propaganda, fake news and manipulation behind Ortega-Murillo's "truth"

#ChayoTelegram: propaganda, fake news and manipulation behind Ortega-Murillo's

DIVERGENTES and CONNECTAS accessed a database containing messages from 13 Telegram channels that are part of the Nicaraguan regime’s propaganda apparatus. The messages are sent to Sandinista groups to reinforce the official narrative on issues such as the handling of the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, attacks against the Catholic Church, the 2018 rebellion, the captures of opponents or the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Hundreds of thousands of messages that expose another side of the Sandinista “digital mobs”

The war between Israel and Hamas activated the Telegram channels that the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo use to spread their dictatorial narrative. Before the dispute, in the past five years, only eight messages about this conflict had been sent on these channels. However, after October 7 of this year, almost 300 messages have been posted, most of them pointing to Israel for committing “genocide in Palestine”.

On October 14, a week after the conflict began, the channel El Father de la Revolución posted: “Foreign mercenaries flocked from Ucrania🇺🇦 to Israel🇮🇱. According to Military Watch magazine (🇺🇸), among them are US citizens. They were previously based in the region of Zaporiyia🇷🇺. They fall into three categories: professional military and intelligence officers; mercenaries from a number of PMCs; ideological volunteers. It is unclear which category is more numerous among those who moved under the wing of the IDF. Official Tel Aviv claims to know nothing about it. 📲(https://t.me/wofnon) 📍Invite someone you know 👉 Wofnon #Sionism #Palestine #Israel #Russia #Ukraine #USA #NATO #wofnon”.

This channel, El Father de la Revolución, is part of a group of social media profiles (Facebook, X -formerly known as Twitter-, Instagram, Telegram, TikTok and YouTube) that work exclusively in the creation and distribution of content favorable to the Ortega-Murillo regime.

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DIVERGENTES and CONNECTAS -with collaboration of DFRLab- accessed the content of 13 Telegram channels used by the regime to spread information. In total, 162 580 messages published on this application were analyzed, between 2018 and 2023, including chats with texts or links that redirect to external pages.

The messages sent through this propaganda apparatus have the clear intention of targeting its Sandinista sympathizer bases, to reinforce the official narrative on issues of interest to the ruling party.

The data analysis showed that the 13 channels are divided into two groups: the official channels, that is, those belonging to media owned by the regime; and the pseudonymous channels, which are linked to the dictatorship but are not an extension of any news media.

Among the official channels are TV Channel 4 and Tu Nueva Radio Ya. While the others correspond to Sandinista pseudonyms that they also use on other platforms such as X, Instagram or Facebook. In the latter grouping are El Father de la Revolución, Zenzontle Guerrillero, Cuervo Canal, Nicaragua y Más, Cuaderno Sandinista, Cuaderno Sandino, Molotov Digital 2, Noticia Nicaragua, JS Julio Buitrago Urroz, Sapita Orgullosa and Suazo Canal

We found that the channels with the most views for each message posted are El Father de la Revolución, El Zenzontle Guerrillero, Nueva Ya and Cuervo Canal. In addition, El Father has the most forwards and the second most total views, suggesting that it has the most impact.

The official Telegram channels, for the most part, spread official information that has the daily speech of Vice President Rosario Murillo, the dissemination of projects and the political agenda of the Sandinista party as its starting point.

For example, regarding the Israel-Hamas conflict, the government has adopted an official position in favor of what they called the “Palestinian cause”. Thus, the official channels post presidential statements, data on deaths or economic damage in the war, opinion articles and news reports. 

On October 17, in the Channel 4 group, the official presidential note was published with the title “No to war, yes to justice and peace”. This was a strong sentencing of “the attack against the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, which caused more deaths than those already caused in this cruel and bloody war, claiming this time valuable lives of more than 700 people, most of them children” (sic).

