By Shayna Lewis on December 27, 2018
Last week, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) joined the growing list of organizations publicly expressing concerns about Facebook’s ability to protect individuals’ privacy and the dangerous ways in which the platform is impacting public discourse and democracy.
Just before the holidays, UUSC sent a letter to Representative Katherine Clark and Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, as well as leadership of the Senate and House intelligence committees requesting they urge Facebook to disclose details behind false Facebook accounts which helped drive participation in the migrant caravan (exodus).
On December 6, 2018 Buzzfeed published disturbing details of an imposter Facebook account using Bartolo Fuentes’ name to promote participation in the exodus in October 2018. Fuentes is a former Honduran lawmaker and human rights observer active with UUSC partner Radio Progreso, a non-profit radio station that operates in Honduras. Messages sent by the fake account, which included Fuentes’s photo, also claimed the migrant rights organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras was involved and would be leading the exodus from Honduras to the United States, which quickly grew from 200 to more than 7,000 people. In reality, neither Fuentes nor Pueblo were closely involved with the exodus before its departure from San Pedro Sula, although the groundswell response ultimately inspired their support.
According to Fuentes, the fake account seems to have been created less than a week before the caravan’s scheduled departure on October 12. The timing of these messages is particularly troubling, as the size of this caravan drove unnecessary attention to the U.S. border, allowing President Trump and others to use the exodus, and immigration generally, as a political weapon before the midterm elections. Irineo Mujica, who represents Pueblo Sin Fronteras, told Buzzfeed, “Nobody wanted this to take place so close to the [U.S.] elections. Somebody was clearly trying to mislead people to generate more interest in the caravan.”
Recently, foreign entities have routinely used social media platforms, notably Facebook, to undermine the democratic process across the globe. The fake Fuentes account provides another example of how a malicious actor may manipulate existing crises for political gains that undermine the democratic process and are ultimately detrimental to human rights. While the fake account has been deactivated, Fuentes and UUSC believe it is important to know who created it and that this information be made public in order to fully assess the impact. We urge Congress to use their subpoena authority to compel Facebook to disclose these details.
Ultimately, the role of an imposter account in no way diminishes the reality of this underlying humanitarian need. Migrants have long organized themselves in caravans, which provide a safe and cost-effective way to travel, as well as provide a place of community and solidarity. However, the sheer size of the October 2018 exodus reveals the urgency driving Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States, many fleeing a crisis of extreme violence and impunity. UUSC is in solidarity with the migrants who undertake this arduous journey and continues to support efforts that will ensure their safety in their home countries and along the migrant trail.
Photo Credit: Unsplash – Benjamin Dada