Twitter accounts masquerading as Cubans spread socialist propaganda

Activists allege Cuban government engages in social media manipulation

By Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer, Hatzel Vela - Cuba Correspondent

File photos of Roberto Bolle and Paola Rey by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images and Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Image

MIAMI - Roberto Bolle is one of the most handsome men in Italy. The statuesque classical ballet dancer and former UNICEF goodwill ambassador recently appeared in Tod's advertising campaign along with Kendall Jenner, the world's highest earning model.

Bolle has also modeled for Ferragamo and Giorgio Armani. Now his picture is being fraudulently used to spread political propaganda on Twitter. A user published a shirtless picture of him to adopt the identity of Roberto Gonzalez. 

A team with the Directorio Democratico Cuba, a Miami-based organization pushing for political diversity on the Communist island, believe the Cuban government is engaging on social media bot techniques. These mimic the style of Russian propaganda networks. 

"It's a very racist effort," said Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, a spokesman for the organization. "They are using the pictures of white attractive public figures."

Gutierrez-Boronat said there is a centralized effort to use social media tools to amplify certain hashtags and messages to influence what's trending. There are common Venezuelan socialist themes and Russian propagandist techniques in the accounts that the Directorio Democratico Cuba detected as attempting to masquerade as humans. 

"I am absolutely convinced the Castro regime is behind it, whether there are others helping them, it's their strategy, it's them leading it," Gutierrez-Boronat said. 

The accounts post idyllic photos of the late Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in uniform. The automated accounts, known by social media marketers as bots, are set up to impersonate supporters who share content regularly. 

The account using Bolle's picture shares posts from other Twitter accounts. Some are using SumAll, a New York-based marketing service designed for business owners to automate posts. 

 "We have tracked dozens of accounts like this, but we believe there are hundreds," Gutierrez-Boronat said. 

The Oxford Internet Institute and Indiana University researchers have documented the role of bot accounts in spreading misleading content during political events. Robert Gorwa, a political scientist leading the Computational Propaganda Project, has said Twitter needs to clamp down on third-party applications to make automation more difficult. 

"The reality is that Twitter is fighting a losing battle, and it is unwilling to deal with the possibility that state actors are using the platform for large-scale political interference," Gorwa wrote last year

Some political candidates worldwide manage budgets to sway elections with the use of fraudulent accounts to promote their messages and attack their opponents. Some political strategists use specialized software or commercial analytical tools to detect their rivals bot-like behavior.

To energize supporters and increase their following, campaigns set up networks of fake accounts known as botnets. The impact of these strategies is directly linked to the population's Internet access and that has partially improved in Cuba.

The account with Bolle's picture, which was set up June 2017 regularly shares tweets from the Cubanito  Cubano account, which has shared more than 7K tweets since April 2017. Cubanito Cubano shares tweets from the Cuba Vero account, which was set up in February 2015, and is fraudulently using the picture of Colombian actress Paola Rey.

With time, some bots have more influence than others. The Cuba Vero account has some 13K followers and about 55K tweets. The user tweeted a picture of Vladimir Putin Wednesday with the link of a Mi Cuba Por Siempre wordpress blog that links back to a Cuba TV story

In Havana, students who are loyal to the Communist party are learning how to use social media as marketers do. The account using Bello's picture recently shared a tweet by a Cuban federation of college students who support the Cuban Communist Party. The organization and students from the University of Information Science in Havana operate under the auspices of the Cuban government.

Cuba Debate, a site developed by Cuban college students in Santa Clara in 2003, has evolved into an international effort to spread political propaganda in seven languages. On Saturday, a writer for the site reported there were college students in Havana's El Vedado neighborhood and other parts of the island using Twitter to campaign during an event they referred to as the "Twitazo." 

The Cuban regime controls media and has long used marketing techniques to display political propaganda and indoctrinate students. The Directorio Democratico Cubano classifies the use of bots to manipulate Cubans' opinion on social media as a dishonest effort not atypical to the Cuban government's previous techniques.

"Anyone familiar with marketing, knows that an individual user is not really capable of these numbers. The activity is high," said Silvia Gutierrez-Boronat, a spokeswoman for the Directorio Democratico Cubano. "These are dangerous because they can distort debate and influence people." 

Cuban officials will be overseeing the parliamentary and provincial elections Sunday to select the members of the National Assembly of People's Power that will elect Castro's successor, who is likely going to be Miguel Diaz-Canel, the current vice president.

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