When Facebook talks about busting foreign influence campaigns, Russia is usually painted as the villain. But the social media giant recently wiped out a host of pages interfering in Latin American politics – from Washington, DC.
CLS Strategies is one of many PR and lobbying groups that call the ‘swamp’ of Washington, DC their home. According to the company’s own website, it “helps clients win where it matters most – in the halls of government, the marketplace, and the court of public opinion.”
But behind the website’s corpo-speak, CLS Strategies lobbies lawmakers on behalf of foreign politicians and corporations, and runs bespoke disinformation operations.
The company was caught last week operating 55 Facebook accounts, 42 pages, and 36 Instagram accounts in Venezuela, Mexico, and Bolivia. Together, these pages had more than 500,000 followers, and sought to manipulate politics in these countries, at a cost of $3.6 million to CLS’s clients. Facebook announced on Friday that it had closed the pages and accounts.
In Bolivia, CLS created fake pages in support of the country’s interim president, Jeanine Anez. The pages spread negative stories about ex-president Evo Morales, a socialist who was pushed out of office last year by his military and fled to Mexico. Fake ‘fact checkers’ debunked damaging stories on Anez, while CLS staff created fake profiles – or, in some cases, just used their actual profiles – to spread their own reports.
In Venezuela, the firm created profiles and pages to attack President Nicolas Maduro, who has faced repeated coup attempts since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president last January. Guaido is recognized by the US and around 50 other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, yet CLS also boosted opposition figures Henrique Capriles and Maria Corina Machado.
Additionally, a Stanford University report revealed that a number of CLS staff have previously worked on political campaigns for the Venezuelan opposition. The report did not reveal the extent of the alleged influence campaign in Mexico.
Though some of its goals aligned with those of US President Donald Trump’s administration, CLS Strategies wasn’t functioning as the administration’s election interference arm. Rather its employees were US-based political freebooters, turning a tidy profit on behalf of Latin American politicians. Despite being based in Washington, the company insists it wasn’t running a foreign influence operation, as its clients were inside the countries targeted.
Nevertheless, there are links between CLS and the US government. Senior Adviser Mark Feierstein, whose name has been scrubbed from the company’s website in recent days, was also an adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This DC-based think tank met with US and Latin American military officials last April to plot a potential invasion of Venezuela. Beforehand, he was an assistant to President Obama, served in the State Department under Bill Clinton, and worked for the US Agency for International Development as an assistant administrator for Latin America.
With Facebook regularly claiming to have discovered Russian, Chinese, or Iranian interference in US politics, the removal of CLS’s accounts is noteworthy in that it represents the first time an American company has been caught red-handed interfering in foreign affairs via social media.
On home turf, though, such operations have been well documented. Most notably, a company called New Knowledge was busted creating an army of fake ‘Russian bots’ to support Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in 2017. The firm would then use the existence of these bots to claim that Moscow supported Moore’s election bid. Furthermore, the company used similar tactics to CLS, creating pages designed to sway Republican voters away from Moore and toward write-in candidates.