According to the data analysis, the narrative of the official channels is surpassed by the pseudonymous channels. Since the outbreak of the Middle East conflict, the two official channels have posted only 43 messages, while the eight pseudonymous channels have posted 255 messages. The latter have a more radical bias of condemnation towards Israel, and blame the United States for provoking the conflict. 

The Nicaragua y Más channel posted on October 14: “The violence of the Israeli occupation army against the Palestinian people is outrageous. They order the evacuation of a million people to the south of the #GazaStrip and bomb the vehicles. 70 people were killed, among them several children. And the hypocritical international community is silent #GazaUnderAttack”. 

The channels registering the most activity are Noticia Nicaragua (85 922 messages), Canal 4 noticias (19 013 messages) and Tu Nueva Radio Ya (16 209 messages). 

98% of the messages found were published on these channels as of July 2019, one year after the crisis in Nicaragua began.  During 2018, only Canal 4 and Tu Nueva Radio Ya channels published content, 334 messages, most of them posted from October of that year.

The re-emergence of trolls

In June 2021, DIVERGENTES and Nicaragua Actual published a report in which it was revealed how the “digital mobs” operated in public institutions such as Correos de Nicaragua, the Mayor’s Office of Managua and the Youth Institute (Injuve). 

Julio Avilés Sánchez, son of the head of the Nicaraguan Army, Julio César Avilés, participates in the digital propaganda apparatus. During the hunt against opposition politicians in 2021, prior to the presidential elections, this network of accounts was used to spread threats and disinformation.  

In November 2021, Meta, the company that owns Facebook, announced the elimination of this “troll farm” of the Ortega-Murillo regime, a network of more than 1400 accounts “designed to deceive people around the world”, according to the report published.

Other companies, such as YouTube and Twitter (now X), eliminated dozens of other accounts linked to the governing party. In the case of YouTube, in November 2021 it announced that it canceled 82 channels and three blogs linked to propaganda. Twitter did not issue any statement, but eliminated a similar number of accounts. Several of the allegedly pro-Ortega users began to denounce these suspensions from other social media profiles. 

But the activity of the Sandinista “digital mobs” is still very active on Telegram, as this investigation shows. The data analysis of the 13 channels detected a drop in the volume of messages in November 2021, matching the actions taken by Meta, YouTube and Twitter in relation to accounts linked to the Nicaraguan government. 

After this, the regime has taken on the task of reactivating most of the accounts that were suspended, and activity in Telegram channels has normalized.

The digital marketing expert Manuel Diaz considers that Telegram channels are not very functional for the Sandinista party, because their message reaches more impact through the national media and other social media, such as TikTok, Facebook or WhatsApp.

However, Diaz believes that activating these Telegram channels is part of a strategy by the regime to be present on all platforms, “to occupy all spaces”, and that these channels are part of the official propaganda apparatus.  

According to the expert, Telegram channels can be used to “spread false information” about international conflicts, such as the one between Israel and Hamas or Russia and Ukraine. Diaz explains that unlike platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where fake news are more controlled, on Telegram almost nothing is regulated. 

So as the Sandinista government channels on open platforms go unnoticed and are not blocked, these “have become the voices of China and Russia” on some issues. 

“Some videos made by the Sandinista Youth about Russia have thousands of reproductions, because Russian channels cannot post them because they are controlled”, explains Díaz. 

The messages, in addition, have served the Government of Nicaragua to advertise the health measures taken during the covid-19 pandemic, or to validate the captures of opponents in recent years; also to highlight the recognition of allied countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Russia and Bolivia) to the electoral results in the presidential (2021) and municipal (2022) elections. 

Telegram channels have also published narratives to justify the imprisonments of the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, priests and Catholic parishioners. These are the predominant messages on these Telegram channels.

The dissemination
of Murillo's speech

Telegram channels act as megaphones for the speech of Rosario Murillo, “co-president” of Nicaragua. In other words, we can say that they make up “Chayo Telegram”, after the nickname by which Ortega’s wife is known. In this channel network they usually share excerpts of her words with links to the websites of Canal 4 and Canal 8, media owned by her. The database found 1401 messages with Murillo’s speeches in 10 different channels.

