Cuba Insight: “Cuba’s Fake Tweets”

A publication of the Cuban Studies Institute

“Cuba’s Fake Tweets” 

By Orlando Gutierrez and Augusto Hernandez* 

Members of the Cuban Democratic Directorate (CDD), a human rights and political activism group based in Miami, have uncovered evidence of fraudulent twitter accounts that have been feverishly campaigning in support of the Cuban government and the recently held parliamentary and provincial elections.  These elections will 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.. On the surface the accounts appear to present the image of young attractive Cubans living on the island and their tweets proclaim full support and love for the communist dictatorship as well as excitement and loyalty regarding the election. Some tweets even declare support for the regime in Venezuela.

To the uninformed, it would seem that there are large pockets of young Cuban citizens that are so enamored with their life in Cuba that they are on social media extolling the virtues of the leadership there. But the members of the Cuban communities worldwide are not uninformed. They know better. Members of the CDD discovered that at least dozens of profiles sending these tweets are fictitious identities using stolen images and they are tweeting at a rate that strongly indicates that they are what are now known as BOTS.

An Internet Bot, also known as web robotWWW robot or simply bot, is a software applicationthat runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone. The largest use of bots is in web spidering (web crawler), in which an automated script fetches, analyzes and files information from web servers at many times the speed of a human. More than half of all web traffic is made up of bots.

Efforts by servers hosting websites to counteract bots vary. Servers may choose to outline rules on the behaviour of internet bots by implementing a robots.txt file: this file is simply text stating the rules governing a bot’s behavior on that server. Any bot interacting with (or ‘spidering’) any server that does not follow these rules should, in theory, be denied access to, or removed from, the affected website. If the only rule implementation by a server is a posted text file with no associated program/software/app, then adhering to those rules is entirely voluntary – in reality there is no way to enforce those rules, or even to ensure that a bot’s creator or implementer acknowledges, or even reads, the robots.txt file contents. Some bots are “good” – e.g. search engine spiders – while others can be used to launch malicious and harsh attacks, most notably, in political campaigns.

Although the CDD has identified dozens of the profiles they suspect the actual number is much higher. The members of the CDD that discovered these profiles are humble about their work and say it was no great feat as the profiles are blatantly fake. Most of the profiles are using picture of popular international figures such as actors, models and dancers. It is obvious that the images are not who the profiles claim to be. The accounts used a variety of stock images readily obtainable online as well as those of Italian dancer Robert Bolle, French model Arnaud Francois, Columbian actress Paola Rey, American actress Hayden Panetierre, Canadian fitness model Amanda Lee, Greek singer Sakis Rouvas and Argentine actor Pablo Heredia. In some instances the images appear to have been lifted from the now defunct, MySpace.

 It is also apparent that the individuals whose images have been pilfered were completely unaware that they were being used to promote support for a communist dictatorship and its chokehold on the nation of Cuba. Some of the tweets expressed anti-American sentiments and others supported the socialist tyranny in Venezuela. In stealing the identities of models and actors to make the pages more attractive and appealing, the accounts violate Twitter rules. Since the CDD went public with its accusations, Twitter has suspended the accounts that the group identified, though the CDD fears there are likely “hundreds” of these malicious accounts that could easily resurface, especially if they are part of a larger, organized state propaganda operation. These accounts are malicious because they can distort facts, influence popular opinion, and disrupt societal or political dialog.

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.

It is well known that the Cuban regime maintains total control over all forms of communication and media and has long used this to promote Communist propaganda and indoctrinate students and the younger population. It would be near impossible for a botnet like this to be operating on the island without at least, the implicit support of the government. This type of effort is not atypical to the regimes’ previous techniques. By all indications this has been a state sponsored campaign of identity theft, fraud and false propaganda.

* Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, Ph.D., Dr. Gutierrez-Boronat holds a PhD in the Philosophy of International Studies from the University of Miami, alongside undergraduate degrees in communications and political science as well as an MA in political science from Florida International University. He is the author of articles in highly recognized publications and has written several books.  His book, Cuba: A Nation in Search of a State, is referred to as a central work in the understanding of Cuban ideological families and Cuban exile nationalism.  Dr. Gutierrez-Boronat is a Senior Research Associate at the Cuban Studies Institute.

* Augusto Hernandez, writer and consultant with the Cuban Democratic Directorate.