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All the President’s Trolls: Real and Fake Twitter Fights in El Salvador
All the President’s Trolls: Real and Fake Twitter Fights in El Salvador
A man exchanges Iranian Rials against US Dollars at an exchange shop in the Iranian capital Tehran on 8 August 2018. AFP/Atta Kenare

The Illogic of the U.S. Sanctions Snapback on Iran

The Trump administration believes that ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran will compel the Islamic Republic to curtail its disruptive Middle East policies. History suggests otherwise. Both Washington and Tehran should step off their current escalatory path.

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What’s new? A 40-year analysis of Iran’s economic performance and regional policy reveals little to no correlation between the two, as Tehran has continued to pursue policies it deems central to its national security no matter its degree of economic wellbeing at home.

Why does it matter? The Trump administration hopes that sanctions will force Iran to curb its regional activities. But data shows that outcome is uncertain as changes in Iran’s wealth have had little impact on the direction or capabilities of its regional policy. Sanctions risk empowering harder-line officials in the Islamic Republic and prompting them to lash out, exacerbating regional tensions.

What should be done? The U.S. optimally should leverage its sanctions to de-escalate regional tensions. That requires acknowledging Iran’s legitimate security concerns as long as Iran acknowledges those of its regional rivals. However unlikely at this time, the U.S., Iran and Gulf Arab states should take steps to build a more stable regional security architecture.

I. Overview

The intuitive presumption at the heart of the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran is that, by reducing its resources, economic sanctions on Iran will diminish its disruptive activities abroad. The sanctions that the U.S. Treasury Department will re-impose on Iran on 5 November are, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, intended to push Iran into making a choice: “either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad. It won’t have the resources to do both”.

But historical data shows little, if any, correlation between the resources at Iran’s command and its regional behaviour. Rather, the extent to which the Islamic Republic feels threatened or senses opportunity in its neighbourhood largely defines its conduct. Measured against that standard, the Trump administration’s aggressive policy is likelier to spur Iran’s regional activism than to curb it. A better alternative exists. It would require the Trump administration not to ignore Iran’s regional interests, but to acknowledge that it has legitimate security concerns, and for Iran to acknowledge that as long as it pursues policies that its neighbours and others perceive as aggressive, tensions will persist and the risk of direct military confrontation will rise. A more stable region is possible only if the U.S. moves to provide Iran with viable security assurances, in return requiring that Tehran allow its non-state allies to integrate into their countries’ security and political systems and halt proliferation of ballistic missile technology across the region. Though currently a remote aim, both sides should work with other regional actors toward an inclusive security architecture.

Video: The Fallacy of U.S. Sanctions on Iran

II. Contrasting Eras of Iranian Regional Policy

Studying how Iran has devised its regional policies over the last four decades reveals that its choices have rarely been a function of its economic performance or resource availability.

A. “Forward Defence”

Iran’s regional defence policy was defined and shaped at a time of economic scarcity. Its “forward defence” policy – an effort to exploit weak states, such as Lebanon and post-2003 Iraq, where it can expand its influence and fight through proxies without direct harm or threat to itself – originated in the 1980s.[fn]For more background on Iran’s defence doctrine, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°184, Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East, 13 April 2018.Hide Footnote Then, the newly established order in Tehran, which aspired to export its revolution abroad, simultaneously felt besieged by foreign and domestic enemies seeking to undermine it and isolated in the face of invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, armed to the teeth by Arab and Western states.

At the time, Iran suffered extreme economic hardship due to revolutionary turmoil, the devastating war with Iraq and falling global oil prices. Yet as shown in Graph 1, Iran’s creation of Hizbollah in Lebanon in 1982, the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut the following year, and a series of targeted terrorist attacks in Europe (in which Europeans saw Iran’s hand) occurred amid falling oil revenues and economic downturn.[fn]“Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities”, Iran Action Group, U.S. State Department, September 2018.Hide Footnote A wealthy Iran may well have acted even more aggressively insofar as it would have had more resources at its disposal. But the point is that economic deprivation did not moderate the Islamic Republic’s conduct, make it more inwardly focused or lead it to rein in its regional proxies.

