Disinformation spread quickly across social media platforms as historic anti-government protests erupted in Cuba earlier this month—and it’s bots that are being widely utilized to spread fake news fast, experts have told Newsweek.
Thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Cuba on July 11 to protest shortages of basic goods amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and call for political change.
Over just two days of unrest, one disinformation expert said, thousands of Twitter accounts with the #SOSCuba hashtag were created, before utilizing an automated retweet system to share thousands of tweets in rapid time.
Researchers have also told of the difficulty of corroborating videos and images coming out of the island, where human rights organizations are banned.
In response, Twitter told Newsweek it is investigating bots potential role in spreading disinformation. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation and remain vigilant,” a spokesperson for the company added.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Cuban authorities rallied tens of thousands of supporters in Havana and President Miguel Díaz-Canel delivered a speech where he blamed the recent unrest on the U.S. and its economic embargo.
Authorities also cut internet access and restricted social media and messaging platforms in the wake of the protests—tools that helped Cubans share their grievances and organize the protests.
False information spread quickly on social media. Fake news reports following the protests included claims that Raul Castro had fled to Venezuela, that protesters had kidnapped a provincial Communist Party chief, and Caracas was sending in troops.
The demonstrations died down after security forces were deployed on the island, where political dissent is not tolerated, and the Cuban government claimed the stories were spread by counter-revolutionaries—but critics suggested officials could be behind them.
Last Tuesday, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez blamed the protests on a U.S.-based Twitter campaign. “I have irrefutable proof that the majority of those that took part in this (internet) campaign were in the United States and used automated systems to make content go viral, without being penalized by Twitter,” he said.
Disinformation expert Julián Macías Tovar, the director of Pandemia Digital, told Newsweek that many of the accounts using the hashtag were created recently.
Tovar—who has previously carried out separate work for Podemos, a left-leaning Spanish political party—said around 2,000 Twitter accounts were created on July 10 and 11 that used the #SOSCuba hashtag.
He said around 100,000 tweets using the hashtag were sent on July 9, but the following day it was 500,000. On July 11, it was 1.5 million.
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Some the accounts using the hashtag utilize an automated retweet system to share thousands of tweets in a short space of time, he said. “If there are accounts with few followers who make many tweets or retweets, newly created accounts, with a fake profile picture… that’s always suspicious,” he said.
Sam Woolley, program director of propaganda at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement, told Newsweek: “It’s clear that there are bots involved in the conversation about what’s going on in Cuba.”
But he added that spreading of misinformation and disinformation on social media has become common during major political events around the world in recent years. “So it’s not particularly surprising,” he added.
“All of this exists within the larger context of the fact that the internet is a crucial tool for people in Cuba for communicating and organizing these protests. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t attempts to control public perception about the protests.”
People take part in a demonstration to support the government of the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images
Independent verification is made difficult due to the fact that Cuban authorities prohibit independent human rights organizations from visiting the country, Louise Tillotson, a researcher for Amnesty International, told Newsweek.
“So there is certainly an approach from the authorities and there has been historically, which is one of keeping information quiet and not allowing for international scrutiny,” she said.
But she said the organization does work to corroborate videos and images coming out of Cuba, and cross-reference with reliable sources of information and testimonies.
‘Very Worrisome Space’
Still, social media remains a “a fertile space” for attempts at political manipulation, Woolley said, while figuring out who is behind coordinated disinformation campaigns is “really tricky.”
“Nearly anyone at this stage can build and launch bots on Twitter,” he explained. “It’s not as easy as just saying it’s the U.S. doing some kind of false flag operation, or Cuba is attempting to control the protests.
“That stands to benefit the people… the powerful individuals and entities that are involved in this, they benefit from the anonymity that exists online. But simultaneously, it does create a very, very worrisome space wherein a lot of conspiracies are birthed.”
In a blog post last year, Twitter said the term “bot” has been used to mischaracterize accounts with auto-generated numerical usernames and “more worryingly, as a tool by those in positions of political power to tarnish the views of people who may disagree with them or online public opinion that’s not favorable.”
The company explained that the “holistic behavior” of an account was more important than whether or not it is automated. As a result, the social media giant is focusing on targeting what it calls “platform manipulation,” including the malicious use of automation.
Facebook has also been contacted for comment.
The removal of bots and influence operations is a “bit of a cat and mouse game” for social media platforms, according to Woolley.
“They’re constantly looking for these and getting rid of them, but it doesn’t seem that they have a particularly systematic approach in doing this,” he said
As a result, the use of bots and other forms of online manipulation “continue to be very serious problems that neither social media companies nor governments or other organizations have a handle on yet.”