A Reuters Special Report

Trolls, propaganda and fear stoke Bukele's media machine in El Salvador

A Reuters Special Report

Trolls, propaganda and fear stoke Bukele's media machine in El Salvador

President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has created a powerful communications operation influencing what citizens know about their government. His animated image is displayed on a giant screen at an event for cryptocurrency investors held last year in Santa María Mizata, El Salvador. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Trolls, propaganda and fear stoke Bukele's media machine in El Salvador

President Nayib Bukele has built a communications juggernaut in El Salvador. Its engine: paid internet trolls whose online attacks are endangering journalists and political opponents

Filed

SAN SALVADOR

A Salvadoran twenty-something had been looking for work when an unexpected invitation arrived to sit down with a government official.

It was 2019, and the communications specialist was well-versed in social media. Talks with the official led to a $600-a-month job in the capital of San Salvador working for the communications team of President Nayib Bukele, according to the employment contract seen by Reuters. It was decent money in this poor Central American nation.

“I didn’t know it when I signed the contract, but I made a pact with the devil,” the communications specialist said. “I became a pro-Bukele troll.”

Bukele, founder of the fledgling Nuevas Ideas party, had just won the presidency at age 37 in a landslide. Young voters, in particular, were enthralled by his savvy use of social media. It was a showcase for his carefully crafted persona as a maverick in a backwards baseball cap. Bukele vowed to crack down hard on violent criminal gangs and corruption, and to battle entrenched interests.

“I didn’t know it when I signed the contract, but I made a pact with the devil. I became a pro-Bukele troll.”

A social media worker who says they were paid to create fake Twitter followers for El Salvador’s president

That’s where tech-savvy influencers hired by the government came in. Reuters spoke with three former contractors who said they were part of secretive “troll farms” tasked with manipulating El Salvador’s political discourse. Part of their job was ginning up fictitious Bukele supporters on social media to praise his policies, the communications specialist said. The flip side involved insulting the president’s critics and filing complaints about their posts with platforms with the aim of shutting down their accounts.

The three said their work was overseen directly by administration officials, and in some cases took place in government buildings.

Two of these contract employees, including the communications specialist, said they signed non-disclosure agreements. The communications specialist’s agreement, viewed by Reuters, threatened prosecution and a jail term of up to six years for speaking to the press or other political parties about this work.

None of the three are still employed with the group. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they asked that detailed information about their employment be withheld for fear of retribution.

Bukele’s communications secretary did not respond to requests for comment about the troll operations.

These workers were cogs in what has become a powerful communications operation that has allowed Bukele to influence what Salvadorans read, watch and hear about their government like no previous leader of this small nation of 6.5 million people in the internet age.

Key to this effort are dozens of paid social media workers wielding hundreds of anonymous accounts and bots, a megaphone used to amplify the president’s messaging and deride opponents and journalists perceived as hostile to his administration, the individuals interviewed by Reuters said.

Bukele’s administration also has beefed up resources for traditional state-owned news outlets, which broadcast a steady stream of pro-Bukele content via print, television and radio. Government media now ranks among the sources most trusted by Salvadorans, according to a May 2022 study by the private Francisco Gavidia University in San Salvador.

The president has likewise become a gatekeeper, disseminating some key government policies through his Twitter account. Meanwhile his administration has sealed data that was once publicly available, including counts of missing persons and bodies in mass graves, a telltale sign of gang executions. Human rights groups and families of victims have claimed this is a way to make crime statistics look better than they really are. The Attorney General’s Office has defended this action as a way to protect investigations from potential interference by criminal organizations.

Bukele’s media machine is drawing concern in Washington.

A February 2022 internal U.S. State Department document, seen by Reuters, set out to map Bukele’s manipulation of El Salvador’s media landscape. His strategy, it says, is “to flood El Salvador with propaganda, demonize the institutions charged with debunking that propaganda – the free press and civil society – dominate public narratives, and repress dissent.”

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. Bukele’s communications secretary did not respond to requests for comment about the report.

Repressive governments have long taken aim at press freedom. Disinformation is flourishing around the globe. Still, a senior U.S. official said Bukele’s strategy is particularly dangerous because it offers a coherent playbook for would-be autocrats to follow. “The strategies could be used by other actors in other regions," the official said.

In examining Bukele’s media operation, Reuters interviewed more than 70 people, including former media operatives and social media researchers. Reuters talked to academics, journalists, cyber security experts, former intelligence officers, business executives, current and former lawmakers and officials.

