As protests in South America surged, so did russian trolls on Twitter, U.S. finds
Watching political unrest explode across South America this fall, officials at the State Department noticed an eerily similar pattern in anti-government protests that otherwise had little in common.
In Chile, nearly 10 percent of all tweets supporting protests in late October originated with Twitter accounts that had a high certainty of being linked to Russia.
In Bolivia, immediately after President Evo Morales resigned on Nov. 10, the number of tweets associated with those type of accounts spiked to more than 1,000 a day, up from fewer than five.
And in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Chile over one 30-day period, Russia-linked accounts posted strikingly similar messages within 90 minutes of one another.
The department routinely monitors Twitter traffic worldwide with an eye toward malign activities, like the proliferation of fake pages and user accounts or content that targets the public with divisive messages. A set of analyses was provided to The New York Times in response to questions about what the department had seen during and after the fall protests in South America.
The Russian effort in South America — the details of which have not been previously reported — appears aimed at stirring dissent in states that have demanded the resignation of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, senior diplomats say.
In Colombia, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit this week, hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated in November against pension changes, corruption and rising violence. The protests have since ebbed, and in December, Colombia’s vice president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, accused Russia and its allies in Venezuela of fomenting protests through social network campaigns.
Officials and experts say Russian influence campaigns on social media have disrupted elections in the United States and Europe, sowed anti-Western sentiment and fake news in Africa, and inspired China and Iran to adopt similar tactics against protesters and political adversaries.
The unrest in Latin America this fall cannot be attributed to any single factor, and it is unclear how effective the Russia-linked influence campaign on Twitter was. Demonstrators across the countries spanned the political spectrum, protesting government corruption and higher costs and demanding better services. State Department officials said the vast majority of protest-related posts on Twitter and other social media appeared to be legitimate.
With the support of more than 50 other countries, the Trump administration has imposed bruising economic sanctions against Mr. Maduro’s government in Venezuela over the last year. The coalition is backing Juan Guaidó, the leader of the Venezuelan opposition, whom most of Latin America and the rest of the West views as the country’s legitimate president.
But Mr. Maduro’s grip on the country appears as strong as ever, funded by what critics have described as illicit oil revenue from Russia and gold sales to Turkey.
Russia is “playing a geopolitical role in this hemisphere against what they consider its main enemy — the United States,” said Carlos Vecchio, the Venezuelan envoy in Washington who is representing the opposition movement against Mr. Maduro.