In the official channels, Canal 4 and Tu Nueva Radio Ya, the words of Rosario Murillo appeared 879 times. While in the other eight channels, the vice president’s speech was reproduced 522 times.

Rosario Murillo is the face, voice and command of the Sandinista government. All the media grouped in her propaganda system are chained to broadcast her daily speeches. She is the official spokesperson, she reads reports that range from meteorology, seismic and volcanological events; she gives sanitary alerts and even mentions Saints. 

In her speeches she informs about the works of the Executive, congratulates or scolds officials who do not comply with government expectations and informs about the government’s plans.

#ChayoTelegram: propaganda, fake news and manipulation behind Ortega-Murillo's

The Telegram channels analyzed highlight Murillo’s words regarding celebrations and anniversaries of birthdays or deaths of historical figures of Sandinismo. Speeches in which she attacks “the Yankee, enemy of humanity”, and supports her historical allies: Cuba, Venezuela and Russia. Also highlighted are speeches about preparations for massive events, such as the anniversary of the Sandinista insurrection, which takes place on July 19 each year.

Murillo’s speeches attacking the opposition or those who led the April 2018 rebellion also stand out in “Chayo Telegram”. “Compañera Rosario Murillo: We celebrate the peace that God has poured over this people of yours,” was posted by Channel 4, on April 18 of this year, when five years had passed since the beginning of the protests in Nicaragua. “Our victory is peace, peace is our victory“, ends the message. 

Along the same lines, there are several posts with Murillo’s words about the results of the 2021 elections. “The sovereign people of Nicaragua have chosen, they have clearly rejected neoliberal policies, they have reaffirmed their right to decide their future,” was published on November 16, 2021, nine days after the presidential elections, on Telegram Channel 4. 

The 2021 presidential elections were described by the United States as a “pantomime” and generated the rejection of much of the international and regional community. “What Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated today was a pantomime of elections that were neither free nor fair, and certainly not democratic,” denounced Joe Biden in a statement.

The imprisonment of seven main opposition leaders in the last months of 2021 resulted in elections marked by the absence of presidential candidates with the possibility of snatching the votes from Daniel Ortega.

Repression against
the Catholic Church

Attacks on the Catholic Church and priests are mentioned in Telegram conversations. This corresponds to the repression experienced by Nicaraguan Catholics in the last two years, since this religious institution is one of the targets to be dismantled by the dictatorship. 

Few mentions of the Catholic Church were found in these channels. 77 mentions to this topic were published in the Telegram channel of Canal 4, while the other 11 in Suazo Canal and El Zenzontle Guerrillero. On June 4 of this year, in Channel 4, an opinion column by the regime’s propagandist of Italian origin Fabrizio Casari was published, titled: “The money under the cassock“, in which he wrote “that on the part of Sandinismo there will be neither uncertainty nor hesitation, neither indulgence nor shyness in acting. There will be no mistakes in the defense of peace“.

On February 28, 2021, the following message was published in Suazo Canal: “We have to show the priests that neither they nor their churches are untouchable, that they should think twice or three or a thousand times before being accomplices of more murders and coups“, with a link to X, which included a photo of a church with a graffiti that read: “Complicit hypocritical priests“.

The recent edition of the study “Nicaragua: a persecuted Church?”, by Martha Patricia Molina, a specialist in religious issues, recorded 667 aggressions against the Church from 2018, the year the crisis erupted in the country, until October 2023. At least 151 religious have been harmed by the Ortega-Murillo regime’s persecution through forced exile, banishments, prohibition to enter Nicaragua or expulsions from the country according to Molina, who documents these aggressions. 

The Sandinista regime imprisoned more than 13 priests, among them the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Alvarez, who was sentenced to 26 years in a maximum security cell in the Jorge Navarro Penitentiary System, known as La Modelo. In mid-October last year he banished 12 priests, but Bishop Alvarez remains imprisoned. 