Graph 1: Iran's GDP growth and oil revenue (1980-1988) IMF

The ensuing decade (1988-1998) was marked by post-war reconstruction amid rising oil revenues (due in part to heightened global oil prices in the aftermath of the first Gulf War) and runaway inflation. None of this, however, appears to have produced any tangible change in Iran’s backing for Hizbollah in Lebanon or Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. Nor did the 1997 Asian financial crisis that caused oil prices to collapse and Iran’s oil revenue to fall from $16.7 billion in 1997 to $9.7 billion in 1998. In other words, the trajectory of Iranian foreign policy was essentially impervious to the fluctuations in its economic wellbeing.

B. Pragmatism and Diplomacy

Iran’s destabilising activities declined in the early 2000s when, as shown in Graph 2, both oil proceeds and gross domestic product (GDP) were on the rise. During this period Iran significantly improved its relations with its Arab neighbours, helped the U.S. in working on the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan, and briefly suspended its nuclear program in negotiations with the Europeans – though it admittedly continued to support Hizbollah and other non-state actors in the Levant.[fn]Howard Schneider, “Saudi pact with Iran is sign of growing trust”, Washington Post, 17 April 2001; James Dobbins, “Negotiating with Iran: Reflections from Personal Experience”, The Washington Quarterly (2010), pp. 149-162; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°18, Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Program, 27 October 2003.Hide Footnote

Again, this hardly demonstrates that Tehran acts more responsibly when its economy performs better; non-economic reasons – notably the more pragmatic perspective of Iran’s reformist government at the time and concerns about a possible U.S. attack after its 2003 invasion of Iraq – can help explain Iran’s behaviour. But it underscores that realities other than the resources at its disposal determine Iran’s policy choices.

Graph 2: Iran’s GDP growth and oil revenue (1998-2003) IMF, Central Bank of Iran

Between 2003 and 2011, Iran had two key priorities. First, it worked to ensure that in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq a central government would emerge in Baghdad that, while strong enough to keep the country together and secure its borders with Iran, was not so strong as to once again pose a threat. Second, it aimed to push U.S. forces out of its western neighbour’s territory. To achieve the former, it relied on relationships it had cultivated for decades with Iraqi leaders (particularly Shiite Islamists and Kurds); for the latter, it trained and equipped several Shiite militias that targeted U.S. forces in Iraq. This period coincided with the nuclear standoff and imposition of a panoply of unilateral, multilateral and international sanctions. But Tehran was nevertheless flush with money thanks to high oil prices. Again, this shows that its policy of backing non-state actors has remained largely consistent in good economic times as well as bad. As a senior Iranian official put it, “when you rely on a [‘forward defence’] strategy for your survival, you rely on it come hell or high water”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, February 2018.Hide Footnote

C. Regional Escalation

As evidence that economic downturns do not necessarily curb Iranian regional activism, the most telling period is 2011-2015 (see Graph 3). A stifling web of multilateral and international sanctions inflicted maximal harm on the country’s economy, which shrank at the rate of 7.7 per cent in 2012 as oil exports declined by half, the currency fell by 200 per cent and inflation rose to almost 40 per cent. Yet this period coincided with what many consider the most significant expansion of Iran’s military intervention in the region, a product of the uprising in Syria, Tehran’s growing rivalry with Riyadh and the fight against the Islamic State.

Graph 3: Iran’s GDP growth and oil revenue (2011-2015) IMF, Central Bank of Iran

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Iran’s arm transfers to allies in Syria and Iraq peaked in this period.[fn]SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, available at https://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers.Hide Footnote Resource scarcity at home neither prevented Iran from extending a multibillion line of credit to Damascus nor from mobilising Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to fight in Syria. Iran also stepped up its support for Yemen’s Huthi rebels, training and equipping them.

D. Post-Nuclear Deal Boon?

Critics of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) contend that Iran grew more belligerent in the aftermath of the nuclear accord, which provided it with billions of dollars in unfrozen assets. Yet it is hard to point to anything Iran did after the deal – from supporting Yemen’s Huthi rebels to propping up the Syrian regime – that it was not undertaking prior to the agreement.

There was one notable change: a nearly 30 per cent increase in the country’s military budget.[fn]Clare Foran and Nicole Gaouette, “Trump repeats misleading claim on Iran's military budget”, CNN, 13 May 2018.Hide Footnote Even that should be assessed in the right context. As shown in Graph 4, the 2016 bump brought spending back to 2009 levels – not to a new high. More importantly, Iran was broadening its regional involvement at a time when it was spending less on its military (2011-2015), suggesting that this expansion is a product of opportunity or perceived necessity, not economics, and that the increase in defence spending does not necessarily have a discernible impact on the ground.

