Frances Haugen’s cutting accusations against her former employers, Facebook, on October 5 included references to how social media are used to provoke and coordinate violence. This happened in Nicaragua too.
It’s June 2018 on a backstreet somewhere in Nicaragua. Filmed by an adult, a boy holds a toy gun to the head of his friend, who has just been “kidnapped”. The adult asks, “What are you going to do?” “We’ll kill him and burn him alive. We’ll leave him naked,” says the boy. The adults laugh. The boy is re-enacting a real scene of opposition violence that he’s watched on a smartphone.
On April 18 that year, the Nicaraguan government announced modest changes to pension rules that prompted a handful of protests. The same day, a Facebook post falsely claimed a student taking part in one of them had been killed; it was quickly shared. Other posts grossly exaggerated the effects on pensions, claiming they were a ‘death sentence’ to the nation’s widows. On April 19, protests spread: young people with homemade mortar guns battled with police and three people died, none of them protesters: a passer-by caught in crossfire, a policeman and a young Sandinista supporter defending a government office from attack by rioters. Nevertheless, Facebook posts immediately called a vigil for April 20, in honour of ‘protesters’ who had been ‘killed and injured in the struggle’. As a result, violent demonstrations broke out in several cities, with more deaths on both sides. It took only two more days for the government to withdraw the pension proposals but the protests continued, now demanding President Ortega’s resignation.
Frances Haugen testified to the US Senate that Facebook causes ‘violence that harms and even kills people,’ citing events in Myanmar and Ethiopia. She didn’t mention Nicaragua, but it could have given her many more examples. Facebook’s role was obliquely recognised by the New York Times in 2018 when it reported that young people “armed with cell phones and social media skills” were challenging the government after “dozens” of students had been killed. But many journalists who came here, such as Jon Lee Anderson, dismissed the role played by ‘fake news’, not believing that it had fuelled the protests. Of course, government supporters also used social media, but their posts were usually more obvious and less sophisticated, because they weren’t coordinated. A police officer told me recently that some of the protest organisers were running more than 100 Facebook accounts each, often using paid-for posts.
Public anger was stirred by a succession of reports on Facebook and Whatsapp of killings of young people, supposedly at the hands of the police. William González Zúñiga was one such ‘victim’, but he had died at home, possibly from a cardiac arrest after playing football. Photos of Mario Alberto Medina’s body were posted: he had died nine months before the protests began. Karla Sotelo, listed as dead on Facebook, was the subject of a makeshift memorial: she is still alive. Marlon Josué Martínez, whose photo as a victim was paraded in the streets, had been living in Spain for more than a year.
Large numbers of events were falsified for Facebook. A friend watched from his window as youths donned fake ‘Young Sandinista’ t-shirts before being videoed ransacking a supermarket. In a similar attack, a man trying to stop the looters died and his death was also blamed on ‘Young Sandinistas’.
Personal hatreds could easily be turned into public ones. Facebook posts began to give instructions on how to track down and kill government sympathisers or officials (labelled “toads” or “sapos”), leading to the victimising of government workers and supporters like Bismarck Martinez, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in June 2018. Many instances of public humiliation and torture were videoed and posted on social media to instil fear in communities (here is a collection of gruesome examples).
In 2018, Facebook was at the height of its popularity in Nicaragua, accounting for eight out ten social media posts. Using it for mass manipulation had only become possible a year or two earlier as smartphones became cheap enough for young people to buy and as the government made free wifi access available in public parks. Facebook, in particular, quickly became the main source of news as it already had in other countries. The government, hit by what was quickly labelled a ‘tsunami’ of social media posts, was totally unprepared, relying still on its own TV channels which young people increasingly ignored.
Haugen told CBS that Facebook promotes ‘angry, hateful, polarizing, divisive content’. In response, the company claimed it had 40,000 people working on safety and security and had spent $13 billion on such measures over the last six years. Until the end of 2020, it had a specialist ‘civic-integrity team’. But as Haugen also pointed out, 87% of misinformation spending at Facebook is on English content when only 9% of users are English speakers. “Facebook invests more in users that make them more money, even though danger may not be evenly distributed based on profitability,” she said. Under pressure for its effects on users in the U.S. and Europe, it seems unlikely that the company will devote more effort to eliminating hateful content appearing in places such as Myanmar, Ethiopia… or Nicaragua. Most of the worst material posted in 2018 has now been taken down, but it stayed on Facebook long enough to have its intended effect.