Most of the messages found are aimed at justifying the imprisonment of the religious, in which alleged evidence of the arrests is revealed. Also noteworthy are speeches by Daniel Ortega in which he attacks the Church and priests. 

For example, in these channels, Father José Leonardo Urbina, sentenced to 12 years in prison for the rape of a 12-year-old girl, is called a “rapist priest” in a Channel 4 publication of September 6, 2022. “Declarations of the Catholic Church of Granada defending a priest are condemned”, says the title of the publication with the link to the news article.

#ChayoTelegram: propaganda, fake news and manipulation behind Ortega-Murillo's

Meanwhile, on June 3, 2022, the case of priest Manuel Salvador García was featured. “The citizen Martha Candelaria Rivas Hernández, victim of the crime of injuries, caused by the priest Manuel Salvador García, of the parish El Calvario de Nandaime, gives her testimony after suffering the brutal aggression by the priest,” was posted on Telegram Channel 4.

It should be noted that two days after Garcia was arrested, the woman refused to sign the complaint and denied the aggression. For this reason, Rivas Hernández was imprisoned. Finally, the priest was sentenced to two years in prison for the alleged crime of threatening five people with weapons.

We found that most of these news items began to appear in October 2021, prior to the general elections in which the Church called for conscientious voting, and continued throughout 2022. Before that there was only one news item referring to the Church within these channels: in May 2017, which was Cardinal Brenes’ statement about a WhatsApp outage.

Regarding Bishop Rolando Álvarez, on August 23, 2022 another column by Fabrizio Casari, titled “The bishop of the money god”, was published on Telegram Channel 4. In the column, the Italian calls Alvarez a “coup plotter” and justifies his arrest. Overall only 18 messages mention Monsignor Alvarez, most in days after his capture on August 4, 2022.

Currently, the bishop of Matagalpa is one of the political prisoners that generates the most international pressure on the Ortega regime. Recently, Pope Francis said that “we are trying to negotiate” for Alvarez. He added that he asked the president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, to intercede with Daniel Ortega in order to free him.

Prelude to the arrests of opponents

Another relevant topic detected in Telegram channels are attacks on opposition figures. For example, on September 20, 2021 on Channel 4 it was published: ““They refer to trial the accused Miguel Mendoza, Ana Margarita Vijil, Miguel Mora, María Fernanda Flores and Luis Anduray 👉canal4.com.ni/?p=165448 #NoticiasC4”“. 

The analysis of the messages shows that the regime appeals to widely spread propaganda before executing arrests of opponents. 

More than 442 posts were found in which opponents are referred to as “coup plotters”, “terrorists” and “traitors to the homeland”. The messages were found in six Telegram channels; the majority, 336, were published in Channel 4 and the rest in profiles with pseudonyms. The captures of opponents, almost always, were previously warned by means of memes, videos and montages disseminated by this series of profiles in social media. 

On January 14, 2021, in the Telegram of Cuaderno Sandinista, a montage of the released politician Juan Sebastián Chamorro was published, accusing him of tax evasion. “Story 🇳🇮 Juan Sebastián Chamorro and family feel they have the right not to pay taxes in Nicaragua. Their privileges ended with the fall of Somoza and corrupt governments. 🔥 Our right to maintain the sovereignty of our Homeland“, the message read. 

Juan Sebastián Chamorro was imprisoned 10 months after this message, during a hunt against opposition presidential aspirants. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for the alleged crime of conspiracy to commit “undermining the national integrity to the detriment of the Nicaraguan State and society.” On February 9 of this year, he was exiled to the United States along with 221 other political prisoners.

#ChayoTelegram: propaganda, fake news and manipulation behind Ortega-Murillo's

Another example of these attacks are those published against Bishop Silvio Baez. On October 24, 2018, on Channel 4’s Telegram, the news was published with the headline “Indignation at Silvio Báez’s coup, criminal and conspiratorial plans against the people of Nicaragua”, along with the link to the YouTube channel. Six months after this campaign began, the Catholic leader was forced into exile. 