Graph 4: Iran’s Military Expenditure per GDP Percentage (2007-2017) World Bank

Besides, Tehran’s military expenditure likely is not in and of itself a main U.S. concern. In 2017, Iran’s annual defence spending of $16 billion paled in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s $76.7 billion.[fn]SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, available at https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex.Hide Footnote Iran spent less than 3 per cent of its GDP on defence (where sectoral spending ranks fourth in per capita terms after social insurance, education and health), not excessive for a country of its size.[fn]راستی‌آزمایی: بودجه نهادهای نظامی در ایران چقدر است؟” [“Fact checking: What is the budget of Iran’s military institutions”], BBC Persian, 13 August 2017; Mark Perry, “Putting America’s enormous $19.4 trillion economy into perspective by comparing US state GDPs to entire countries”, American Enterprise Institute, 8 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Iran’s activities in the region are inherently – and deliberately – inexpensive and thus largely impervious to economic fluctuations. The Trump administration contends that Iran has spent $16 billion to project power in the region since 2012. If accurate – though the figure is likely inflated – that makes for an average of $2.6 billion per year. This is not an onerous expense for a country that, even under sanctions, will reap more than $25 billion in oil revenues in 2019 and holds more than $100 billion in foreign reserves.

III. The Perils of a Sanctions Backlash

Iran may well choose to tactically retreat or halt certain activities, as it has in the past. It is likewise logical that when it has additional resources it can continue expanding its regional footprint. But nothing in the history of the Islamic Republic suggests that sanctions will prompt a substantive shift in its foreign policy. To believe otherwise is to misunderstand the sources of Tehran’s conduct, predicated on the notion that strategic depth, achieved through backing allies, partners and proxies, is vital for its national security. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Saudi-led war in Yemen since 2015 allowed Iran to exploit chaos and deepen its clout. In all these cases, it took advantage of its adversaries’ mistakes and filled security vacuums created by failing states.

For now, banking on the remaining signatories to the JCPOA’s effort to provide it with an economic lifeline in the face of unilateral U.S. sanctions, Tehran appears to be pursuing a relatively cautious path in the region.[fn]In May, Crisis Group published a list of recommendations aimed at preserving a certain degree of trade between Europe and Iran as means of preserving the JCPOA. Some of those suggestions, including the development of “specially purposed vehicle” to conduct financial transactions, are close to materialising. Crisis Group Middle East Report N°185, How Europe Can Save the Iran Nuclear Deal, 2 May 2018; “EU mechanism for Iran trade to be symbolically ready on Nov. 4: Diplomats”, Reuters, 24 October 2018.Hide Footnote It has largely refrained from responding militarily to more than 200 Israeli strikes on its assets in Syria and engaging in skirmishes with the U.S. Navy in the Strait of Hormuz.[fn]“Israel says struck Iranian targets in Syria 200 times in last two years”, Reuters, 4 September 2018; “Iranian boats mysteriously stop harassing U.S. Navy”, Daily Beast, 8 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Paradoxically, however, Tehran could become less risk-averse if Washington were to succeed in crippling its economy. As a senior Iranian official put it, “if the economy spirals out of control, the leadership in Tehran will welcome a crisis that could change the subject domestically and rally the population round the flag”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, New York, September 2018.Hide Footnote Given the high level of friction between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the region, such a clash could easily spiral into a disastrous conflict.[fn]These flashpoints can be monitored on Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List.Hide Footnote

If its goal is to constrain Iran’s regional reach, the Trump administration would be wiser to address the political drivers of conflict.

Indeed, there are early signs that the U.S. approach might be backfiring. The Trump administration has accused Iran of targeting U.S. diplomatic facilities in Baghdad and Basra through its allied Shiite paramilitary groups. If true, these attacks would constitute an escalation unseen in Iraq since 2011 and indicate that tightening the noose of sanctions has made Iran more, not less, aggressive. Equally risky is a scenario in which Iran’s economy stays afloat and U.S. sanctions fail to curb Iran’s regional policy. This could prompt U.S. allies in the region to provoke a confrontation between Washington and Tehran that would significantly weaken their regional foe on their behalf. As an Israeli official put it, “my distinct impression is that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is pushing toward actual use of force by the U.S. against Iran. Unclear of what scope – a single attack, a broader move?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, October 2018.Hide Footnote

If past is prelude, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is primarily responsible for implementing Iran’s regional policies, will again benefit – both politically and economically – from sanctions. Its influence expanded markedly amid the nuclear standoff and mounting pressure of sanctions (from 2006 to 2013). It controls the smuggling networks and embezzles billions in public funds through complex shell games purportedly aimed at skirting U.S. sanctions. At the same time, the middle class, which tends to drive social protests and exerts a countervailing pressure on the state, will shrink and suffer from critical shortages of food and medicine.

