telecommunications regulator, based in the postal service headquarters in Managua, Meta said, marking the first time a troll farm has been found to have been run from an official government building. The accounts and pages were followed by 784,500 users.
“This was one of the most cross-government troll operations we’ve disrupted to date, with multiple state entities participating in this activity at once,” the company said. Several other “smaller clusters of fake accounts” were run from other government entities including its Supreme Court and the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, it added.
The report comes as Nicaragua prepares to hold a general election on Sunday. The president, veteran strongman Daniel Ortega, has been arresting political opponents, journalists and activists to cement his hold on power.
Ortega, 75, first took office after the Sandinista Revolution, which overthrew a US-backed dictator in 1979. He took power again in 2007 and has ruled the Central American nation of 6.5m people ever since.
The US government has imposed sanctions on Nicaraguan officials, accusing them of undermining democracy and committing human rights abuses. The state department in October called Sunday’s elections a “sham”.
The Nicaraguan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meta has faced recent criticism from a whistleblower for not doing enough to police its platforms and ensure the safety of users in non-western markets.
The operation, which also spent $12,000 on advertising, “worked on a clear schedule, from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday, with an hour for lunch in the middle of the day, and only a skeleton crew at the weekends”, Meta said.
It started in around April 2018 as Ortega’s regime was cracking down on protests in an offensive that killed hundreds of people. Until 2019, the fake accounts were focused on “denigrating the opposition”, before shifting to artificially amplifying praise of the standing government, the report said.
In addition to fake accounts, the government also set up fake media brands and impersonations of existing political opposition organisations. The troll farm made co-ordinated attempts to report government critics in a bid to get them removed from the platform, and also to report content that began to expose its own existence, including photos from inside the troll farm in Managua.
The operation spanned other social media platforms including TikTok, Twitter and Telegram, Meta said.