The attacks on the Telegram channels were aimed at discrediting any critic of the Ortega and Murillo regime, such as the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, whom they call a “coup operator of the United States”, according to the message sent on the Telegram channel of Channel 4, on January 1, 2019.

Propaganda “"against Nazism in Ukraine"

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is one of the most prominent topics on Telegram channels. Notes from Russian media Sputnik and RT en Español, links to TikTok videos “showing the existing bias in Western countries towards the Ukrainian conflict“; notes published in official media or simple direct messages justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are shared. 

We found 1324 messages published about this conflict on seven different channels. On Channel 4 Telegram 1281 messages were published, while on the other six channels only 43 have been disseminated.

On May 4 this year, the following message was posted on Suazo Channel: “The Russian President (Vladimir Putin) also addressed the Donbas militias and military fighting against Nazism in Ukraine and stressed that they are now ‘fighting for the homeland and the future, because there is no place in the world for executioners and Nazis’“, with a link to a Sputnik video.

#ChayoTelegram: propaganda, fake news and manipulation behind Ortega-Murillo's

The Ortega-Murillo regime’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a priority in its foreign policy since the conflict began in 2022. In fact, in recent months it has been a central axis in the discourse of the Sandinista leader. 

In Telegram channels, Russia, moreover, stands out as one of the countries supporting the electoral results in Nicaragua. “Vladimir Putin, President of the sister Russian Federation, sends his congratulations to Cmdr. Daniel Ortega and Cra. Rosario Murillo, for the resounding victory in the General Elections 2021“, was published in Suazo Canal, on November 7, 2021, the day the two leaders won the elections.

Of the total number of messages analyzed on this topic, 38 messages talk about “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” or relations between the Ukrainian government and its defensive actions with neo-Nazi groups and “glorification” of Nazism. Most of these (27), published by Channel 4.

Another 26 messages mention Ukrainian actions, its soldiers or President Zelenski as “terrorists”. As for Putin, 494 messages talk about him.

Most messages related to the Russian president started after the invasion of Ukraine, even those that are not war-related news. In fact, the three days with the most posts about Putin were his speech to the Russian Federal Assembly on February 21, 2023, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Heads of State Summit (where Putin met with several world leaders) on September 16, 2022, and the Victory Day celebration on May 9, 2022.

About the relationship that Laureano Ortega, son of Ortega and Murillo, has had with Putin’s government, Telegram channels mention it in at least 59 messages. Especially the pro-government media. It also shows his growth in mentions since 2023 and that most of them refer to him in relation to “China” and “Russia”.

Nicaragua, "best performance" during the pandemic

In 2020, Telegram channels were almost entirely directed at the pandemic. At first, to highlight the few positive cases that were supposedly detected in Nicaragua, who “appears with a better performance” of sanitary management, according to the messages disseminated.

In the database, 2138 messages were found in five channels, two of them official, Canal 4 and Nueva Ya, where 227 were found, while in the channels with pseudonyms they disseminated 1911 messages. 

According to opposition media #Nicaragua would be on the verge of collapse because of #Covid_19. Despite the campaign that aims to sow terror in the population and generate international reactions, hundreds of Nicaraguans instead of escaping seek how to return to the country,” highlights a message on the Nicaragua y Más channel on October 2, 2020, with a link to a YouTube video from another pro-government media.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the regime adopted a negationist attitude, as did Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Unlike most countries, in Nicaragua, economic activities were not paralyzed nor was confinement ordered. Instead, massive activities were promoted, such as festivals at the sea and mass marches.

Several accounts (mainly pseudonymous ones) even with repeated messages, reposted between channels, pointed out that covid-19 had decreased in Nicaragua in September 2020.