If its goal is to constrain Iran’s regional reach, the Trump administration would be wiser to address the political drivers of conflict, which are informed by local factors. To leverage the pressure it has managed to accumulate against Iran to produce a shift in Tehran’s policy, it would need to acknowledge Iran’s legitimate security concerns, namely its comparatively inferior conventional military capabilities. Tehran is unlikely to agree to compromise its national security assets for economic incentives. The U.S. optimally would signal its willingness to address these concerns and provide viable security assurances to Iran’s leaders. In parallel, it would work with other regional actors toward a broader security architecture that includes Iran. That said, such a policy shift is hard to envision given the administration’s current posture toward Tehran.

For its part, and regardless of what Washington does, Tehran should take steps to address its neighbours’ concerns – most importantly to recognise that the more its security doctrine promotes expeditionary warfighting, the more it will provoke aggressive pushback by its adversaries. In the same vein, Iran should encourage the integration of its non-state allies into their countries’ security bodies under the direct and effective control of their central governments, and it should stop proliferating ballistic missile technology around the region.

The alternative to both sides taking a step back from their escalatory path is a sanctions regime that penalises Iran and the Iranian people, but does not enhance peace and security in the region and could well lead to war.

Washington/Brussels, 2 November 2018

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele speaks at a news conference during a nationwide quarantine as the government undertakes steadily stricter measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease, in Ilopango, El Salvador May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

All the President’s Trolls: Real and Fake Twitter Fights in El Salvador

The plunging homicide rate in El Salvador has sparked debate about the role of the new president’s hardline policies. Much of it transpires on Twitter, where his champions and critics engage in rows that could pre-empt reasoned discussion of how to keep tamping down violence.

El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele won the presidency in 2019 by promising to reduce the country’s then sky-high murder rate and tackle corruption. Homicide rates have indeed fallen sharply since his election. But Bukele’s policies have proved controversial. Critics say the president’s actions, such as cramming gang members into cells without daylight, and strong-arming the parliament and high courts, violate human rights and erode democracy. At the same time, these policies have made him more popular than ever, with many Salvadorans attributing the drop in homicides to his no-nonsense approach.

The conflict between these two camps is fierce. One of its main battlegrounds is online, particularly on Twitter. Bukele relies on tech to address citizens directly, and to that end he regularly takes selfies and posts memes (at one point sharing a picture of himself in a spaceship). Even though fewer than half of Salvadorans have regular access to the internet, Twitter has become so central to Bukele’s public messaging and government operations that The Economist recently ran a story about him titled “My Tweet is Your Command.”

Focusing on competing hashtags, both sides of the political divide engage in ferocious online slanging matches.

Crisis Group has documented a concerted effort from both Bukele’s supporters and his opponents to shape the online narrative around his more controversial policies, in part through artificial means. Focusing on competing hashtags – #BukeleDictador (#DictatorBukele) and #QueBonitaDictadura (#WhatALovelyDictatorship) – both sides of the political divide engage in ferocious online slanging matches. The result is to present Salvadorans with artificially polarised choices: reject Bukele, despite his apparent successes; or support him, and ignore the abuses committed by his government. The reality, as we show in our new report Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador, is more complicated and nuanced. But as social media-fuelled polarisation intensifies, the risk is that both sides will shun the complexities of tackling gang violence in an effort to win the online popularity contest and the forthcoming elections in February 2021.

The Hashtag Wars

Part of Bukele’s approach to El Salvador’s security and health challenges is undoubtedly hardline. Shortly after taking office, he deployed joint military-police units to fight gangs and tightened restrictions on prisons, including forbidding family visits. He ordered the armed forces to occupy the legislature in a failed attempt to coerce it into ratifying a loan to fund his security strategy. After a temporary rise in homicides, Bukele backed using “lethal force” against gangs. The administration posted images on Twitter of near-naked gang members chained to one another. COVID-19 presented a new threat. Bukele has responded by detaining citizens who disobey the strict nationwide curfew in crowded “containment centers”.

