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Ecuador probes 'fake news' campaign criticizing coronavirus response

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador’s government is investigating thousands of social media accounts spreading what it called “fake news” aimed at destabilizing President Lenin Moreno’s administration as it struggles to contain an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: Ecuador's Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo addresses the media, in Quito, Ecuador, October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia

Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo told local radio on Wednesday evening that the social media posts -- among which were images of alleged common graves for coronavirus victims -- resulted from a coordinated effort by a “political group.”

“There is a fake news campaign, a plan to generate chaos via social networks,” Romo said.

Ecuador has confirmed 145 deaths from the virus, one of the highest tallies in Latin America. But Moreno said on Thursday the number was “short” and authorities were collecting over 100 bodies a day, many left in relatives’ homes as strict quarantine measures prevented them from burying the dead.

The government said the grave photos, purportedly taken at a cemetery in the city of Guayaquil, where Ecuador’s coronavirus outbreak is centered, were of a burial in Mexico in 2018. The cemetery and Guayaquil’s police both confirmed the photos were not taken there.

The government also dismissed other images circulating that purported to show victims’ bodies being burnt, saying that they were in fact burning tires.

On Thursday, Moreno said the government expected the total number of deaths in Guayaquil’s surrounding province to reach up to 3,500, and said a “special camp” was being built to bury the dead.

Romo said authorities were investigating the role in the fake news campaign of ex-President Rafael Correa, Moreno’s left-wing predecessor who since leaving office in 2017 has been charged with corruption and misuse of power in Ecuador, which he denies.

Correa, now living in self-imposed exile in Belgium, has repeatedly criticized Moreno and last October publicly backed anti-government protests in Ecuador sparked by new austerity measures.

Romo said investigators had evidence implicating Correa, though she did not elaborate.

A lawyer for Correa, Fausto Jarrin, denied Correa’s involvement, saying he did not make his “political calculations” on social networks. “He does not need an apparatus to spread fake news, that’s ridiculous,” Jarrin told Reuters.

Correa, in a video posted on Twitter on Wednesday, said that if Moreno’s government was not able to handle the crisis, “It must step to one side.”

Moreno’s press secretary, Gabriel Arroba, said authorities had identified about 6,000 accounts responsible, whose posts generated 180 million hits over the past week.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Leslie Adler