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Cuba becomes a battlefield in the fake news war

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Disinformation quickly spread through social media platforms when historic anti-government protests erupted in Cuba earlier this month – and it’s bots that are widely used to quickly spread fake news, experts told Newsweek.

Thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Cuba on July 11 to protest the shortage of basic goods amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and to call for political change.

In just two days of the riot, a disinformation expert said, thousands of Twitter accounts were created with the hashtag #SOSCuba before an automated retweet system was used to share thousands of tweets in no time.

Researchers have also reported the difficulty of confirming videos and pictures coming from the island, where human rights organizations are banned.

In response, Twitter told Newsweek that it was investigating the potential role of bots in spreading disinformation. “We will continue to monitor the situation and remain vigilant,” added a company spokesman.

Meanwhile, the Cuban authorities gathered tens of thousands of supporters in Havana on Saturday and President Miguel Díaz-Canel gave a speech blaming the US and its economic embargo for the recent unrest.

After the protests, authorities also cut internet access and curtailed social media and messaging platforms – tools that helped Cubans share their grievances and organize the protests.

People take part in a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on July 11, 2021.
Yamil Location / AFP via Getty Images

Wrong information spreads quickly on social media. Fake news after the protests included claims that Raul Castro had fled to Venezuela, protesters kidnapped a provincial Communist Party chief and Caracas sent troops.

The demonstrations subsided after security forces were stationed on the island, where political disagreements will not be tolerated, and the Cuban government claimed the stories were spread by counter-revolutionaries – but critics suspected officials might be behind it.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez blamed a US Twitter campaign for the protests last Tuesday. “I have irrefutable evidence that the majority of the participants in this (internet) campaign lived in the US and used automated systems to make content viral without being punished by Twitter,” he said.

Many tweets about the protests used the hashtag #SOSCuba.

Disinformation expert Julián Macías Tovar, director of Pandemia Digital, told Newsweek that many of the accounts using the hashtag were recently created.

Tovar, who previously worked separately for Podemos, a left-wing Spanish political party, said around 2,000 Twitter accounts were created using the hashtag #SOSCuba on July 10-11.

He said around 100,000 tweets were sent using the hashtag on July 9, but the next day it was 500,000. On July 11th there were 1.5 million.

Some of the accounts that use the hashtag use an automated retweet system to share thousands of tweets in a short amount of time, he said. “If there are accounts with few followers that do a lot of tweets or retweets, newly created accounts with a fake profile picture … that’s always suspicious,” he said.

Sam Woolley, University of Texas Propaganda Program Director at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement, told Newsweek, “It’s clear that bots are involved in the conversation about what’s going on in Cuba.”

However, he added that the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media has become common in recent years at major political events around the world. “So it’s not particularly surprising,” he added.

“All of this is in the larger context of the fact that the Internet is a vital tool for the people of Cuba to communicate and organize these protests. However, that does not mean that there are no attempts to control the public perception of the protests. “

Cuba protests
People take part in a demonstration in support of the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on July 11, 2021.
Yamil Location / AFP via Getty Images

An independent review is made difficult by Cuban authorities banning independent human rights organizations from visiting the country, Louise Tillotson, a researcher for Amnesty International, told Newsweek.

“So there is certainly an approach by the authorities, and historically it is to keep information secret and not allow international scrutiny,” she said.

But she said the organization is working to validate videos and pictures from Cuba and cross-referencing them with reliable sources of information and testimony.

“Very Concerning Room”

Still, social media remains a “fertile space” for attempts at political manipulation, Woolley said, while it is “really difficult” to find out who is behind coordinated disinformation campaigns.

“Almost anyone can create and launch bots on Twitter at this point,” he said. “It’s not that easy to say that the US is conducting some kind of false flag operation or that Cuba is trying to control the protests.

“It benefits people … the powerful individuals and entities involved in it benefit from the anonymity that exists online. But at the same time, it creates a very, very worrying space where a lot of conspiracies are born. “

In a blog post last year, Twitter said the term “bot” was used to misrepresent accounts with automatically generated numeric usernames and “more worrying as a tool used by those in political power to tarnish people’s views. who disagree ”. with them or online public opinion which is not favorable. “

The company stated that the “holistic behavior” of an account is more important than whether it is automated or not. As a result, the social media giant is focusing on what is known as “platform manipulation,” including the malicious use of automation.

Facebook was also contacted for comment.

The removal of bots and influence is a “cat and mouse game” for social media platforms, according to Woolley.

“They’re always looking for it and getting rid of it, but it doesn’t seem like they have a particularly systematic approach to doing it,” he said

As a result, the use of bots and other forms of online manipulation “remains a very serious problem that social media companies, governments, or other organizations are not yet in control of”.

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