A Washington D.C.-based PR firm was caught by Facebook in August running dozens of fake accounts in order to influence politics in Latin American countries. The firm, CLS Strategies, had 46 Facebook accounts, 41 Pages and 24 Instagram accounts taken down by Facebook for posting and running $3.6 million worth of ads under false identities in support of right-wing political parties in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Mexico. It was the first time a U.S. firm has had accounts removed from Facebook for violating the social media company’s policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior.
The largest share of CLS Strategies’ sock puppet content was deployed in Venezuela and promoted the political opposition to the country’s president, Nicola Maduro, including figures like former presidential candidate Henrique Caprile and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, according to a report from Stanford Internet Observatory. The CLS Strategies-managed Instagram account @FrenteLibreVzla posted a video in January 2019 claiming that Guaidó would lead the country to freedom, for example, while a Facebook page it managed, Fan Chavista, promoted statements made by U.S. President Donald Trump in support of Guaidó.
In Bolivia, CLS Strategies intervened in the country’s politics to bolster the right-wing regime headed by Movimiento Demócrata Social party member Jeanine Áñez, the country’s interim president. CLS Strategies set up and managed eleven pro-Áñez Facebook pages, the most popular being a page called “Todos con Áñez” (Everyone with Áñez), which attracted 2,786 likes in the seven months that it was active. Other pages like “Prohibido olvidar” (“Forbidden to Forget”) focused mainly on discrediting the country’s former socialist president Evo Morales, who was ousted following a contested 2019 election in a military-backed coup.
CLS’ ads and social media pages spread disinformation about leftist politicians and parties in Venezuela, Bolivia and Mexico, while amplifying information and slogans favorable to U.S.-backed figures, such as by posing as a Bolivian fact-checking outlet, “Bolificado,” that deemed claims about Áñez to be “fake news” even when they had been recognized as true by reputable news organizations. In a statement on its website, CLS defended its work in Latin America by explaining that it was funded and directed by clients inside each country.
In taking down the CLS Strategies’ networks of fake pages and accounts, Facebook said it was making progress in rooting out politically focused coordinated inauthentic behavior but that it was an ongoing effort. “We’re committed to continually improving to stay ahead,” Facebook wrote in the report announcing the takedowns. “That means building better technology, hiring more people and working closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies.”
The revelations about CLS Strategies’ troll farm activities, however, do not instill confidence in Facebook’s efforts. Sludge found that several of the CLS employees who appear to have been involved in the efforts have deep and long-standing ties to organizations that Facebook has partnered with to combat propaganda and misinformation around elections throughout the world.
In the days after the news of the account suspensions broke, CLS Strategies scrubbed its website to remove information about five of its employees, all of whom had had their Facebook pages removed, according to the Stanford report. Sludge found that several of the scrubbed employees have ties to Facebook’s foreign election integrity partners.
Deep Ties to Facebook Election Partners
In September 2018, Facebook executives announced the company was partnering with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) “to slow the global spread of misinformation that could influence elections.”
IRI Senior Advisor Amy Studdart told Sludge that her groups’ work, which is financially supported by Facebook, is done under the banner of Design 4 Democracy, a coalition of nonprofits working on strategically-aligned initiatives with a shared mission to make tech platforms more democracy-friendly. Studdart said IRI’s work with Facebook is solely international and has no U.S. focus.
A lobbying contribution report filed by Facebook shows that the company paid IRI $490,000 in 2019. Facebook is not required to disclose funds paid to NDI under the Lobbying Disclosure Act because, unlike IRI, NDI is not controlled by a current member of Congress.
NDI and IRI were both created in 1983 by the Reagan administration as nonprofits with missions to promote democracy abroad. IRI is informally affiliated with the Republican Party and is currently chaired by Sen. Dan Stevens (R-Alaska) and contains multiple Republican senators and representatives on its board, while NDI is informally affiliated with the Democratic Party and contains former elected officials and the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on its board. Both groups receive most of their funding from the federal government through entities including the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the State Department.
IRI and NDI have both backed opposition political parties in Venezuela for years. In 2000, IRI established an office in Caracas and began working to build relationships with political opposition leaders, including a program to help opposition parties develop youth outreach strategies and internal governance structures, according to a paper by Timothy Michael Gill, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. In 2006, IRI helped Manuel Rosales in his campaign against Hugo Chávez, bringing in technical experts to help with polling and government relations, according to a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks. Another diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks describes NDI’s $500,000 effort, beginning in 2005, focused on transforming and strengthening opposition parties in Venezuela.
Media watchdog nonprofit FAIR was critical of Facebook’s work with NDI and IRI, which it labeled “propaganda organizations” in a blog post. “That these two US government creations…are used by Facebook to distinguish real from fake news is effectively state censorship,” the post from journalist Alan Lacleod says.