Another message talks about “winning” because of a low number of cases, “only two” in March of the same year. There is also a message from Cuervo Canal that talks about how it is less dangerous because the level of mortality is lower than that of endemic diseases. Cuaderno Sandinista, for its part, accuses the opposition and the international “maggots” of trying to force the quarantine to affect the Nicaraguan economy.

The analysis reveals that the percentage of total publications of the channels did not represent a significant proportion of their messages, even during the period of the pandemic.

In fact, there has been a decrease in publications on the subject since April 2020, just when NGOs, experts and international organizations were denouncing the contagion crisis in the country and strongly criticizing the regime’s decisions. Since then, most of the messages have been about vaccines or about contagions and deaths in other countries.

Regarding this issue, the Sandinista regime maintained a discourse of successfully containing the pandemic, showing low numbers of infections and deaths caused by covid-19 in comparison to other countries. However, the Ministry of Health (Minsa) treated this information of public interest with total secrecy.  

Messages on Telegram were also aimed at attacking the behavior during the pandemic of the regime’s ideological enemies, such as the United States and the European Union, “The #COVID19 vaccine business, the most inhuman display of capitalism. #USA, the #EuropeanUnion and the #UnitedKingdom oppose the proposed exemption of intellectual property rights and patents of the vaccine against Covid-19 (sic),” a message was posted on the Nicaragua y Más channel on May 21, 2021. 

Telegram channels even spread messages questioning the effectiveness of US-made vaccines. “Can the vaccine made by the US really be trusted? At least 33 people vaccinated with the US Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine die in Europe, while serious side effects have also been observed,” was posted on Suazo Canal on March 4, 2021.

However, on October 28, 2021, Nicaragua received the first batch of Pfizer vaccines, donated by the United States. As of May of this year, the Sandinista government has received 2.2 million Pfizer vaccines through the COVAX mechanism, in coordination with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). A reality that clashes with the one that the Ortega-Murillo regime wants to impose through its propaganda apparatus.

#ChayoTelegram: propaganda, fake news and manipulation behind Ortega-Murillo's

The behavior of these Telegram channels is diverse but has the same goal: to reproduce their “truth”. For example, on August 14, 2022 a channel called Sapita Orgullosa (proud toad, the toad nickname is used by opponents to belittle Sandinistas) was created and was active for 17 days in which it only posted 14 times. Its first publication was to report on a Sandinista march in Managua and the last one on the launching of a missile from Korea to Japan, but most of the messages were about the war in Ukraine and Russia. Since then, this channel has had no activity. 

Meanwhile, one of the most active channels is Zenzontle Guerrillero, created in 2020, in the wake of the pandemic. In this group, for example, 14 messages were found with the word “sovereignty”, which is widely used by Rosario Murillo to justify the repression of her critics. The pro-government narrative since 2018 is that the government was the victim of a coup attempt financed by the United States and the European Union. However, the OAS and the UN have concluded that the Ortega and Murillo government committed crimes against humanity against Nicaraguan citizens. 

Following this “coup attempt” narrative, among the Zenzontle Guerrillero messages is one dated November 2, 2021: “Sergio Ramirez Mercado. Accused! For attempting against the Sovereignty and receiving money from the Violeta Chamorro Foundation…. Let the coup perpetrators pay!!!“. 

Sergio Ramirez Mercado is a Sandinista dissident who in the 1980s was Daniel Ortega’s vice president. Ramirez resigned from political parties and has since been an award-winning writer, winner of the greatest prize in Spanish-language literature, the Cervantes, and a prominent cultural promoter. As a result of the accusations against him announced by the propaganda media, such as Zenzontle Guerrillero, and which later turned into real charges in the justice institutions controlled by the leaders, Ramirez had to go into exile. 

This is just a sample of the 1474 messages that the Zenzontle Guerrillero channel has published in the three years since it was created to join the Ortega-Murillo propaganda apparatus, which in addition to the massive networks does not hesitate to use others such as Telegram to install its narrative, full – as can be seen – of fake news, manipulations and propaganda for its militants.