International and domestic critics have responded with a stream of criticism calling Bukele a “dictator”. Still, many Salvadorans view these uncompromising policies as responsible for the reduction in homicides and the country’s relative success at staving off COVID-19. As a result, Bukele still has an approval rating of nearly 90 per cent. Our new report suggests that reality is more complicated. In fact, the declining murder rates may owe not only to the tough measures Bukele publicises but also to changes in the gangs themselves and fragile non-aggression pacts between them and government officials. These nuances are missing entirely from the online fracas.

A concern is whether these hashtags are artificially boosted

Two competing hashtags used on Twitter shine a light on these battles. #BukeleDictador first trended after the occupation of the legislature in February, and again in response to the president’s handling of COVID-19. #QueBonitaDictadura was deployed to fight back against this hashtag and negative press more broadly. To analyse the hashtags, we looked at posts (original tweets, replies, and retweets) through Twitter’s standard API, a set of procedures allowing access to the platform’s searchable data. Since this method restricts us to a week’s worth of posts, for #BukeleDictador we were able to collect 29,948 tweets posted between 27 April and 9 May 2020. For #QueBonitaDictadura, we pulled out 33,251 posts since its first use on 28 April until 9 May.

Documenting Manipulation

A first concern is whether these hashtags are artificially boosted. Inauthentic activity on Twitter takes many forms, from bots (automated accounts) to “sock puppets”, human accounts with deceptive online identities. Such manipulation is often difficult to detect, as no one metric definitively proves an inauthentic account – some people just use Twitter oddly. Accusations of manipulation in El Salvador have largely focused on the use of troll or net centers, involving paid humans running accounts to spread certain messaging. Bukele himself was implicated in a troll center case targeting newspapers in El Salvador, and recently the government accused the left-wing opposition Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) of running a troll center.

There is evidence of suspicious behavior associated with both hashtags. Figure 1 shows posts per hour for each. For both hashtags about 75 per cent were retweets, higher than for most organic traffic (meaning regular user activity). Since retweeting is easier than crafting original posts, a high percentage of retweets is correlated with manipulation. The volume and timing of posts (both retweets and original posts) for the two hashtags otherwise look very different. #QueBonitaDictadura peaked within four hours of its first use, and dropped off almost completely within a week. Though we do not capture its peak, #BukeleDictador was tweeted one to five thousand times a day, a rhythm that continued even in late May.

Figure 1: Tweets and Retweets by Hour Crisis Group analysis of Twitter data

Use of both hashtags points to manipulation in various ways beyond the high proportion of retweets. Some 4.4 per cent of #BukeleDictador posts and 5.6 per cent of #QueBonitaDictadura posts were from accounts deactivated by the end of May, a signal that Twitter may have found users suspicious. The Coefficient of Traffic Manipulation, which measures deviation from regular traffic, similarly points to suspicious activity. Using recent activity and user characteristics, a number of measures try to score accounts according to the likelihood that they are bots. Depending on the method and threshold we use, estimates for the percentage of tweets produced by bots range from very low (15 per cent) to quite high (70 per cent) – the enormous variance shows how challenging it is to identify non-human users. But whichever method is used, the estimates of how many tweets are generated by bots are always similar for the two hashtags. Both appear to profit more or less equally from fake, or non-human, tweets.

#BukeleDictador was propagated by a small number of accounts. Fully 62 per cent of tweets came from 500 users with suspiciously high rates of tweeting: in one week, they collectively posted more than 300,000 times, well in excess of standard estimates for suspicious activity. Two accounts posted more than 3,000 times in two days. Some 26 alleged opposition trolls have been outed by the administration. Eight are no longer on Twitter, but the visible histories of the remaining users in the list show that they dramatically increased posting in late 2019 (in some cases after long dormant periods). In violation of Twitter rules, these accounts frequently copy-pasted themselves – repeating the same exact message, but directed in reply to different users – and occasionally copy-pasted each other. At least two accounts use profile pictures of other people passed off as their own.

