Top Colombian government officials are behind a collective of far-right activists that has been behind online attacks on journalists and critics of President Ivan Duque.
Since September last year, the collective has coordinately tried to manipulate the public debate on Twitter while engaging in political warfare against journalists and critics of Duque and his political patron, former President Alvaro Uribe.
The fake lawyer leading the political warfare team
Journalist collective The League Against Silence found that the group was founded on September 7 last year by Orlando consul Claudia Bustamante two days after a meeting between Uribe and some 50 activists.
Bustamante was reprimanded by the National Police ahead of the 2018 elections for spreading disinformation when she unsuccessfully ran for the senate.
Duque appointed the far-right activist consul less than a month after he took office in August 2018 despite her also having lied about having a law degree.
How to screw up a covert operation in 10 days
While pursuing an almost uniquely partisan agenda, the group received the support of top government officials.
Among the 88 members of the Whatsapp group from where attacks were coordinated were four presidential aides, three congressional aides and two Democratic Center party executives.
The members of the group had a combined audience of 600,000 followers on Twitter.
Their offensives were supported by Democratic Center lawmakers like Fernando Araujo. Maria Fernanda Cabal, Ruby Chagui, Paloma Valencia, Margarita Restrepo, Ernesto Macías, Carlos Fernando Mejia, Maria del Rosario Guerra, Gabriel Santos and Jaime Amin.
The team’s effort to operate covertly failed almost instantly however.
Three days after the group was formed, administrator Victor Muñoz, the president’s Innovation and Digital Transformation adviser, was forced to resign after his participation in the group’s smear campaign against W Radio was discovered.
Bustamante closed the group a week later, but its members continue to carry out coordinated attacks until today.
The leading political warriors
The goals and targets
Between the formation of the Whatsapp group and January, the “influencers” in the group targeted primarily media and journalists who had been critical of Duque or Uribe.
Additionally, the original group members coordinately defended the former president while he was in court for an ongoing fraud and bribery investigation in October and stigmatized anti-government protests in November.
The purpose of the group is that we have first-hand information on relevant issues for the country, for the development of some of the national government’s tasks and clearly, to continue defending the model of the country in which we want to see our children grow up. We do not want more speculation from the media that, in a certain way, are responsible for the polarization that Colombia is experiencing today.
Targeted media and journalists
- Noticias Uno
- W Radio
- Daniel Coronell
- Julio Sanchez
- Camila Zuluaga
- Catherine Juvinao
Source: La Liga Contra el Silencio
Party above ethics
Experts consulted by the League Against Silence agreed that the far-right party’s online political warfare campaign is unethical at the least. The involvement of government officials violates principles of democracy, they agreed.
Government officials leading a political warfare campaign “is extremely serious in regards to democracy and democratic guarantees,” according to Carolina Botero of the Karisma Foundation, an NGO specializing in the defense of human rights online.
There may be a legal responsibility issue, but above all it is unethical… for me the big problem with that chat is that members of the government are involved. The behavior of candidates or congressional aides is wrong because this is not fair play.
Karisma Foundation director Carolina Botero
“They are conspiring to distribute disinformation with a common but sophisticated strategy,” according to Estaban Ponce, a disinformation specialist of the Atlantic Council.
“In the real world this should be illegal and even a scuff against the freedom of expression, because the public is being manipulated by these accounts,” Ponce added.
A government official is an official of all Colombians and the fact that he is not only doing things that tilt the balance that manipulate audiences in a certain way, but also that he is making such direct and frontal attacks on specific people in the opposition, seems to me to be ethically very reproachable, it seems to me that this should have disciplinary consequences.
Journalist Jose Luis Peñarrenonda
Government officials evading responsibility
Bustamante, who did not avoid the journalists or immediately call a defense attorney, said that “I am not authorized to talk about these things.”
When she was asked who could authorize her to talk, she said “Nobody, because this is an issue that has nothing to do with my consular position.”
The influencers in the group went on the offensive after they had been exposed, inviting other far-right crazies on Twitter to join the “Uribista” disinformation team.