Glowing domestic media coverage has helped the president consolidate his power base and weather several scandals, including allegations of graft in his administration. Bukele has denied wrongdoing.

An October 2022 CID Gallup poll asked people in 13 Latin American countries to rate their presidents. It showed Bukele with an 86% approval rating in El Salvador, making him the most popular leader in the region.

Conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson expressed similar admiration in a recent interview with Bukele that aired on Nov. 1, in which he credited the president for reducing crime. Other topics discussed included El Salvador’s decision last year to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender. That move has drawn widespread skepticism from some international financial publications, given the volatility and lack of regulation of cryptocurrencies.

Bukele told Carlson that El Salvador’s embrace of Bitcoin was part of the country’s “rebranding,” and he dismissed the criticism as “fake news.”

Since that interview aired, the value of Bitcoin and other digital currencies has plummeted due to the implosion of the Bahamas-based cryptocurrency exchange FTX.

At least 50 of the people Reuters interviewed said Bukele’s media juggernaut is helping to undermine the country’s fragile democratic institutions.

His party now controls El Salvador’s congress, which in turn has purged judges from key posts and appointed loyalists. That has paved the way for Bukele to run for president again in 2024 – an intention he announced in September – despite a constitutional ban on consecutive terms. On his watch, the state has suspended some civil liberties in the name of fighting criminal gangs: Authorities no longer need a search warrant to seize cell phone and computer data.

Some Salvadorans who have questioned Bukele’s actions have found themselves in the crosshairs. Earlier this year, the phones of nearly three dozen journalists, opposition politicians and activists were found by The Citizen Lab, which studies spyware at the University of Toronto, to have been hacked and implanted with sophisticated Pegasus spyware typically available only to law enforcement and governments. Amnesty International confirmed a sample of Citizen Lab's findings. Bukele’s office has denied involvement.

Bukele in April signed a law that could impose a maximum 15-year prison sentence on anyone who reproduces or transmits messages from criminal gangs through radio, television, written or digital media. The administration has backed the law as a way to bolster Bukele’s anti-gang policies. Reporters say the measure is hurting their ability to cover organized crime and state security policy.

Journalists have been barred from press conferences and harassed and threatened online by Bukele supporters, particularly when the president or one of his allies attacks them on Twitter, according to the nation’s press association. The group, known by its Spanish acronym APES, says at least a dozen journalists have fled El Salvador out of fear for their safety since Bukele was elected.

“The threat in El Salvador used to be from the gangs, now it's from the state,” said Angelica Carcamo, the organization's president.

Bukele’s communications secretary did not respond to requests for comment on the president’s treatment of journalists.

Public relations president

Bukele started his career in public relations: The son of a wealthy businessman with a variety of holdings, he took over Obermet, his family’s PR firm, in 2009. The left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was a key client. Soon Bukele was a FMLN candidate himself. In 2012, he won his first election at age 31, becoming mayor of a city just outside San Salvador. Three years later, he became mayor of San Salvador.

In 2017, Bukele formed his own party, Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas. Salvadorans swept him into the presidency two years later and gave New Ideas a majority in legislative elections in February 2021. Support has plummeted for the FMLN and the conservative ARENA party. The two parties dominated politics here for decades but lost support amid crushing poverty, crime and political corruption.

Bukele’s policies – capping gasoline prices, boosting the minimum wage, jailing more than 58,000 alleged gang members, announcing infrastructure plans – have bolstered his populist appeal.

“I like all the projects he is doing, the schools, the bridges, it is better for the country,” said Dominga de Peña, a 29-year-old mother and ice water vendor in El Zonte, a beach town along the Pacific Coast.

Less visible is the way his administration is manipulating communications to tighten its grip on power, according to the State Department report.

Bukele’s government uses paid influencers and “likely bot farms” to tweet pro-government messages “tens of thousands of times” on a given topic while masking their origin to “create the appearance of authentic grassroots support.”

U.S. State Department report

The document said Bukele’s government uses paid influencers and “likely bot farms” to tweet pro-government messages “tens of thousands of times” on a given topic while masking their origin to “create the appearance of authentic grassroots support.”

Some 55,000 new Bukele follower accounts were created on Twitter between September and November 2021 alone, the report said, just after newly appointed judges cleared his path to re-election. The president currently boasts 4.4 million followers on Twitter. The report did not assess how many of them were authentic. It estimated that around 500,000 Salvadorans use the platform.