CLS Strategies Senior Advisor Mark Feierstein, whose profile was scrubbed from the firm’s website in early September, began his D.C. career at NDI and from 1987-93 was the organization’s Latin America director. From 2010-15, Feirestein worked for one of NDI’s primary funders, USAID, where he oversaw programming in the Americas as assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, and served as USAID’s acting deputy administrator.
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Feierstein still maintains close professional ties to NDI’s chairman, former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Since 2017, Feierstein has been a senior advisor at Albright Stonebridge Group, a government affairs consultancy that was formed in 2009 when Albright’s company merged with defense and oil lobbying firm Stonebridge International. Other top Albright Stonebridge figures also have ties to NDI, including Principal Melisa Estok, who worked at NDI from 1996-2013 and held the position of senior advisor for democracy and governance organizations.
Albright Stonebridge boasts on its website about its Americas practice, which includes Feierstein as a member, through which it helps clients “build positive profiles, navigate policy landscapes, address challenges, and position [themselves] for success in dynamic markets across the Americas.” Among the successes it highlights is its lobbying for a telecom client in an unnamed Latin American country and winning a “regulatory regime that was more effective and conducive to investment while mitigating the risk to the company’s business model in the market.”
Feierstein is also senior associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank focused on defense and security issues that counts Albright among its board members.
Albright has spoken about NDI’s Facebook partnership in several public speeches over the past few years, including an Atlantic Council speech where she said she was involved in the initiative as the NDI chair and hoped it would “help the technology community understand and move earlier to resolve democracy-related problems on their platforms.”
Feierstein’s Twitter account suggests he has stayed actively engaged with NDI while employed at CLS Strategies, Albright Stonebridge, GBA Strategies, and other entities.
Another CLS staff member who was scrubbed from the company’s site after the takedowns is David Romley, a senior advisor at the firm. Romley is also a senior advisor at IRI partner the Hudson Institute, a hawkish, neoconservative think tank. Before joining CLS, Romley was senior vice president at Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank that where Albright is a board member, and the vice president of development and partnerships at the German Marshall Fund, a grantmaking institution that has donated to NDI and whose longtime former employee Dan Twining is now the president of IRI.
CLS Strategies co-founder Peter Shechter, who has not worked at the firm since 2013, has connections to another of Facebook’s election integrity partners, the Atlantic Council. Upon leaving CLS, Schechter became a senior vice president for strategic initiatives at the Atlantic Council in 2013, where he founded the organization’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
Under Schechter’s leadership, the center used online tools and mass communications to engage citizens of Latin American countries for the Atlantic Council’s causes. “The Center emphasized the issues of importance to Latin Americans – it aimed to be the voice of the region’s new middle classes – and programming was designed to impact policy,” Schechter’s LinkedIn states. “His Center advocated a point of view and was the first at the Council to use microsites, videos and podcasting, together with publishing 25 major policy papers yearly.” In 2019, the Center hosted Guaidó and convened a policy discussion as it “accelerated its efforts to support a peaceful transition to democracy,” according to its annual report.
NDI chair Albright is an honorary director at the Atlantic Council.
CLS Strategies’ ties to U.S. government-linked groups were described by journalist Ben Norton in an article for The Grayzone. Besides profiling multiple CLS employees, Norton examines the firm’s contracts with foreign entities as disclosed in their Foreign Agents Registration Act filings.
Does Facebook Actually Care?
Although Facebook took action against CLS’s election meddling and has taken down other pages like those linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency, company insiders say it has been slow to tamp down political meddling on its platforms because it leaves much of the responsibility to low-level employees who are over-worked and under-resourced.
Earlier this month, Buzzfeed News reported on a memo from former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, who worked on the Facebook Site integrity fake engagement team, that describes how the company delegated global election integrity work to low-level employees who were not given sufficient institutional support to do their jobs.
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Buzzfeed did not publish the memo, but describes it as “the story of Facebook abdicating responsibility for malign activities on its platform that could affect the political fate of nations outside the United States or Western Europe.”
According to Buzzfeed, Zhang said the company deprioritized troll farm operations that were not aimed at impacting politics in the U.S. or Europe despite evidence of massive operations in Latin America and elsewhere. The only way Zhang was able to get the company to act on fake accounts in deprioritized regions was to repeatedly press senior leadership through public comments on the company’s internal employee message board, Workplace.
Zhang said that in Bolivia she found “inauthentic activity supporting the opposition presidential candidate in 2019,” but chose not to prioritize it because of her workload. The troll activity was discovered months before Morales was ousted from power in November of last year and forced to flee the country.
“I have made countless decisions in this vein – from Iraq to Indonesia, from Italy to El Salvador,” Zhang wrote in the memo. “Although I made the best decision I could based on the knowledge available at the time, ultimately I was the one who made the decision not to push more or prioritize further in each case, and I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”
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