Bukele’s supporters, meanwhile, appear to have been building a network of pro-government accounts since the week he took office. Figure 2 shows the date of creation for accounts that tweeted the two hashtags: there is an unmatched spike in #QueBonitaDictadura users joining Twitter in the weeks directly after Bukele’s inauguration on 1 June 2019. This is suspicious. We would expect a smoother bump if supporters joined Twitter to champion Bukele, given that he had been preparing to take office for close to four months and this spike began several days after his inauguration. While other salient events – Bukele’s election, for example, or the military occupation of the legislature – also saw an increase in accounts created, these bumps are smoother and dwarfed by the inauguration. In one day (5 June), nearly as many pro-Bukele accounts were created as in the entire month leading up to the inauguration.

For both hashtags, many of the accounts posting them were created recently, which tends to signal inauthentic behavior: as accounts get deactivated, new ones crop up to replace them. Some 8 per cent of #BukeleDictador and 14 per cent of #QueBonitaDictadura accounts were created in just the previous two months. These users were responsible for 10 and 13 per cent of tweets, respectively.

Figure 2: Date Twitter Accounts Were Created Crisis Group analysis of Twitter data

Amplifying Elites

Though these hashtags were spread in part through artificial means, real political elites set the content. #BukeleDictador gained popularity after being posted on Twitter by deputy Alexandra Ramírez, whom the government alleges coordinated the FMLN troll center. The role of political leaders in designing opposition rhetoric was also visible in another case, when right-wing opposition politicians and a number of other accounts with large followings posted identical, copy-pasted tweets over the course of an hour.

#QueBonitaDictadura was first posted by Porfirio Chica, a communications and public relations strategist who ran a “secret network” and “propaganda machine” that aimed in 2015 to reelect ex-prosecutor Luis Martínez, who is now in prison on corruption charges. Chica claims that his services to Martínez were free, but the website El Faro discovered text messages from him on the former prosecutor’s phone referencing costs. Chica is tightly linked to Bukele; Foreign Policy identified him as a campaign consultant, and The El Salvador Times called him a member of the Bukele campaign’s “circle of trust”.

Just after 7pm on 28 April 2020, Chica tweeted three times in quick succession with the same structure: #QueBonitaDictadura alongside a picture of the security services helping an elderly or disabled Salvadoran. #QueBonitaDictadura was tweeted or retweeted 621 times over the next two hours, including once, shortly after 8pm, by Bukele. At 9pm Última Hora, a digital publication owned by Chica, posted a story that #QueBonitaDictadura reported wide support. Over the next two hours #QueBonitaDictadura was tweeted or retweeted 4,324 times, including eight retweets from the president in a five-minute window.

A version of these dynamics plays out among elites at large. Among our data we identify 54 opposition and 102 pro-government elites who are either verified or have more than 2,000 followers. Elites were responsible for less than 1.5 per cent of posts, but they were disproportionately influential: 19 per cent of #BukeleDictador posts and 31 per cent of #QueBonitaDictadura posts retweeted them. Elites played a particularly influential role in getting #QueBonitaDictadura trending, with most of their posts in the hours directly after its first use.

These hashtags propagated two polarised interpretations of Bukele’s policies: that they are either eroding basic liberties or bringing peace.

International users also play a role in propagating the hashtags, particularly #BukeleDictador. Relying on self-identified location, roughly equal proportions of both hashtags’ users claimed to be living in Europe, the U.S. or Canada. But 12.5 per cent of #BukeleDictador accounts self-identified as Cuban, Venezuelan or Nicaraguan. Bukele broke from the FMLN when he ran for president, and the vast majority of these accounts are dedicated to propaganda for current and former left-wing authoritarian leaders in Latin America, such as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro or Daniel Ortega. The most retweeted #BukeleDictador post among the sample came from an anonymous user claiming to be in Nicaragua, describing herself as “a Sandinista, revolutionary woman, Nicaraguan, chavista, communist, leftist”. This suggests #BukeleDictador extended to a network of international, and often suspicious, accounts.

Competing Narratives

These hashtags propagated two polarised interpretations of Bukele’s policies: that they are either eroding basic liberties or bringing peace. Some of the most retweeted #BukeleDictador tweets accuse the president of violating human rights and democratic values:

  • “Prohibited from public transit. Prohibited from thinking. Forbidden from dissenting. The master of El Salvador has again broken the law and declared a State of Siege. Forbidden from crossing municipal borders. He will decide when you can buy food. #BukeleDictador God will judge you one day, tyrant”. (Retweeted 454 times)
  • “People also loved Hitler and Pablo Escobar. They were popular, but this doesn’t mean one wasn’t a massive genocidal psychopath and the other a murderer and drug trafficker. So stop with the f***ing popularity. #BukeleDictador” (Retweeted 238 times)

#QueBonitaDictadura instead depicted Bukele as the purveyor of peace and security. Some19 per cent of #QueBonitaDictadura posts included one of ten photos of the military providing services, such as helping an old man carry bags of rice. Google Image Search shows that several of these images originally appeared in past tweets from Bukele’s communications department.