San Francisco-based Twitter and Mexico City-based Twitter Latin America did not respond to requests for comment.

One of the researchers for the State Department study told Reuters they had traced hundreds of pro-Bukele tweets to specific geographic coordinates, including those of a single residential dwelling in San Salvador. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that hundreds of accounts would retweet pro-Bukele messages at the same millisecond, an indication of bot and troll activity.

The State Department document was consistent with the accounts of the communications specialist and one of the other contract workers who told Reuters they worked together on the same secretive communications team.

The pair said they were part of a crew of around 20 people, ranging in age from their early 20s to their early 30s. Some had backgrounds in publicity or marketing, they said, and all were facile with social media.

The two ex-contractors said their office initially was located in a government ministry, then moved to a home in a residential neighborhood of San Salvador. Both said their boss was a government minister whose portfolio was unrelated to state communications or media.

Their tasks, they said, included creating fake Twitter accounts to praise Bukele and New Ideas and amplify their messaging. The communications specialist showed Reuters close to 200 Twitter accounts allegedly created at their troll center. The overwhelming majority of these allegedly fake accounts had fewer than 90 followers and were created between January 2019 – the month before Bukele won the election – and November 2020. Earlier this month, 76 of those accounts were still active.

The ex-contractors said they also kept tabs on Bukele critics and reported hundreds of them to Twitter every month for alleged violations of the platform’s standards in an attempt to get the company to suspend their accounts. The communications specialist showed Reuters a 2020 screenshot from Twitter  in which the company acknowledged that the contractor had made more than 900 such requests in a single month.

Twitter did not respond to requests for comment about the alleged complaints filed against Bukele critics.

The pair said government officials, including ministers, directed them on what content to promote and which people to monitor and report. Instructions came via private messaging groups on WhatsApp and Signal, which are encrypted. Reuters could not independently verify the existence of these private chat groups.

Members of other troll teams were in these messaging groups, according to the communications specialist. A former government employee who spoke with Reuters confirmed the existence of a separate troll team of about 15 people operating at locations different from the ones where the two ex-contractors worked: first, inside El Salvador’s presidential building for several months between 2020 and 2021, followed by a private home in San Salvador.

Bukele’s communications secretary did not respond to requests for comment on these allegations.

Alberto Escorcia, a Mexican cybersecurity expert specializing in social media manipulation, examined the nearly 200 allegedly fake Twitter accounts that the communications specialist shared with Reuters. He said they matched the general profile for troll accounts: They were recently created, had few followers and posted or retweeted mainly pro-Bukele content.

Escorcia, who has tracked Bukele’s political rise, said he has noted such “inauthentic behaviors” in his online presence for years. Escorcia said he shared his concerns about El Salvador with the company’s Latin America team in November 2018, but was later told that the company had found nothing irregular. Escorcia said he had no written documentation of Twitter’s response.

“I found a lot more manipulation in El Salvador than in Mexico,” Escorcia said. “And it seems to be getting worse.”

Twitter and Twitter Latin America did not respond to requests for comment about Escorcia’s allegations.

Twitter isn’t the only platform being used to amplify pro-Bukele messaging, according to the State Department report. Researchers said they found similar material on 1,500 YouTube channels, 1,056 Facebook pages, 520 WhatsApp groups across El Salvador’s 262 municipalities, and 62 digital media outlets.

Meta, the company that owns Facebook and WhatsApp, told Reuters that the company had disrupted two inauthentic networks originating in and targeting El Salvador, one in March 2021 and the other in the first quarter of 2022. The spokesperson added that the company had blocked billions of fake accounts globally, and that it shares “findings with our peers at tech companies, security researchers, governments, and law enforcement. We also alert people who we believe were targeted by these campaigns, when possible.”

YouTube did not respond to requests for comment.

Beyond social media

Bukele is also shaking up El Salvador’s traditional media. The country’s independent press association said the government now controls “no less than 20 mass media” in El Salvador, including 14 radio stations and television station Channel 10.

In the past few years, the government has poached personnel from legacy news outlets to bulk up pro-Bukele media and add to the communications departments of government ministries, according to the State Department document. Bukele "buys off journalists and drowns opposition media in a sea of state-run media propaganda,” the U.S. study found.

