Logbook of pro-Alex Saab’s cyber information operation

Compilation of threads, reports, observations and fact-checks published by Cazadores de Fake News on pro-Alex Saab astroturfing campaigns, as of October 19, 2021

The Internet is full of messages in favor of the release of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman, linked to the Venezuelan regime and accused of money laundering and tax evasion. According to some sources, he is Nicolás Maduro’s most important front man and one of the most powerful men in the upper echelons of Chavismo.

Alex Saab was recently extradited from Cape Verde to the United States. During the time he was detained in the small African island nation, a massive influence campaign was deployed on the cyber stage and in the real world, seeking to position narratives in his defense and discredit the main journalists and investigators studying his case.

This influence campaign, so far, has been the most significant and complex one studied by Venezuelan anti-disinformation community Cazadores de Fake News, since its inception in 2019. We began its study in September 2020 and are still presenting unpublished findings in October 2021. Although several reports on the case were published on the cazadoresdefakenews.info site, much information was disseminated exclusively through our Twitter account, in spanish.

This article is a chronological compilation of all the findings, observations and reports published by Cazadores de Fake News about the Alex Saab influence campaign on the internet.

The Logbook

  • August 30, 2020: we analyzed 47,000 tweets and detected a cluster of bot-like accounts, that were mentioning and retweeting messages targeting Cape Verde government accounts. Twitter thread.
  • September 10, 2020: we spotted 128 additional bot-like accounts, delivering spam messages in defense of Alex Saab to Cape Verde government accounts. Twitter thread.
  • September 27, 2020: we published the first report about fake accounts linked to Alex Saab astroturfing campaign. Not all were (technically) bot accounts. Some used #FreeAlexSaab hashtag, the main hashtag of the campaign. Report at cazadoresdefakenews.info.
  • October 20, 2020: More bot-like accounts were created. We noticed that Twitter banned them regularly, so even though they are massively created, whoever is in charge of their creation knows that they are “disposable” and does not stop creating them. Twitter thread.
  • December 3, 2020: bot-like accounts supporting Alex Saab were invisible on Twitter search engine. They are being affected by some kind of restrictions imposed by Twitter to control their spammy action. Twitter thread.
  • February 22, 2020: we published a second report, detailing some of the early trends in favor of Alex Saab driven in Nigeria and Venezuela. The Nigerian trends are being boosted in an astroturfing operation, driven by a group of local influencers. Twitter thread. Report at cazadoresdefakenews.info.
FreeAlexSaab on Twitter: among bots, Nigerian trolls and friends. We spotted three different networks of anomalous accounts, driving different campaigns in favor of Alex Saab, aimed at influencing public opinion in Venezuela, Nigeria and Cape Verde. Summary on this thread
  • March 10, 2021: we spotted paid advertising on Facebook in favor of Alex Saab. Twitter thread.
  • March 11, 2021: we noticed for the first time that in addition to astroturfing campaigns and bot-like accounts, accounts from the Tuiteros de la Patria network were involved to push pro-Saab narratives. Tuiteros de La Patria network is a propaganda network formed by bot-like, but human driven Twitter accounts (we called it “cyborg accounts”), that receive payment in order to boost propagandist, pro-Maduro government trends in Venezuela. Twitter thread.
  • March 11, 2021: members of the Cazadores Network reported one bot account with avatar of late INXS vocalist, defending Alex Saab (just one fake account among hundreds of similar bots). Twitter thread.
  • March 17, 2021: we posted a short tutorial about how to identify bot-like accounts defending Alex Saab on Twitter. Twitter thread.
  • March 17, 2021: we spotted a new cluster of bot-like accounts defending Alex Saab on Twitter, with profile pictures created using “Generative Adversarial Networks” (GAN)-like technology (synthetic fake human portraits created with artificial intelligence techniques). Twitter thread.
“#AlexSaabsBots | new brood of bot-like accounts defending Alex Saab on Twitter. At least 8 were created just today, Wednesday 3/17/21. What’s new: the photos appear to have been created using an artificial intelligence algorithm. They are synthetic photos”
  • March 28, 2021: we spotted a coordinated attack against Roberto Deniz on Twitter. Deniz is one of the journalists of Armando.info, a Venezuelan digital media that has published many investigations on the Alex Saab case. Twitter thread.
  • April 8, 2021: a Digital Africa Lab research unveils network of Nigerian influencers hired to drive pro-Alex Saab trends, in an astroturfing operation (Alpha Reach case). Twitter thread.
  • April 10, 2021: several Nigerian influencers Twitter accounts, linked to the recent astroturfing operations, were suspended by the social network. Some accounts were unsuspended within weeks (Alpha Reach case). Twitter thread.
  • April 10, 2021: we posted a thread with comments from Nigerian influencers, complaining about being sanctioned by Twitter when the astroturfing operation was discovered (Alpha Reach case). Twitter thread.
“NigerianInfluencers | we made a thread with some memorable comments from Nigerian tweeters, about the sanctions on influencer accounts for boosting the inauthentic campaign in favor of Alex Saab. (It’s clear to us that now they don’t even want to write his name)”
  • April 11, 2021: we spotted 71 aditional bot-like accounts supporting trends in favor of Alex Saab. Twitter thread.
  • April 12, 2021: Aftermath of the Alpha Reach case. Oby Ezekwesili, Nigeria’s former minister of education, demands an apology from J. J. Omojuwa, director of Alpha Reach (linked to Nigerian astroturfing pro-Alex Saab campaign), because Ezekwesili’s name appeared as a director of the company, without her consent. Twitter thread.
  • April 18, 2021: we published a list with 130 pro-Alex Saab bot-like accounts that were still online. Twitter thread.
  • April 18, 2021: clarification to our readers:: not all groups defending Alex Saab are bots or bot-like accounts. There are several groups and some are communities of real people, making a lot of noise. But it is still a massive astroturfing campaign, with many different fronts. Twitter thread.
  • April 19, 2021: we noticed that Alek Boyd, researcher of the journalist infodio.com, who has also covered the Alex Saab case, had been harassed by some pro-Saab troll-like accounts. Tweet.

As of April 2021, decreased the creation of bot or bot-like accounts driving trends in favor of Alex Saab. an increased the number of coordinated astroturfing campaigns, which attempt to simulate “spontaneous” support in Venezuela, Nigeria and Ghana.

  • April 27, 2021: we published a video of pro-Saab bot accounts accusing journalist Roberto Deniz of being “paid by the CIA“. Tweet.
AlexSaab BotFriends | Bot accounts, in targeted harassment campaign to @robertodeniz. Meanwhile other Venezuelan networks, continue #Astroturfing campaign in favor of Saab. They avoid mentioning his name so as not to be sanctioned. They write: Al3x Saab, A.Saab or “Diplomatic
  • May 14, 2021: a source explained us that it was at least two different networks that drove pro-Saab trends in Nigeria, one linked to the Alpha Reach case and one we previously spotted on our second report. Twitter thread.
  • June 3, 2021: in a campaign that pushed pro-Alex Saab tendencies in Africa, some accounts shared a photo of another person named Alex Saab who lives in the United States, together with his family. So far, there are very few family photos of Alex Saab (the colombian businessman) being shared on Twitter. The following report explains the context of the (American) Alex Saab photo. Twitter thread.
  • June 10, 2021: we published “Operation Alex Ghana“, third report on pro-Alex Saab information operation and trends on Twitter. This astroturfing campaign was driven in Ghana by a company called PromoCoreGH. Thread on Twitter. Report at cazadoresdefakenews.info.
“Operation Alex Ghana: influence campaign in favor of Alex Saab in Ghana driven by Twitter “laboratory”. Since the beginning of the month, a new influence campaign in favor of Alex Saab is being driven in Ghana. We find out who is driving it: (link). Twitter thread…”
  • June 16, 2021: Hoaxy shows anomalous accounts pushing misleading information about Alex Saab. Twitter thread.
  • June 21, 2021: We spotted that a bot account used in campaigns in support of Alex Saab was previously used to share tweets with sexual content. It was a purchased or assigned account, which initially had a different use. Twitter thread.
“AlexSaabsBots – this is the kind of thing that happens when you buy accounts with lots of followers to boost Alex Saab’s campaign. Then they say they don’t use fake accounts, nor is there even a bot. Shame on them. And there are many more accounts bought with thousands of followers”
  • June 25, 2021: we noticed that PromoCoreGH, the Ghanaian PR firm we discussed in “Operation Alex Ghana,” deleted incriminating evidence from its Instagram account. Twitter thread.
  • June 30, 2021: we analyzed the #LandimRenuncia (#LandimQuit) trend, driven by mainly non-bot accounts, coordinated in a astroturfing operation from several countries, including Venezuela. Twitter thread.
  • June 30, 2021: we denounced several possibly bought accounts, with around 50,400 followers each. Twitter thread.
  • July 3, 2021: Twitter suspended the possibly purchased accounts with around 50K followers, that we reported some days ago. Twitter thread.
  • July 4, 2021: we spotted another coordinated astroturfing campaign in Ghana calling for the release of “someone“. They avoid mentioning his name (Alex Saab) because their accounts may be sanctioned/suspended by Twitter. Twitter thread.
AlexSaabCase | another #astroturfing campaign in Ghana, driving trend calling for freeing “someone” (Alex Saab). Many influencers avoid mentioning their name so that Twitter doesn’t detect the campaign and close their accounts. By losing them, they would not be able to work with other clients
  • July 24, 2021: José Landim, Attorney General of Cape Verde, denounces disinformation campaign. Misleading information was published by five websites linked to the operation of influence in favor of Alex Saab. Twitter thread.
  • July 25, 2021: we analyzed in Hoaxy several Alex Saab defense network accounts that mentioned Cazadores de Fake News (@cazamosfakenews) on Twitter. Twitter thread.
  • July 7, 2021: several Alex Saab advocacy network-driven trends analyzed on Hoaxy. Twitter thread.
  • September 14, 2021: network of “parody” troll accounts linked to Alex Saab defense network harasses Venezuelan journalists and media. Twitter thread. Report at cazadoresdefakenews.info.
Pro-Alex Saab influence campaign creates network of “parody” troll accounts to harass Venezuelan journalists and media. The network impersonates influential tweeters, activates to spread disinformation and denigrate journalists/press: (link). Summar (Twitter thread)
  • September 21, 2021: impersonation of the Twitter account @ThePinguinHDP (anonymous venezuelan influencer, his account was created in June 2016 and has more than 54,000 followers). Another account with a similar username @Tean_HDP (sic.), troll, created in July 2021 and with 29 followers, impersonated @ThePinguinHDP. The troll account published a screenshot of a falsified conversation between journalists Roberto Deniz (Armando.info) and Amy Torres (Impacto Venezuela), in which they were planning a “fake news” story. The false leak was published by the Venezuela disinformation website Lechuguinos, linked to the influence operation. The same day, Cazadores de Fake News debunked the case on Twitter. Fact-check on Twitter.
  • September 23, 2021: the astroturfing network defending Alex Saab in Venezuela, decontextualizes check carried out by Cazadores de Fake News in March 2021. Twitter thread.
  • October 8, 2021: Twitter suspends the account of the website Lechuguinos, involved in a large number of policy violations against spam, platform manipulation, account with bought followers and generation of hate content. The account and the website harassed and threatened NGOs, politicians and journalists, among them Roberto Deniz (Armando.info) and participated in promoting hashtags of the #FreeAlexSaab campaign. Tweet.
  • October 10, 2021: an extensive investigation on Lechuguinos website, whose Twitter account was recently suspended, is published on cazadoresdefakenews.info. It was shown that the portal is run by Lenin Dávila Guerrero, who is known by a large number of PSUV militants and politicians and who has attended events organized by the #FreeAlexSaab campaign team. Report at cazadoresdefakenews.info.
“Complaint | In Venezuela they have faked a direct message exchange on Twitter using HTML editing, to blame @robertodeniz and @Ewalds6 for a conversation that didn’t exist. It’s nothing more than a trick. We demonstrate it in this video. (Twitter thread)”. The example shows a fictitious conversation between the Twitter accounts @cazamosfakenews and @chavezcandanga, belonging to former President Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013. The conversation was reproduced by manipulating the HTML code.
  • October 10, 2021: the same troll account @Tean_HDP, published the video of a forged conversation via Twitter direct message, between journalists Ewald Scharfenberg and Roberto Deniz of Armando.info. On October 15, Cazadores de Fake News twitter account, debunks this case, explaining that it was made by manipulating the HTML code. (See the tweet above).
  • October 17, 2021: an article is published on cazadoresdefakenews.info detailing the existence of a network of 22 fake news websites, created between April and June 2021, in which defamatory articles were published against Roberto Deniz and Alek Boyd, both notorious investigators of the Alex Saab case. One of the fake news websites, copied articles from cazadoresdefakenews.info website and published a defamatory article about Alek Boyd, posing as a fact-checking website. The websites are allegedly related to a company named Arroba Percepción, which denied having control of them and only provided hosting services. In a matter of hours, all the websites of the network were taken offline. Report at cazadoresdefakenews.info.
IntoxicandoAGoogle | table with logos of fake news portals, ranked according to defamation articles against @robertodeniz and @infodi0. See: (link).
But there were more targets, such as @TheFreedomPost website: (link)
  • October 21, 2021: on the Twitter account of Cazadores de Fake News, a video was published, recorded in Caracas and transmitted through the Instagram account of Lechuguinos, showing influencers of Alex Saab’s defense network in Venezuela together with Pedro Carvajalino, host of the program Zurda Konducta of Venezolana de Televisión and Lenin Dávila Guerrero, director of Lechuguinos, a Venezuelan disinformation portal pro-regime of Nicolás Maduro. Tweet.