Ecuador’s president wants people to think twice before criticizing him online.
So he’s built a website that monitors anti-government tweets and directs supporters to counter-attack the social media accounts of people who post the most aggressive messages.
Somos Mas (“There are more of us") is a virtual community for boosters of President Rafael Correa. The platform operates somewhat like Facebook, allowing anyone to create a profile with a username and email.
A section of the site alerts community members to social media posts that insult Correa and other government officials. It publishes the offenders' full names, photographs and Twitter handles in memes that look like FBI “most wanted” posters.
“These people confuse freedom of speech with threats and insults,” reads an alert message posted next to each offender's wanted poster, along with snippets of their "offensive" tweet or post. “Defend the Citizen’s Revolution and tell them to stop,” the alert instructs.
Since the early warning system went live on Sunday, Somos Mas has targeted three young Ecuadoreans who criticized Correa and his aides on Twitter. One of them is a 22-year-old woman with 300 followers who, in a moment of anger, tweeted that Correa “deserves a bullet to his head.”
After her Twitter handle was published on Somos Mas, hordes of government supporters flooded @shamisantamaria’s account with insults and threats, bullying her into locking the account.
One volunteer soldier in Correa's cyber army called for @shamisantamaria to be locked up for “insulting” the president.
Another troll published her picture, her national identification number, and what seems to be her address in Guayaquil.
“If you dare insult and defame [the president] face up to the consequences,” another Correa supporter warned.
Despite unleashing an online witch hunt of sorts, government officials argue that Somos Mas is trying to “stop violence” on social media. They claim that by publicly shaming aggressive critics others will refrain from using offensive language against the government.
Correa’s opponents, however, describe the Somos Mas campaign as the latest attack in the president’s “war” on free speech.
“Stop this abuse of power,” Miguel Angel tweeted in response to the threats against @ShamiSantamaria. “If the president doesn’t respect people, why should he get respect?” he added in follow-up tweet.
President Correa has become notorious for clashing with Ecuador's privately owned media outlets and lashing out at critical journalists during his nationally broadcast weekly addresses.
The Ecuadoran leader has pursued multi-million dollar lawsuits against newspapers that he feels have slandered him, while his government has drafted laws that make it easier for public officials to sue journalists over vague offenses like “attempting to hurt someone’s reputation,” and “not providing relevant information.”
Xavier Bonilla, a well-known cartoonist who was dragged to court last year over a drawing that mocked a pro-government congressman, thinks the Somos Mas campaign is the worst assault yet on freedom of speech.
“It's a disproportionate use of force,” Bonilla told Fusion. “These are young kids who have no way to defend themselves, and their only means of expression is their personal Twitter account.”
“It’s a way to harass citizens," Bonilla added. “To show them that the government can capture any space where criticism is aired.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.