Activating Online Networks

#QueBonitaDictadura and #BukeleDictador are two online rallying cries in a broader conflict over the president’s policies and style of governance. Closer analysis of accounts that make use of one or the other of these hashtags shows that they are part of a consistent pattern of using Twitter to promote or denigrate the president. To explore this behaviour, we pulled together the history of the 500 accounts that tweeted #BukeleDictador most often, which we consider suspect anti-Bukele accounts, and the 542 #QueBonitaDictadura users who joined directly after Bukele’s inauguration, which we consider suspect pro-government users. So that we could explore behaviour over time, we included only accounts that tweeted fewer than 3,200 times in 2020, the maximum number of posts we can view through Twitter’s API.

Opposition accounts paint Bukele as corrupt (#WhoPaidForTheOsirisTrip, a reference to a payment scandal), ineffective (#IncompetentGovernment), and authoritarian (#WeWillDefendDemocracy). The hashtag #WhereIsBukele smeared the president for his perceived absence during the coronavirus crisis, which prompted the meme of him in a spaceship (Bukele himself posted, “the rumours of my abduction by aliens are totally unfounded” in response). Pro-Bukele accounts’ most-used hashtags promote the president’s policies (#TerritorialControlPlan, referencing the president’s security policy), smear the opposition (#ReturnWhatWasStolen, a rallying cry against corruption) and show support for him (#I’mWithBukele).

Not surprisingly, both sets of accounts appear most active when Bukele faces a significant crisis. Figure 3 shows variation in tweeting among the sample of opposition (left) and supporters (right). Daily posting is visually represented as a percentage of the mean of each group – since the two sets of users are very different, this allows a better comparison of how their tweeting patterns change over time. The accounts tweeted steadily until a spike in posting just before Bukele’s February occupation of the legislature. Supporters’ top hashtags during this period were #PlanControlTerritorial (#TerritorialControlPlan) and #ElPuebloManda (#ThePeopleRule); opponents’ were #LaDemocraciaSeDefiende (#WeWillDefendDemocracy) and #BukeleDictador. The onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic then led to a sustained period of higher engagement.

Figure 3: Tweeting History for Sample Anti- and Pro-Bukele Accounts Crisis Group analysis of Twitter data

Tweeting for El Salvador

Bukele’s supporters and opponents are both immersed in a sustained effort to shape the online narrative around the president’s policies, including through possible platform manipulation. Though less than half of Salvadorans have regular access to the internet, given the centrality of Twitter to Bukele’s government – he announces firings, establishes policies and criticises opponents on the platform – it is perhaps not surprising that the two camps have taken their fight online. But inauthentic activity may have worrying consequences for how both domestic and international audiences interpret politics in the country.

Our findings show that Bukele’s opponents and supporters use Twitter as a tool to inflame, polarise and simplify political debate in El Salvador.

Our findings show that Bukele’s opponents and supporters use Twitter as a tool to inflame, polarise and simplify political debate in El Salvador. Opposition concerns about Bukele violating democratic principles and civil liberties are important, but labelling him a “dictator” is an exaggeration that overlooks his accomplishments. Supporters present Bukele and his security service as forces dedicated to peace and the public interest, but whitewash their abuses of power. Starkly polarised takes on these life-and-death issues are hardly conducive to responsible decision-making and compromise, and instead seem to encourage legislative gridlock at a time when Bukele and his opposition should instead engineer long-term strategies to cement the welcome decline in homicides.

Elections in February 2021 will determine how many of Bukele’s supporters enter congress, and – as in the rest of the world – the battle for votes is happening partly on Twitter. The fact that at least part of this online battle is the result of artificial amplification of messaging on both sides adds to concern that the Twitter debate is stoking a climate of hostility that serves partisan political interests. This distracts from a very necessary debate about how to cement Bukele’s successes while moving away from “iron fist” policing and toward policies aiming at preventing gang violence.

Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador