A Hacker Helped Rig Elections in Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Argentina, and More By Spying and Manipulating Social Media to Steer Public Opinion
For nearly 10 years, a 20-something Colombian hacker secretly shaped the outcomes of major elections across Latin America.
That cyberpunk political mercenary, Andrés Sepúlveda, detailed his incredible career of digital and political manipulation in the cover story of this April's Bloomberg Businessweek. It's a great longread if you have the time -- if not, here's the TL;DR.
Good Money for Dirty Work
Sepúlveda, an imposing man who sports a prison yard look with a shaved head and accompanying tattoos -- except his ink includes a QR code and a couple pieces of HTML, says he got his start in hacking political campaigns as early as 2005.
Growing up in left-wing dominated (and dysfunctional) 1980s Colombia, Sepúlveda always had right-wing sympathies. But he made $15,000 for his first hacking job, defacing the campaign website of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's rival. It was about a month's work, and worth five times as much as his previous work designing websites. So pay was obviously its own career incentive.
Sepúlveda didn't offer specifics on how much his shadow career was worth in total, but it's easy to imagine how lucrative it became throughout its eight-year span, as he became something of his own industry across Latin America: Sepúlveda said he and his teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Venezuela.
The Dark Side of Politics
Starting small with simple hacks, website defacement, stealing campaign information like donor databases, Sepúlveda eventually grew his business into a full service disinformation generator and manipulator of public perception -- thanks to the growing power of the Internet.
"My job was to do actions of dirty war and psychological operations, black propaganda, rumors -- the whole dark side of politics that nobody knows exists but everyone can see," explained Sepúlveda to Bloomberg.
Specifically, Sepúlveda ended up creating a platform of sorts for fabricating social reality through the web, by running thousands of fake social media profiles complete with names, biographies, and pictures, along with the ability to quickly change all of those details en masse. He called his software Social Media Predator.
With Social Media Predator, a rotating team of about a dozen confederates across Latin America, and a willingness and ability to spy, steal, slander, or perform any other act of digital manipulation for his political clients, business boomed for Sepúlveda -- until Colombia in 2012.
Downfall & Serving (Especially) Hard Time
In 2012, Sepúlveda said he chose politics over money, and turned down an opportunity to work with Juan José Rendón, who has been called the Karl Rove of Latin America.
Sepúlveda calls him a long-running business partner. (Rendón, a political consultant based in Miami denies doing anything illegal and says he only talked with Sepúlveda once or twice.)
Rendón was working with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the time, and Sepúlveda backed his opponent on principle.
As usual, Sepúlveda ran his hacking ring and social media bot army of persuaders. But he got sloppy and popped his head out of the shadows, showing up at a local TV station in an effort to help discredit Santos -- with information he stole from hacked phones and email accounts, of course.
Sepúlveda was quickly met with a bunch of police vehicles. He pleaded guilty to espionage and other crimes and turned government witness in exchange for a 10-year sentence.
But serving that time hasn't been easy. If you ever doubt that Sepúlveda's personal account of his cyberpunk life in the dirty side of big politics has a basis in reality, consider this: within three days of his arrival in prison there was an attempt on his life. Another plot was foiled about a week later.
He now lives in solitary confinement, sleeps under a bulletproof blanket, and travels to meetings with government officials in an armed caravan replete with cellphone jammers and motorcycle escorts.
Hacking the U.S. Election?
Perhaps the most interesting thing in Sepúlveda's tell-all for Bloomberg Businessweek is the ex-political hacker's take on the current 2016 presidential election in the U.S.
Asked if he thinks the U.S. presidential race is similarly being fought on the digital dark side, Sepúlveda answers, "I'm 100 percent sure it is."
Colombian media has said Sepúlveda's alleged former client and one-time rival, Rendón, was working with the Trump campaign. Rendón denies it, but says that he's in talks with a different leading U.S. presidential campaign to help out, once the general election rolls around.
He wouldn't say which one.
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