One major talent raid came two years ago, when around 30 journalists from La Prensa Gráfica, one of the country’s largest legacy newspapers, resigned to go to work for a new government-owned publication, Diario El Salvador, according to six people familiar with the situation. That start-up, funded by a subsidiary of the state power company, began publishing in October 2020, and provides consistently favorable coverage of Bukele and his policies.

Cristian Villalta, who took over as editor-in-chief of La Prensa Gráfica following the exodus, said Bukele aides had offered some workers as much as three times their former salaries to switch. Two defectors told Reuters their pay doubled.

The state power company, its subsidiary and Diario El Salvador did not respond to requests for comment.

In September 2020, government-owned Channel 10 launched “Noticiero El Salvador,” a program that regularly highlights Bukele’s achievements, and which Communications Secretary Sofía Medina said would give the state “its own window, its own voice, the truth available to the people.”

Medina did not respond to requests for comment.

Offline backlash

Pro-Bukele media covers the president’s attacks on independent Salvadoran press, including digital news site El Faro. That outlet has reported on a variety of purported government malfeasance, including alleged embezzlement of COVID funds by some of the president’s allies.

Bukele’s communications secretary did not comment on allegations that members of the administration stole state funds.

In September 2020, Bukele announced that federal prosecutors were investigating El Faro for alleged money laundering and tax evasion. No charges have been filed. El Faro told Reuters the government has audited its books as part of the probe, which it claims is an attempt to silence the outlet.

El Salvador’s prosecutor's office and Bukele’s communications secretary did not respond to requests for comment about the probe or assertions by El Faro that the investigation is an attempt to silence the press.

Twenty journalists and activists told Reuters they had received online harassment and death threats, some of which they shared with Reuters. The country’s press association told Reuters it has received similar accounts from journalists.

Bukele’s communications secretary did not respond to requests for comment on those claims.

Edwin Segura, a data and poll reporter for La Prensa Gráfica, said he has blocked at least 2,400 harassing Twitter accounts since Bukele became president.

In mid-December 2019, Segura had a sarcastic Twitter exchange with Carlos Marroquín, the head of Tejido Social, a government social welfare agency.

“I’m used to governments calling me a liar, but not being worried that the government might arrest me or try to publicly destroy me.”

Edwin Segura, a data and poll reporter for La Prensa Gráfica

Segura said insults, death threats and harassment quickly followed. He shared some of those messages with Reuters. Several of the accounts that sent them are presently suspended for violating Twitter’s rules. “I’m used to governments calling me a liar, but not being worried that the government might arrest me or try to publicly destroy me,” Segura said.

Marroquín did not respond to requests for comment about the exchange and the subsequent threats.

In the United States, U.S. Representative Norma Torres, a Democrat from California, experienced a similar backlash after sparring with Bukele on Twitter. She told Reuters she sleeps with a gun near her bed due to a barrage of threats from his supporters and trolls.

A native of Guatemala, Torres has been critical of the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for creating conditions that spur migration. She dates much of the tension with Bukele to April 1, 2021, when she tweeted a photo of a Salvadoran father and his young daughter who had drowned in the Rio Grande trying to reach the United States.

“This is a result of narcissistic dictators like you interested in being ‘cool’ while people flee by the 1000s & die by the 100s,” she tweeted in English and Spanish at Bukele’s account on Twitter. Bukele responded with his own tweet about an hour and a half later, urging Latinos in Torres's district to boot her from office.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele traded Twitter barbs with U.S. Representative Norma Torres in April 2021. He urged Latinos to withhold their support from the California congresswoman. “DON'T VOTE for @NormaJTorres. She does not work for you, but to keep our countries underdeveloped.”

Torres said she immediately was inundated with online threats and hostile messages, some of which her office shared with Reuters. Many were from newly created Twitter accounts with few followers and no personal information.

Twitter did not comment on the attacks on Torres.

Bukele’s communications secretary did not respond to requests for comment on Torres’s case.

The congresswoman said the harassment continued into the run-up to this year’s midterm contests. Torres won re-election. But she said she still keeps her firearm close by.

“I’ve never had threats to this level,” Torres said. “Bukele will light the fire and then demand everyone around him pour fuel on it.”

Disinformation Machine

By Sarah Kinosian

Additional reporting: Nelson Renteria

Photo editing: Tomas Bravo

Graphics and art direction: John Emerson

Edited by Marla Dickerson